guest blog by Deborah Goonan
In 2007, Florida passed a law that has been dubbed “Eminent Domain for Condos.” The law allows for 80% of voting interests to approve a plan to terminate the condo association for the purposes of redevelopment, as long as no more than 10% of voting interests object to the plan.
At the time the law was passed, the stated intent was to make it easier for owners of hurricane damaged or functionally obsolete condos to sell their ailing building to investors who would then redevelop on valuable land.
However, in the 8 years since enactment of this law, real estate investors and developers have descended like vultures, preying upon distressed condominium associations. Taking advantage of FL statutes, investors have been buying unsold units in bulk, at pennies on the dollar, taking control of the association, amending the governing documents where necessary, and voting to terminate the association.
In most cases, their intent is to convert all of the units to rental apartments, at a time when record numbers of people are renting rather than buying condos. Investors have forced nearly 20,000 condo owners – many of them homestead owners – to accept termination proceeds equal to one-third to one-half of what they paid for their units at the height of the real estate market prior to 2007. Essentially, condo owners have been kicked to the curb, many with outstanding mortgage balances for homes they no longer own. Cash buyers lost most of their hard-earned life savings with nothing to show for it.
An op-ed written by two attorneys from Greenspoon Marder Law firm states that a proposed bill in Florida “could satisfy public outcry” over condo takeovers that have forced nearly 20,000 owners to sell their homes, many of them at a fraction of their purchase price. (You might recall from my previous blogs on this topic that Steven Geller, the sponsor of the 2007 legislation amending FL condominium termination process, is now a shareholder at the same law firm.)
Condo owners adversely affected by Florida’s flawed legislation have pressured their state Representatives and Senators to take action. Florida Realtors, who have helped to draft HB 643, have also expressed deep concern. The current draft provides that bulk buyers must make “third-party” owners whole at termination, by paying 110% of the condo owner’s purchase price or fair market value, whichever is higher. In addition, all first mortgages must be satisfied, and a relocation allowance is payable to homestead owners.
Realtors hope that legislative change will renew confidence in the condo market. Between negative media coverage and word of mouth, buyers are reluctant to purchase real estate in Florida, particularly condominiums that have been featured in the media. Additionally, many condo owners are finding it difficult to sell their units, except to other bulk buyers hoping to snatch up units at a low price.
The current bill, (HB643), retains 80% vote of approval – as long as no more than 10% of voting interests reject a plan – for optional termination of condominium. That provision remains unchanged as sponsored by Geller and signed into law by Governor Christ in 2007.
As has always been the case, the governing documents can still provide a lower percentage of owner approval for termination.
Attorneys Mark F. Grant and Raul Valero claim in their article that unanimous consent of owners for a condominium termination is unrealistic and that a single holdout can extract too much money out of the termination settlement.
Grant and Valero go on to explain that in 2010 the FL Legislature passed the Distressed Condominium Act, a law set to expire on June 30, 2016. The Act reduces liability of condo-buying investor groups for construction defects and deficits in reserve funding allegedly caused by the original developer. The Optional Termination and Distressed Condominium statutes, when combined, created the golden opportunity for hostile condominium takeovers in Florida.
As currently written, HB 643 still does not address a key issue. Voting interests are allocated to the number of units owned or proportional share of condominium ownership, not to individual owners. The result is that we have real estate investor corporations outvoting homestead owners, terminating the condominium and forcing them to sell, even at a substantial loss.
As long as votes are allocated to the property vs. people, investors will find a way to exploit that loophole. Because FL statute sets no absolute minimum threshold for termination approval, a bulk-buyer-controlled Board that holds sufficient voting interests can simply amend the governing documents to reduce the approval threshold, thus making termination possible on their own terms.
The only ways to remedy that situation is to more equitably allocate voting interests among the people involved, rather than tying them to inanimate units. Bottom line: opportunistic investors should not be able to trample the rights of homestead property owners.
Grant and Valero characterize bulk buyers as some sort of saviors that have “rescued” failing condominium associations, the buyers later concluding that a de-conversion would make better financial sense.
Whether or not you believe that the condo takeover fiasco was carefully crafted or the result of unintended consequences now is the time to consider the rights and needs of condo owners that thought they were buying a home as opposed to a real estate investment property.
Tragically, even if a homeowner-friendly bill is passed, it will be too late to help tens of thousands who have already lost their homes, their life savings, and their credit.