Local condo owners fighting conversions

Article Courtesy of The Tampa Tribune

By Kate Bradshaw

Published October 21, 2014

PALM HARBOR — As cars zoomed past on busy Tampa Road on Friday morning, a handful of residents stood outside the cluster of condominiums and apartments where most of them live. George Sheldon, the Democratic candidate for Florida attorney general, joined them.

Their aim was to draw attention to something they say is happening to condo owners throughout the state.

They say a developer who owns most of the units in their complex is trying to push individual owners out, convert their homes into apartment rentals and give them less than fair value in the process.

They called on Attorney General Pam Bondi, the incumbent Republican whom Sheldon is challenging, to confront a state law allowing involuntary conversions to take place.

“She has to step up,” said Mark Burnight, who owns a condo in a nearby development that is undergoing conversion. “Otherwise, we’re drowning. We’re going to lose.”

A spokesman for Bondi said the attorney general “is already several steps ahead of Mr. Sheldon.”

“She has been actively working with members of the Legislature to resolve this issue ever since it was brought to her attention earlier this year,’’ said Bondi spokesman Trey Stapleton.

At Madison Oaks, where the demonstration took place, many units already have turned into apartment rentals.

Residents there who still own units say they are being offered a pittance compared to what they paid for their homes, and that they don’t want to leave in the first place.

A bill the Legislature passed in 2007 gives homeowner association boards the right to terminate their status as a condominium complex if 80 percent of a board supports doing so.

Sheldon said the law, which then-Gov. Charlie Crist signed into law after previous Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed it, was meant to apply if some type of catastrophe forced people to leave their units.

“The Florida Constitution is clear that, if you pay your mortgage, if you pay your taxes, your homestead can’t be taken away from you,” Sheldon said. “This statute was designed to deal with abandoned property after emergencies. Clearly the Legislature never intended this. I know Governor Bush, Governor Crist didn’t intend this.”

Now some condo owners say developers and investors are taking advantage of the law.

As units come onto the market, developers and investors buy them and, along with them, seats on the home owner association boards.

Critics of the practice say it has happened at more than 200 complexes — and to thousands of families — throughout the state.

“It’s amazing that this is going on in this state, in this country and in 2014,” said condo owner Stephanie Krasowski, a yoga studio owner who has lived at Madison Oaks for several years.

Through a spokesman at a public relations firm, New York City-based ESG Equities, the asset management firm and parent company to Madison Oaks Partners LLC, issued a fact sheet countering the residents’ arguments.

It states the condo complex is “failed,” meaning so few units within the complex have been sold that it is not a viable condominium project.

That, the management firm maintains, gives it a legal right to convert to apartments despite the owners’ objections.

The firm says it is working with different unit owners “to reach reasonable solutions that allows everyone to move forward” and states it has “made a generous offer to the attorney representing the individual owners who have objected to the termination.”

Krasowski said the offer wasn’t enough, and rather than back down, she will keep trying to get elected officials to fight on behalf of her and other affected homeowners.

“They’re banking on the fact that people cannot afford to fight them,” she said. “That’s why we’re uniting across the state.”

In August she called on the governor to do something about it, because waiting for the Legislature to address it in the spring was not practical.

Sheldon said if he were in office he would seek a remedy in court.