Many condo bills are similar
Lawmakers are trying to push a host of condo bills through the Legislature,
hoping to gain mileage with voters and address the long-standing crisis.
Article Courtesy of The Miami Herald
By ROBERT SAMUELS
Published March 22, 2010
TALLAHASSEE -- Condo bills have flooded the state Capitol.
More than five dozen have been filed during the legislative session, as Florida grapples with its real estate crisis. But boil down the language of lawmakers' proposals to help cash-strapped condo dwellers, and there are only a handful of ideas:
Make it easier for investors to buy multiple units in empty buildings. Delay costly state-mandated upgrades. Discover ways to punish owners who don't pay skyrocketing association dues.
"We're all rowing in the same boat,'' said Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Democrat from Hollywood, "hoping that one of us will finally reach land.''
Why are the bills so similar? Some say it's a numbers game. Senators like Sobel say more bills mean more chances that one will become law, especially after Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed an all-encompassing condo bill last year.
Others say it's plain old politics. If a condo bill makes it to Crist's desk this year, he says he's willing to sign. Recognizing that providing condo relief would be a political jackpot, Miami Republican Rep. Julio Robaina said legislators are finagling to get their bills passed -- including him.
Some condo advocates say the repetition among the bills illustrates a central problem.
"Creative solutions are not coming from the Legislature,'' said David Arnold, a partner at the Miami-Dade condo law firm Association Law Group. "I'm hoping that I'm wrong, but last year we did all this legislative analysis and nothing passed. It was a waste of time.''
Arnold's law firm specializes in finding ways for condo associations to pay their dues. The severity of the foreclosure situation is especially apparent in Miami, where nighttime reveals darkened, empty buildings creating shadows in the city's electric skyline.
Almost 25,000 condos in Miami-Dade slipped into foreclosure in 2009 -- a 32 percent jump from the year before, according to data collected by the condo realty group Condo Vultures, which analyzes local records. In Broward, 44,000 condos went into foreclosure in 2009, a 35 percent increase.
"Truth is, it's not just Miami,'' said Pete Dunbar, a former House member who now advocates for the property section of the Florida Bar Association. "It's in Dayton and Destin, Pinellas County and Naples.''
If a unit is in foreclosure, owners often stop paying the association dues. And if the bank takes over the property, state law dictates that the bank only has to give 1 percent of the original mortgage payment to the association or pay six months of dues -- whichever is less.
The other residents then pay more for utilities and maintenance to pick up the slack.
Lawmakers are focusing on finding relief for those who have already invested by reducing fees and encouraging investment. They say now's the time to do it.
In Tampa Bay, for example, data from the trade association Florida Realtors show the median price for condo sales have gone down 8 percent this year -- from $108,600 to $100,000. Miami's Robaina pushed a bill that would require banks to pay more to the association when they take over a foreclosed property, but the proposal was swatted down in committee. He says he thinks other politicians worked to prevent his bill from passing to improve chances of their own condo bills.
"It's an election year and a lot of members are trying to pass their own bills for self-kudos,'' said Robaina, who is running for state Senate. "In turn, it comes at the expense of killing other good legislation. And it's a shame.''
He pointed a finger toward Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, whose mammoth condo reform bill is considered the "one to watch'' by lobbyists for condominium associations.
The Fort Lauderdale Republican responded that she hadn't been watching the progress of the Robaina bill -- and hadn't even been aware it failed in committee. She added that she wasn't interested in working with Robaina to merge the two bills.
"Why would I work with him? His bill was killed. There must have been something wrong with it,'' Bogdanoff said. "We have to make sure these bills aren't too heavy, so we can get them passed.''
Bogdanoff's bill includes many provisions in other pieces of legislation, including Robaina's.
The Bogdanoff bill allows each condo association to decide whether owners need to buy insurance for individual units, and it repeals the mandate for buildings over 75 feet to retrofit for new fire sprinklers. Forgoing the retrofit could save a condo unit owner up to $10,000, Bogdanoff said.
To jump-start the market, a provision in the bill relieves liabilities for those who want to buy more than seven units. If approved, these so-called "bulk buyers'' would no longer be responsible for the building's problems, such as construction problems, when they resell or rent the property.
Bogdanoff's bill must clear one more committee before it heads to the House floor. It is a companion bill to Senate legislation filed by Sen. Jeremy Ring, a Democrat from Margate, and Sen. Mike Fasano, a Republican from New Port Richey.
By the end of the session, Fasano predicted the many bills will converge into one.
"We've incorporated many of the suggestions and recommendations,'' Fasano said. "I believe at the end, we'll have one strong bill that helps residents.''