These are not happy days for homeowners associations.
Foreclosures, job losses and the general economic downturn have put the squeeze on the books of a sizeable number of the nation’s estimated 310,000 homeowners associations as residents (and the banks that have seized homes) stop paying their monthly assessments, according to a recent study.
Five things to know about how these community groups have been affected by the economy, and some things they’re doing to fight back:
1. About 45 percent of HOA managers say their groups are facing "serious" problems as a result of the economic downturn, and 9 percent describe their situations as "severe," according to the Community Associations Institute, a trade group in Washington, D.C.
This pain is generally due to residents’ failure to pay their monthly assessments, which the HOAs use to pay for maintenance, upkeep and legal expenses of their communities.
The CAI study said since 2005, delinquency rates in such organizations have more than doubled; 65 percent of associations’ delinquency rates exceed 5 percent of their units, up from 19 percent of the associations in 2005. Thirty percent have delinquency rates exceeding 10 percent, and about 30,000 associations say their delinquencies exceed 10 percent of the units.
2. So, not only are many financially strapped condo owners behind in their dues, a significant number also are in the process of foreclosure, already have lost their units to their lenders or have just walked away, resulting in a high number where nobody’s home: A quarter of community managers reported in the survey that 5 percent of their units are vacant. Another 29 percent reported vacancy rates of 3 to 5 percent, the CAI said.
3. The associations are trying various tactics to cope with their shortfalls, the CAI said. More than one-third said they’re postponing capital improvement projects and/or have reduced such services as landscaping.
About one-third also said they’ve cut contributions to their reserve accounts, and one-quarter said they’ve had to reach into those reserve funds to pay the bills.
Other tactics to help reduce shortfalls include levying special assessments, borrowing from local banks, or even asking residents to perform some maintenance tasks, the CAI said.
4. Some HOAs are taking a tougher stance on delinquent homeowners, including executing their legal right, in many states, to foreclose on them for failing to pay their HOA dues.
Others are taking lesser, though serious, steps to get the money owed them. Many states allow HOAs to attach liens or garnishee wages and bank accounts, and some also can cut off water service or other utilities to the affected units. The Arizona Republic newspaper in Phoenix said HOAs there lately are turning to skiptracer firms, collection agencies, process servers and out-of-state attorneys to collect the back assessments.
Some states have amended their laws recently to help associations to collect delinquent dues. Florida, for example, created a law earlier this year that allows associations to go to court to seek up to twice the amount of delinquent dues owed them by homeowners. The state now also allows HOAs to deny access to swimming pools or other amenities to homeowners who are in arrears.
5. Some of the associations say their biggest frustration is with banks, according to CAI. The group concluded from a separate study that 70 percent of bank-owned properties forward monthly assessments to the HOAs.
In other instances, associations complain that lenders have failed to initiate foreclosure proceedings on borrowers who have stopped making their mortgage payments, leaving the associations in a legal limbo, without homeowners who pay the dues and without recourse to sue the banks for the assessments.
A Florida law firm, however, recently gained national attention when courts upheld a legal strategy it calls the "mortgage terminator." The Association Law Group of Miami Beach in several instances recently has represented HOAs that already had taken title to units that were "underwater" — their mortgages were greater than the value of the properties — after the owners stopped paying their assessments; the firm legally forced the lenders either to begin foreclosure proceedings or to give up their liens so that the HOAs could sell the units and recoup the moneys owed them.
Mary Umberger is a freelance writer in Chicago.
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