Before Gary Poliakoff and law partner Alan Becker founded their Fort Lauderdale-based firm, Becker & Poliakoff, few tenants of condo associations knew how to navigate the tangled corridors that can result from shared ownership of properties.
The duo proved to be pioneers by devoting their practice almost entirely to condominium and homeowner association law at a time when most of the laws governing these communities were yet to be written or fully understood.
Becker & Poliakoff started in 1973. Today, it is one of the largest and oldest condo association law firms in the country and represents more than 4,500 associations from 13 offices statewide, international offices in China and Prague, and a staff of more than 170 attorneys and lobbyists.
Poliakoff, a lifelong fitness enthusiast, died Friday at 69 in his Southwest Ranches home — a community he helped incorporate in 2000. He died of non-smoker’s lung cancer said his son, Keith Poliakoff, City Attorney for the Town of Southwest Ranches, a position his father held for a decade.
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“Dad grew up in the deep South when baby boomers and parents used to smoke their Marlboros with the windows closed. No one thought about it, not until he was 67 and diagnosed with lung cancer. … An exercise-fiend, health fanatic,” his son said.
“When he was diagnosed with Stage 4 non-smoker’s lung cancer the doctors all gave him 30 days to live and two years later he got to do some incredible things with his life and share some great experiences with his family that shows his will to live and his character.”
Poliakoff, who would be recognized for conceiving and drafting laws that govern shared ownership housing in Florida and for helping create a new area of law, always seemed to be running ahead of the pace of public knowledge.
Poliakoff and Becker, University of Miami law school buddies, had pursued other interests after graduating in 1969. Poliakoff was interested in business, Becker was elected to the Florida Legislature with an eye toward serving as a state representative.
In 1973, they reunited when they heard about a group of apartment tenants in Miami Beach who were fighting for their legal rights and finding little support.
Their two-attorney office in Miami Beach started to represent similar condominium and homeowners' associations and the firm grew for the next 40 years.
Among their successes: in 1989, Becker & Poliakoff pushed for stronger laws in Florida to strengthen the Florida Bureau of Condominiums’ position to remove and fine managers who mishandle money, fail to obtain required licenses or who take kickbacks from suppliers. At the time, more than four million Floridians paid monthly assessments at condos, town houses, mobile park homes and housing developments at an estimated $100 million a month.
“When you have all this cash flowing through associations, there’s always the potential for abuse. The mere process of reviewing licenses will eliminate individuals of questionable character getting access to all that money,” Poliakoff said in a 1989 Miami Herald story.
Poliakoff, who would earn the Judge Learned Hand Award from the Jewish Federation for professional excellence and contributions to the legal community, extended his reach through public seminars, his books, newspaper articles and his work as an adjunct professor of condominium law at the Shepard Broad Law Center of Nova Southeastern University. There, he earned the Adjunct Professor of the Year distinction.
“Buyers of condos everywhere in the U.S. don’t understand they are owners and not tenants,” Poliakoff said in a 2009 Miami Herald profile on the eve of the publication of one of his many books, New Neighborhoods: The Consumer’s Guide to Condominium, Co-op and HOA Living (Emerald Book Co.; $36) that he co-authored with son Ryan.
Poliakoff also would take that knowledge abroad after the fall of the eastern bloc in 1989 when he was invited to assist post-Communist countries with their transition from state housing to private ownership. Poliakoff’s face was familiar in the nation’s capital, too, as he testified before the U.S. Senate on homeowners’ and shared associations’ rights under laws he helped draft.
For Poliakoff, born as one of seven children in Greenville, South Carolina, educating families about their living situations derived from his own small town beginnings.
“He grew up in the deep South and nothing was given to him,” Keith Poliakoff said. “He worked from the time he was little as a newspaper delivery boy and had to work exceptionally hard. I think from growing up with humble beginnings this gave him the determination to make more of his life. That sense of what he needed to do to succeed at a very young age is what enabled him to become the person he was and to get out of the little town.”
Poliakoff earned a marketing degree from the University of South Carolina in 1967 and moved to Miami where he met his wife, Sherri, while at UM studying law. The couple would raise two sons, Ryan and Keith, all of whom survive him and travel often, once living for four months in a thatched hut in Moorea while he wrote one of his treatises.
That sense of family also entered into his professional life. His son Keith accepted a position with the firm in 2000 as a 25-year-old law school grad and worked there until 2013 when he left to join Arnstein & Lehr. He treated employees to theater nights, family picnics and the firm’s popular Thanksgiving pot luck luncheon.
“Those who worked there were his extended family,” Keith said. “He knew everyone who worked there, their back stories, their families. He would say he was not just employing an individual but ‘I’m employing an entire family.’ That was important for him.”
Becker championed his lifelong law partner’s endurance and legacy. “Gary had the toughness to build and run a large law firm, combined with a rare compassion and caring for the people who worked for the firm and the clients we served.”
Services will be at noon Monday at Temple Sinai North Dade, 18801 NE 22nd Ave., North Miami Beach. Donations in Poliakoff’s name cam be made to American Committee for Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem and online at www.acsz.org/gary.