It was an open secret.
For years, the allegations of fraud, financial mismanagement and other violations in Miami-Dade condominiums had been reaching the ears of government officials, some of them now confess.
Yet proposals to strengthen condo laws and regulations in the last two state legislative sessions in Tallahassee never were approved. Police departments kept referring complainants to civil courts or the state Department of Business and Professional Regulations (DBPR), which supervises some condo-related issues. And the DBPR insisted it did not have the authority to investigate many of the complaints.
But now the issue has jumped into the public spotlight, following an investigation by el Nuevo Herald and Univision 23, and groups of condo owners who are organizing to make themselves heard.
In an election year, the scandals have forced several public officials to address a problem that some county residents fear will only get worse as more and more condos are built in Miami-Dade.
“We have to realize that a lot of times the government is reactive,” state Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla said during a panel discussion last week organized by the Brickell Neighbors Association.
Also at the meeting were county commissioner Xavier Suarez; Raquel Regalado, a school board member who is running for the county mayor's job; Miami commissioner Ken Russell; and state Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, who is running against Diaz de la Portilla.
“We swing things in one direction, and then you sit it out and you see what happens with that, then in two years we swing in another direction,” added Diaz de la Portilla, referring to the last round of changes in condo laws and regulations approved in 2008, which “restricted” the power of the DBPR “to police” the associations of property owners.
Moderator Rosa de la Camara, a lawyer with the firm Becker & Poliakoff, asked Diaz what can be done to avoid the annual “sweep” of money from the Condominium Trust Fund. Condo owners pay into the fund $4 per year for each condo unit. (There are about 1.6 million units in Florida, nearly 40 percent of then in Miami-Dade and Broward). Since 2009, however, the state has been spending part of the money on other issues, drawing criticism from lawmakers and advocates for condo owners.
“Part of the problem is that in reality we have a toothless DBPR, with really not enough personnel and enough resources to enforce the law,” said Diaz de la Portilla, who added the agency should be given all the money when it receives more power. “By giving them the teeth that they need to enforce the law, then you tie those dollars to those functions and you put it in a lock-box, so to speak.”
Rodriguez said part of the problem is that proposals for legislative changes that would give more power to condo owners to control their condos and regulate associations never get anywhere in Tallahassee.
“Unfortunately, to get a lot of these proposals approved, sometimes it takes a crisis, because there are a lot of forces lobbying for the status quo and against the rights of individual homeowners,” said Rodriguez, who described dealing with the DBPR as “frustrating” because the agency will ask owners to “basically prove their cases” and produce the evidence before an investigation can be launched.
“Almost in every case, if the homeowners are fortunate and they have a lot of neighbors involved, they can affect the character of their board and get changes that way. For some buildings, that is not an option and they have to hire outside counsel. That’s a horrible situation for homeowners,” said Rodriguez, who used to work with condo owners in low-income areas during his tenure at Dade Legal Aid.
“People should call their representatives, the officials, and tell them, 'Hey, use the power you do have to give the money (to the DBPR). Use the authority you have, even if it's limited.”
Regalado said condo owners in Miami-Dade cannot wait for changes in Tallahassee to resolve problems in their complexes.
“The truth is that it takes more than one (legislative) session to get any (legal reforms) passed,” she said. “Usually two or three years. It has to be something really strong to pass on the first try.”
“Before talking about creating new laws or giving laws more teeth, let's talk about what we can do now,” Regalado added.
Regalado, who is running against county Mayor Carlos Gimenez, criticized the shortage of police agents assigned to investigate condominium frauds. “This problem has been the result of negligence,” she said.
The Miami-Dade police department launched an investigation after el Nuevo Herald and Univision 23 documented a string of scandals, including electoral fraud and scams on contract awards, never addressed by local or state officials despite complaints from owners.
Police Chief Juan Perez has said the department would begin to record and investigate complaints of condo crimes and promised to support creating a special task force proposed by Commissioner Bruno Barreiro.
Gimenez met with condo owners in April and promised to go to Tallahassee to support an effort to strengthen condo laws and regulations proposed by state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz.
During an April protest in Doral by hundreds of condo owners, organizers stressed that they wanted officials to fulfill the promises they had made.
“We don't want this to remain just promises,” said William Mendieta, resident of the Las Vistas condos in Doral.