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Manatee HOAs wielding power of foreclosure

MANATEE — Sending multiple letters by certified mail over the course of several months didn’t work. Nor did filing a lien or making personal pleas.

So, unable to persuade a homeowner to pay his delinquent assessments, the Heather Glen Property Owners Association’s board decided to take a drastic step: Sue to foreclose on his house.

“The board anguished over it,” said Mona Steck, the association’s secretary/treasurer. “We were reluctant to do it, but we felt it was the only way to recoup our losses.”

Her association isn’t alone.

While it remains a rarely used tactic, more homeowner and condominium associations in Manatee County are suing to force a home’s sale to recover unpaid assessments.

They filed 192 foreclosure actions in Manatee County Court last year, more than double the 83 that were filed in 2008, court records show. The elevated pace has continued in 2010, with 80 suits filed as of June 30.

By comparison, mortgage lenders and servicers filed more than 6,000 foreclosure suits in 2009 and more than 2,100 in the first half of 2010.

Experts said the increase in association-filed foreclosure suits isn’t surprising, saying the economic and housing slumps have caused more homeowners to fall behind on their assessments.

That has forced associations to reduce services, raise dues on other homeowners and take other measures — including becoming more aggressive in collecting debts — to remain solvent.

“A lot of associations are really hurting financially,” said Chris Brown, president of C&S Condominium Management Services Inc. in Bradenton, which provides management services to more than 100 associations. “(Foreclosure) might be the last option, but it’s being used more often because nothing else has worked.”

Associations typically make several attempts to contact and work with delinquent homeowners before taking legal action, said an official with the Community Associations Institute, an educational and advocacy group based in Alexandria, Va.

“Nobody wants to foreclose on a home. Not a bank, not a lender, and certainly not an association,” said Frank Rathbun, the group’s vice president of communications. “It really is a last resort. But without that potential threat (of foreclosure), the associations would be in deep trouble.”

It’s a threat that they largely remain wary of using, however.

Many opt against foreclosure because the legal costs would exceed what the homeowner owes, Brown said. Florida is among 16 states that require all foreclosures be handled through the court system.

That almost changed in the last state legislative session. A bill filed by Sen. Mike Bennett of Bradenton would have allowed direct foreclosures on non-homesteaded properties without judicial review, but it died in committee. A companion measure in the House also did not make it out of committee.

Brown said another deterrent is Florida law, which places a higher priority on liens filed by mortgage lenders than by associations. With so many Manatee homes considered to be worth less than what’s owed on them, it makes little sense for associations to foreclose, he said.

While legal, the practice has drawn criticism.

Jan Bergemann of the DeLand-based watchdog group Cyber Citizens for Justice Inc., which advocates reforming Florida HOA laws, said “it’s patently unfair” that homeowners can lose their homes over a few hundred or thousand dollars.

He cited a recent Texas case, in which an HOA foreclosed on a $315,000 house while the homeowner was deployed in Iraq because he owed less than $1,000 in assessments.

“HOAs happily sue their own for peanuts,” said Bergemann, a native of Germany. “The U.S. is the only country in the world where you can do that. What is wrong with that?”

Duane Marsteller, transportation/growth and development reporter, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2630.