Article Courtesy of The Orlando
By Steve Lemongello
December 23, 2015
Poinciana Villages, with nearly 70,000 residents and
23,000 homes, would be one of the largest cities in Central Florida if
it were a municipality. Instead, it's one of the largest private
homeowners association (HOA) in the United States.
But now the HOA is under fire for what residents say is a persistent and
ongoing effort by outsourced debt-collection agencies to inflate back
dues with thousands of additional dollars in legal fees and late
Some of the estimated 4,000-plus homeowners whose debt was sold — more
than 1 of every 6 homes in the association — say they've never received
a line-by-line breakdown of what those fees actually are. And by the
time they're able reach someone at the agency, their late fees and legal
fees have doubled, tripled, quadrupled and more.
At issue, residents say, is the possibility of thousands of owners
losing their homes because of ballooning debts that were originally only
in the hundreds of dollars.
Steve Sepulveres, an attorney hired by Friends of Poinciana Villages,
said he and others are concerned about how "the goal posts have been
moved" for residents who have fallen behind on their dues.
"It's completely and utterly legal," Sepulveres said. "It may be
immoral, but it's legal. But it seems like they don't want the money. If
somebody came up to me and wanted to give a payment, I'd take it. It
seems like the real money is in foreclosing on homes."
"All the people in the community getting these [charges] and fees
thought they were unique," said resident activist Keith Laytham. "And it
turns out there were thousands of them."
Poinciana began in the 1960s as a retirement community, but development
by Avatar Properties since the 1980s has led to an explosion in
population during the past 25 years. The average home value in the
working-class community, half of which is Hispanic, is about $125,000 to
Each household in the Villages pays an HOA fee — $21 a month, coming to
$252 a year — that is used toward maintenance and upkeep of properties
and common areas.
One homeowner, Benny Valentin, refinanced his mortgage for his $74,000
home. But he said he fell behind on his HOA fees during a period of
unemployment at the height of the recession.
He owed about $800. But then he received a letter from attorneys for a
debt-collection agency called First 100, telling him that with
additional fees, he now owed $1,200.
"I started working nights, held garage sales and was finally able to get
$1,200," Valentin said. He went to the homeowners association office and
tried to pay it in person. "I even brought cash to the office," he said.
"I said, 'Here's cash!' — only to be told that First 100 owns his debt,
and the association couldn't accept it.
Three months later, when the law firm representing First 100 got back to
him, Valentin said, he was told he now owed $1,800.
And so it went, with First 100's representatives taking months to return
his calls and his debt ballooning again by the time he was able to talk
with them. All the while, he unsuccessfully tried to work out a
settlement, but payment was demanded in full.
The amount owed increased from $1,800 to $3,400, and then to $5,400.
Meanwhile, he was told there was a new law firm he had to deal with, and
He said last month that he had the $5,400 he was told he owed, in cash.
But he just recently heard some more distressing news from a law firm
that represents First 100: His debt had ballooned to $7,495.
All the while, he was never able to get a detailed breakdown of what the
additional fees were, and how they were applied.
"I can only imagine that when the court date [arrives] in January, it's
probably going to be $10,000," he said.
Representatives or attorneys from a host of involved parties either
would not comment or did not return repeated requests for comment during
the past four weeks. They include developer Avatar; Association Capital
Recovery, or ACR; Association of Poinciana Villages; FirstService
Residential; First 100; and McGabe Law Group.
'I don't want to lose my home'
How did everything get to this point?
The master board of Poinciana Villages is made up of representatives of
the nine "villages." In 2013, the board voted to hand over HOA
operations to property-management company FirstService Residential.
Shortly afterward, FirstService sold off the HOA debt of about 2,000
members to First 100, a company based in Nevada.
First 100 then hired three different law firms to handle collections and
has since purchased even more debt, amounting to 3,499 accounts,
according to one of the firms — itself currently involved in a lawsuit
against First 100.
ACR bought the back-dues debt of an additional estimated 1,000 Poinciana
residents, including Rebecca Sauls and Migdalia Colon.
Sauls has lived for 20 years at the very point of the jagged border
between Osceola and Polk counties, which divides the community almost in
half — another reason that sorting out legal matters has been so
difficult and why Poinciana has often been stymied in its attempts to
incorporate as a single city.
Sauls said she fell behind by just a few months, but when she tried to
pay it back in full, she was told the account had already been turned
over to ACR.
"I tried to get a list of what the charges were, but it was
complicated," Sauls said. "I had a fight with the collection agent,
because they said they could not provide that information. They said to
wait another 30 days. I spoke with another agent over the phone, and
they said they could not print that out."
She said she finally was able to get up to date on the $788 she ended up
owing, and she considers herself lucky it didn't increase any further.
"I went around in circles," Sauls said. "The structure of billing and
notification is out of control."
Others haven't been so fortunate. Colon, of Canterbury Court, said she
fell behind on her annual $242-a-year HOA fees for a year or so when she
left her job to take care of her disabled son for several years. She was
eventually informed she now owed more than $6,000.
"I first called [ACR] and left a message, and they never called me
back," Colon said. "I called again, and they finally talked to me, and
they said I can't make arrangements or anything because it was too much
The matter ended up in court. At one point, she said arrived for a court
date in July, "and nobody showed up at all."
The case was dismissed by a foreclosure judge because of the Association
of Poinciana Villages' "failure to appear." But the foreclosure attempt
is not over yet.
"Now I have to show proof I did go to court and no one showed up," she
said. "It's bad. I [worry] they don't want to hear anything, they just
want to take my house away. I don't want to lose my home."
Fear grows among residents
A group of residents has joined to form the group Friends of Poinciana
Villages in order to bring attention to the issue, which they said has
been exacerbated by a split on the HOA board.
So far, the only proposal coming from elected officials has been a local
bill by state Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, attempting HOA election
reform, but it was voted down 3-2 in a party-line vote at a local
Republicans said it would have an unknown effect on smaller HOAs and
that any reform needed to be statewide.
In the meantime, residents are worried about where all of this is
First 100 has been open about its strategies in its home state of
Nevada, where it raised the ire of mortgage lenders when it jumped ahead
of them by foreclosing on properties because of back HOA dues — often
minuscule compared to mortgage debts.
The Wall Street Journal reported in 2014 that a Nevada court decision
would allow thousands of foreclosed homes to be put up for auction by
HOAs and sold, "extinguishing the first mortgage" and allowing the
private company that bought the HOAs' debt to get title to the home for
"pennies on the dollar."
"This is one of the greatest returns in real estate that I've ever
seen," First 100 Director Jay Bloom told the Journal at the time.
Florida law does not allow liens on HOA fees to jump ahead of mortgage
liens — so if First 100 or ACR forecloses on a home because of unpaid
HOA fees and additional charges, the mortgage lender is still the
primary lien, and either company would be responsible for that mortgage.
"So [the companies] can legally foreclose on a home, but if they can't
work something out with the banks," they could be in trouble, Sepulveres
said. "But at some point, they could work out a deal to pay off the
first lien at a discount rate. If they get enough buying power with
thousands of homes in the area? They could get a package deal."
Valentin also thinks that the continuous delays are just a method of
foreclosing on his home — which, as the economy increased and the
neighborhood grew, could now be worth $140,000, almost double his
Shortly after his interview, he announced he would be running for a
state House of Representatives seat, with Poinciana's troubles as the
spur for his entry.
"I'm a blue-collar, hardworking, middle-class citizen who doesn't depend
on the government to survive, who puts food on my table," Valentin said.
"What am I going to tell my wife and kids?"