Excerpted from Tampa Bay Times story.
PALM HARBOR — When Deborah Berger and her husband, Barry, decided to downsize in 2007, they bought a condominium in Lansbrook Village that looks out on a nature preserve.
“It’s so beautiful,” Berger said. “You have the birds chirping, you see the seasons changing and the air is so clear and pristine.”
Now in their 70s, the couple assumed that the condo would be their final home. But they and other owners — many of them seniors, some of them veterans — could be forced to sell because a billion-dollar company wants to convert all 774 Lansbrook units into lucrative rentals.
That might not seem fair. Under Florida law, it’s perfectly legal.
Lansbrook in north Pinellas County is among the hundreds of Florida condo communities whose residents have faced the loss of their homes to big-time apartment investors. Owners in some communities, like Bay Vista in St. Petersburg, have ceded the fight, sold and moved on. Others, like those in Tampa’s Grand Oasis, are battling to save their homes. All are up against a 2007 Florida statute that became the proverbial law of unintended consequences.
Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and major hurricanes in 2004-5 left many condo communities in dire shape. In 2007, state legislators amended condo laws so that the approval of just 80 percent of unit owners — not 100 percent, as before — was needed to make repairs or terminate a condominium association.
Unlike other parts of Florida, the Tampa Bay area and its many condo communities escaped the hurricanes largely unscathed. But the 2008 housing crash caused thousands of condo owners to default on their mortgages. Canny investors began snapping up units at bargain prices, knowing that once they owned 80 percent they’d be in a position to convert the complex to rentals and force the remaining owners to sell.
Tallahassee attorney Peter Dunbar, an expert on condo law and a former member of the Florida House of Representatives, said the intent of the 2007 law was to ensure that hurricane-damaged condos didn’t become derelict eyesores.
“Then (investors) came along with the strict economic motive — ‘I can make it worth more to my pocketbook’ — and that has disrupted what the original concept was,” Dunbar said. “It’s unfortunate.”
Darron Kattan, managing director of Tampa’s Franklin Street brokerage, estimated that there still are 30 or so condominiums in the Tampa Bay area that could be ripe for conversion because so-called “bulk owners” own at least 50 percent of the units.
“The two factors that would drive investors to buy bulk opportunities are location and do they think they can get to 80 percent owned at some point,” Kattan said.
Lansbrook meets both criteria.