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Last in a series of articles investigating life under the rule of condominium and homeowners associations in Florida.
The letters and emails used the same tone of infuriating bureaucratic courtesy.
“I trust this email finds you well,” began one message. Another concluded, “Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention.”
The communications came from the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, the state agency in charge of making sure condominium boards obey the law, and it delivered the same message repeatedly to condo owners seeking help: Get lost.
The DBPR is a dead end for most condo owners, the South Florida Sun Sentinel found in an analysis of complaint data, which showed the vast majority of complaints are closed without action.
Tiny boards of volunteers wield immense power over hundreds or thousands of lives and millions of dollars. And most people living in condos — those who aren’t serving on the boards — find they have nowhere to turn when they think they’ve been wronged.
“The problem that people perceive with the DBPR is there’s an agency that they believe was set up for them to go with condominium complaints,” said Eric Glazer, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer who specializes in condo law. “And every single time basically somebody goes to them with a condominium complaint, what are they told? ‘We can’t handle that dispute.’”
The Sun Sentinel spent months investigating the complexities of condo living and reviewing unit owners’ pleas to the state for help. The complaints included accusations that board members were embezzling, holding fraudulent elections, contracting with family members, taking kickbacks, wasting residents’ money, assessing them for overpriced deals and penalizing enemies or rivals.
DBPR, the vast state agency that oversees many professions and industries including condos, brags in annual reports that it quickly handles nearly every complaint it receives. What the agency doesn’t say is that it does so by closing thousands of complaints without doing anything.
The Sun Sentinel investigation and data analysis found:
- The vast majority of condo owners who ask DBPR for help don’t get it. From 2007 to 2023, DBPR rejected or dismissed more than three-fourths of complaints. Only 16 percent of the cases in that time resulted in enforcement.
- The number of condo owners DBPR refused to help has sharply increased over the past 10 years, as the agency rejected a growing number of complaints on the grounds that it lacked the legal authority to intervene.
- Even cases that do fall under DBPR’s powers aren’t handled efficiently. The Sun Sentinel analysis shows routine cases — a denial of financial records, for example — can take a year to resolve.
- Florida law sets up DBPR and its condo ombudsman’s office as the condo authority, but the state has understaffed and underfunded the agency. The ombudsman position has been vacant since March.
The problem is especially acute in South Florida, home to half the state’s condos and nearly 70 percent of the complaints, according to the Sun Sentinel’s analysis.
“The problem I find with filing with the DBPR is that they spend as much time complaining that they are understaffed as they do working on the file,” condo law attorney Steven Katz told the Sun Sentinel. “It’s really become a toothless tiger over recent years.”
DBPR Secretary Melanie Griffin declined to be interviewed by the Sun Sentinel for this report.
But deputy communications director Marnie Villanueva said the agency ”works tirelessly to address every concern condo owners have that falls within our jurisdiction.”
Florida law empowers condo boards to assess individual owners thousands of dollars, strip them of access to the swimming pool or gym, fine them and set rules that can affect their daily lives. But Florida leaves condo owners without much ability to fight back against corruption or abuse of power.
State legislators have bowed to lobbyists who represent condo and HOA boards, writing laws that maintain the boards’ powers at the expense of unit owners, the Sun Sentinel reported. And there have been cases in which condo and HOA boards have sued critics for defamation, legal actions they claim were essential for fighting wild accusations but that dissidents say allows boards to stifle dissent.
The enforcement setup — through DBPR — is not working for most condo owners, the Sun Sentinel found.
The state agency charged with keeping condos honest is an overwhelmed, sprawling bureaucracy that regulates barbers, oversees community association managers, licenses electrical contractors, inspects hotels and does dozens of other jobs.
When it comes to condos, the agency’s powers are limited by law to a few areas: financial issues, elections, access to association records and new requirements for the completion of structural integrity financial reserve studies.
The limitations allow the agency to reject thousands of complaints, a source of frustration for condo owners.
The agency has no authority to investigate condo complaints with criminal allegations such as embezzling, dangerous structural issues or violations of an association’s bylaws. Owners in homeowner associations, which govern neighborhoods of single-family homes, also are out of luck, as DBPR has almost no authority to investigate HOA complaints.
“I know I am not alone,” Aventura condo owner Bryan Brooks wrote to Gov. Ron DeSantis and other top officials recently, as he pursued his condo’s election records. “There is a lot of gross abuse and illegal activity by Condo Boards in all of Florida. Nothing seems actively or effectively being done.”
‘Please help us’
Although DBPR claims a stunning success rate in handling complaints, the truth is most of those complaints are closed with a standard rejection letter.
One-third of cases are closed because there’s not enough evidence of wrongdoing.
And over the past 10 years, DBPR has closed an increasing number of complaints on the basis that it lacks jurisdiction, the Sun Sentinel analysis shows. Between 2013 and 2023, the percentage of such rejections jumped from 7 percent to 26 percent.
The department’s explanation sheds little insight into the drastic change.
Spokeswoman Villanueva wrote in an email: “The percentage increase of cases that are deemed non-jurisdictional is merely reflective of more non-jurisdictional complaints being submitted.”
In annual reports and public statements, the agency touts a nearly perfect record of addressing complaints.
“As you can see from our [annual report], 99% of complaints were responded to within 30 days, with 100% of complaints acted upon within 90 days, and more than 1,400 complaints were resolved within 90 days, accounting for 92% of investigations,” Villanueva wrote.
But in the vernacular of DBPR, resolving complaints often means determining that nothing can be done.
For example, out of 216 complaints filed from 2013 to 2023 by owners of condos one sprawling west Broward community, 83 percent ended without enforcement, the Sun Sentinel found.
That’s also what happened to Damiao Xavier Parras’s complaint about his Tamarac condo. Parras suspected financial wrongdoing related to a special assessment. He said he checked with local police and the state attorney’s office, and both told him it was a DBPR matter. But DBPR told him it couldn’t move forward.
A form letter dated Oct. 12, 2023, advised him that “ … It was concluded there was an insufficient basis to prosecute a violation of provisions of Chapter 718, Florida Statutes, and/or the rules promulgated pursuant thereto.”
Ahmed Kassoo, who worked at DBPR for 26 years, most recently as an investigator supervisor, said the agency’s jurisdiction was cut back years ago and now is “very limited.”
“That’s what most condo owners don’t understand,” Kassoo said. “People would come to us regarding some embezzlement going on, some other things going on, people not doing things that they were supposed to. So then it becomes very difficult for the agency to intervene at that point in time because the statute doesn’t allow it.”
Such restrictions may tie the agency’s hands, but they upset homeowners looking for help with basic problems, said Glazer, the Fort Lauderdale condo lawyer.
“It frustrates the hell out of condominium owners throughout the state,” he said. “They should be given more jurisdiction to investigate all kinds of complaints. Instead, unit owners are told, ‘Nope, we can’t handle that, sorry. Thanks for coming.’”
One woman, Patricia Quigley complained to the condo ombudsman in January about conditions at her condo in Lee County, including a broken generator that was “forcing residents to climb stairs in our 8 story building.” The Sun Sentinel received her email in a records request.
“I have written to you over the last few months over concerns I have with damages to the common elements of my condominium,” she wrote. “Please help us.”
But the issues she complained about don’t fall under DBPR’s authority. Her case is marked as “no jurisdiction” in a database the agency provided to the Sun Sentinel in response to a records request.
Reporters viewed a one-week snapshot of emails to the condo ombudsman’s office.
One of those emails, from an owner in a Palm Harbor homeowner association, illustrates the desperation.
“I hope this email finds you well rested because I desperately need your help,” the owner wrote. “I live in a community that is in complete disarray and it all begins and ends with the poor judgment of our HOA. It has been a year of hell in this community. It has been filled with poor choices, extravagant spending, negligence, threats and more, all resulting in community destruction both physically and emotionally.”
But DBPR has almost no authority over HOA issues. State legislators have introduced bills over the years to allow DBPR to handle HOA complaints, but the bills never won approval.
David Haber, a Miami lawyer who specializes in condo, real estate and construction law, said he wasn’t surprised that DBPR rejected so many cases.
“It’s not shocking to me at all,” he said. “It’s the easiest way to get rid of a complaint and not have to deal with it. I’m not saying that some shouldn’t be rejected. I’m sure some should be rejected.” But such a large increase in rejections, he said, “says mountains about what’s going on.”
He blamed a lack of staffing.
“I think they’re just overwhelmed, and they just can’t handle it,” he said. “I think the system is failing. But I don’t blame the individual investigators, I don’t blame the head of the department in each area, I blame that there’s not enough funding. They have a mountain of work and a limited army.”
An understaffed agency
A woman at a condo in Jacksonville asked Florida’s condo ombudsman for help in January because she believed her association was wasting money while increasing fees.
She voiced what many condo owners told the Sun Sentinel: “There’s no one else to turn to.”
But she was one of thousands seeking help from just a few dozen investigators.
The agency receives roughly 3,100 allegations each year, the Sun Sentinel found.
The complaints can be complicated, rambling, and lacking basic information. Getting to the essence of one complaint can take days or weeks.
But as of October, there were only 18 investigators, 20 financial examiners and nine supervisors devoted to condo-related complaint investigations statewide, DBPR personnel rosters show.
The investigators are modestly paid, with a starting salary of $35,500 to $38,500 — less than a Broward County bus driver. Financial examiners start at $40,739. A college degree is not mandatory if an applicant has investigative experience.
Travis Moore, a lobbyist for Community Associations Institute, the trade group for the condo and HOA industry, blamed high turnover in leadership, insufficient budgets and the Legislature’s habit of raiding a state trust fund intended to help regulate condos.
“There’s been a lot of turnover within that department,” he said. “The secretary changes every other year and then we have new division directors. The ombudsman’s gone. So there’s just been a lot of turnover.”
“DBPR is criminally underfunded,” Miami attorney James Walter said. “They have a massive job. It takes an extraordinary effort at times just to get heard by them.”
Every year, the Florida Legislature diverts money from a long-established condo regulation fund, spending it instead on a host of unrelated items. Every condo owner in the state is required to pay an annual $4 fee to fund the regulation account.
“When the budget gets put together, the Legislature says, ‘Oh we need an extra $3 million,’ and they just go in and take it,” Moore said.
Beyond issues of staffing and funding, some observers blame cultural problems at an agency that they say would rather hide behind bureaucratic walls than wrestle with difficult condo issues.
During the last regular Legislative session, when a proposal would have expanded DBPR’s powers to investigate condo and HOA complaints, the agency appeared to resist the added responsibility and produced a written report on the likely cost, said state Rep. Juan Carlos Porras, the Miami-Dade Republican who sponsored the bill.
“The Department of Business and Professional Regulation, DBPR, fought back extensively, saying that we would need multiple millions of dollars in appropriations to hire the people and train them,” Porras said.
“They’re hesitant to entertain any conversation of added oversight,” he said. “Their first reaction is additional funding, which I understand. But it’s my opinion that I don’t think they want the responsibility, either. It’s not just that they need additional funding, it’s that they need to want to actually do the job.”
Sen. Jason Pizzo, a South Florida Democrat whose previous Senate district had included the collapsed Surfside condo tower, said DBPR suffers from a lack of staff and too much turnover. During one disastrous meeting with agency officials he was stunned at what he called their lack of understanding of basic facts on Florida condos.
When he asked one official to state the number of condo associations in Florida, he said, he was told, “I don’t have that number. I can get that to you.”
“The attrition and the turnover rate at DBPR has been crazy,” he said. “It went from Halsey [Beshears] to somebody else to Julie Brown, somebody else had a cup of coffee and now it’s Melanie Griffin.”
The lack of interest from the Legislature and other state leaders stems partly from the perception that condo disputes are not a statewide issue.
“It’s always been perceived to be kind of a South Florida problem,” said former Sunny Isles Beach Mayor Dana Goldman, a lawyer who represents condo owners. “Most of the condominiums are concentrated in Dade and Broward and to a lesser extent Palm Beach County. So it doesn’t have the full-court press of other issues.”
“Do we have enough investigators? Absolutely not,” Goldman said. “Do we have a high enough level of training and sophistication to handle these types of cases or complaints, I don’t think so.”
Villanueva said DBPR is hiring and that employees in other units are trained to help with condo complaints. Field offices are located in Fort Lauderdale — the largest office — Doral, Tampa and Orlando.
The agency’s condo ombudsman’s office, which includes six people plus the ombudsman, also is located in Fort Lauderdale.
The Legislature created the condo ombudsman position in 2004 — to be filled by an attorney appointed by the governor — but gave it few powers beyond the ability to appoint election monitors for condos who request it.
The ombudsman is the “liaison between condominium unit owners and association boards,” according to the job posting, and oversees the election monitoring program.
That sounded promising. Emails to the office show a steady stream of requests for help — most of which the ombudsman’s office has no authority to get involved with.
The latest ombudsman, Spencer Hennings, resigned in late March. As of November, the position was still vacant.
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said her office receives hundreds of calls or emails from condo owners. Often, the complaints don’t fall under criminal statutes, so her office can’t act on them. And she’s learned that the ombudsman office can’t do much, either.
“The word I have used is impotent,” she said.
Because of DBPR’s inability to help, she said her office has stopped referring people there.
“We even stopped saying, ‘Go to DBPR.’ We felt we were passing the buck.“
Fernandez Rundle called condo and homeowner associations an “unseen, unchecked” industry.
“They govern — and some might say ‘rule’ — which allows them to steal, with no oversight,” Fernandez Rundle said. “I don’t know any other entity with much power, so much access to money, and no accountability.”
Rundle said DBPR should have more authority to act on civil matters and the ability to refer criminal complaints to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. State legislators introduced bills earlier this year to give DBPR more authority to investigate wrongdoing in condos and HOAs, with the agency required to refer suspected criminal activity to FDLE. But those provisions were removed before the legislation passed.
Local offices stripped of power
The agency’s local offices are aimed at making condos comply with the law. But a DBPR decision neutered the local offices from enforcing it.
Brooks, an Aventura condo owner who has been seeking election records for more than a year, said he was told by a DBPR employee that the local offices last year were stripped of the ability to enforce violations their investigations confirm.
DBPR spokeswoman Villanueva, deputy director of communications, confirmed the policy, but said there was no directive in writing, and the change was not prompted by any specific case.
Investigated cases now have to be sent for review to the agency’s four-person general counsel’s office in Tallahassee before enforcement action can be undertaken.
“This update was simply a process change to align with agency practices, and was explained to supervisors during one of these routine meetings,” Villanueva wrote in an emailed response.
In one email to a DBPR staffer, Brooks lamented the lack of action on his complaint.
“If you will not take action on documents withheld related to this case, then the president of the Association will feel empowered and free to block any and all document requests in the future,” he wrote.
David Goldberger, a retired Miami-Dade police sergeant who co-founded a private company that investigates condo and HOA issues, said even a simple case can drag on for years.
State law gives a condo association 10 business days to provide access to official records after a unit owner makes a request. If an association refuses, the law says “the division shall issue a subpoena requiring production of the requested records.”
That’s not how it works in reality.
“Here’s an example of how inundated DBPR is,” said Goldberger, fraud and compliance manager for South Florida Property Owners Consulting . “We filed a complaint for lack of access to records for 10 days. That was two years ago, and they just now concluded that case and found the association was in violation of the 10-days rule. Two years! Something simple. … Imagine when it is complicated and more in-depth.”
Villanueva did not respond to a request for detailed enforcement activity by the agency, which has authority to subpoena witnesses, issue fines and remove board members, among other things.
State Rep. Porras said he wonders if the agency could be doing more with existing laws, or whether the Legislature needs to intervene.
“The vast majority of people that contact my office say they’ve had trouble with DBPR or they’ve never gotten a response from DBPR or they’ve said that they aren’t able to help them for whatever the reason may be. It keeps begging the question of what do they do — what it is that they truly do?”
State Rep. Vicki Lopez, also a Miami Republican, said the agency should be helping more people.
“I don’t want it to be that a resident has to hire a lawyer or they can’t just call the state agency,” said Lopez, who is drafting a condo bill for the 2024 legislative session.
Even as DBPR fails to meet the demand, the agency will have a much larger caseload soon. New laws inspired by the 2021 collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside will require older condos to fully fund their reserves for proper building maintenance. For years, cash-strapped owners have opted to avoid large financial assessments, leaving maintenance accounts empty. DBPR will be in charge of enforcing the new requirements.
Sen. Jennifer Bradley, a Republican who represents a North Florida district, said there aren’t “enough resources to answer the questions and solve the problems that exist for condos in the state. There’s just a mismatch between resources and issues, and we’re plugging away at that.”
A years-long problem
Few of DBPR’s problems are new. A Miami-Dade County grand jury convened in 2016 to investigate condo issues found that the agency was inefficient, bureaucratic and secretive. Complaints by condo owners to DBPR against associations or managers took months or longer to resolve, got ignored or were arbitrarily declared “closed,” the grand jury’s report said.
The grand jury recommended creating a regulatory agency with highly trained specialists and the ability to conduct criminal investigations of finances, elections and other areas of condo corruption. The grand jury suggested moving condo investigations out of the agency, which it noted was overwhelmed with its responsibilities to regulate various businesses and professions.
“The present areas of responsibility for DBPR, the inept manner in which they handle this area of responsibility, and an apparent nonchalance from the DBPR witnesses who appeared before us lead us to wonder whether it might be more effective to totally remove this area of oversight from DBPR and place it elsewhere,” the grand jury report stated.
State Rep. Lopez said when she recently read the report, she thought it was new.
“I literally thought, wow, somebody did a grand jury right now?” she told the Sun Sentinel. “Some of the good recommendations were not implemented, like the new department should have the authority to conduct criminal investigations. The department investigators should have the authority to take sworn statements and collect evidence.”
What can be done?
More than 400 miles from the condo community’s southeastern Florida heartland, the state Legislature in Tallahassee appears likely to consider bills to improve DBPR’s performance and give condo owners more rights.
Aware of the widespread dissatisfaction with the agency, several state representatives said they planned to work on legislation in next year’s session to address DBPR’s legal, administrative and financial weaknesses. Among the issues on the table: DBPR’s lack of legal authority to address many condo complaints, a lack of transparency requirements for condo boards, mandatory education for condo board members and the agency’s inadequate funding.
Leading the legislative effort will be Rep. Lopez and Sen. Bradley, both Republicans whose initiatives would be more likely to win favor in the GOP-dominated Legislature.
“We have to come back and address some of the issues surrounding DBPR,” said Bradley, a North Florida senator who has taken the lead on condo issues since chairing a key committee after the Surfside tower collapse.
“I’ve done probably a dozen town halls in South Florida with Sen. Pizzo, with Rep. Lopez, and one of the common things we have from residents is for so long, unit owners have been in the dark about what their rights and responsibilities are, what they can expect from DBPR, issues regarding finances, elections, the condition of their building.”
Lopez calls her planned bill “Condo 3.0” and says it will address several issues, including the legal restrictions that prevent DBPR from assisting with many condo issues, a problem she hears about from people in her Miami-area district. Having met with DBPR Secretary Melanie Griffin, she said she thinks the agency will be open to taking on more responsibility.
“She actually has been very cooperative,” Lopez said of Griffin. “ … She’s not given me any reason to believe that she wouldn’t be open to expanding their authority so she can do more to help condos.”
Bradley said she was more optimistic that the Legislature will end its habit of snatching condo trust fund money to use for general expenses now that condo residents are facing so many difficulties because of Surfside reforms and other issues.
“I think the case could have been made before but certainly can be made now that those dollars are appropriately kept in DBPR to put toward education and resolution of some very real and reasonable disputes that condo owners find themselves in, often with no one to help them, short of litigation,” she said. “The failure of DBPR has really pushed all these problems into private litigation, which is prohibitively expensive.”
Other reforms she’s considering would improve condo owners’ access to records, both through increased transparency requirements and more authority for DBPR to enforce them.
“Condos that have 150 units or more are required to have a website,” she said. “That number should come way down. Every condo should be able to log into their website, see all of their previous budgets, see the inspections, have access to records.
“And I think DBPR needs to be a little more proactive in making sure that condo owners have the information they need to be able to solve their problems,” she said. “And when they don’t get those answers, DBPR needs to have more levers to get the bad actors to act.”
If you have a tip or information to share about condo or homeowner association issues, you can email them to email@example.com.
Investigation: Condo Wars
The Sun Sentinel’s full investigation and more coverage of condo and HOA issues in Florida can be found at SunSentinel.com/condowars
Part 1: Condo and homeowner associations have used Florida’s defamation laws when critics speak up. Under the shadow government of a condo board or HOA, residents who suspect wrongdoing question the board, potentially at their own peril. Read the story.
Part 2: A South Florida homeowners association board ran its community like a racketeering enterprise, prosecutors say, threatening homeowners and embezzling millions. Is a new state law enough to stop this from happening again? Read the story.
Part 3: Living under a homeowner or condo association can drive some people to behavior that they would never otherwise contemplate — from corruption and fraud to assault and even murder. Read the story.