When I first saw a “Make America Florida” bumper sticker promoting Florida Governor Ron DeSantis for president, I thought of the record floods and temperatures across the country this summer and envisioned beachfront property extending into the Midwest. But as one of almost 74 million American homeowners who live in condos, co-ops, and homeowner associations, my second thought was of the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Surfside, Florida, in June. It was hard not to take the tragedy to heart. Yet it isn’t just condo owners who pay the costs for disasters like Surfside — we all do through the emergency services our towns provide, one more reason why safety is in all of our interest.
Greater Boston just experienced the most active May on record for condominium sales, up 123 percent from May 2020. And the values have shot up, too. From 2017 through (September) 2021, the median sales price for condos in Massachusetts went from $341,000 to $460,000, an increase of almost 35 percent, according to Mike Breed, marketing and communications manager at The Warren Group.
For the past three years, Florida state Senator Jason Pizzo, whose Miami district includes Surfside, has introduced the same bill seeking to hold boards, associations, and management companies more accountable for providing the financial, billing, and engineering records his constituents have been trying unsuccessfully to access. “It really is about transparency,” he explains, “and traditionally, associations and condo boards have been created with such kid gloves because they’re voluntary in nature.” As volunteers and not professionals, he says, board members have “really gotten away with a lot.”
Pizzo, whose family is in the development business, got pushback on his legislation from lawyers, lobbyists, brokers, and boards — all of which had a vested interest in the status quo. For example, as stakeholders, insurance agents want to be sure policies are renewed every year. If underwriters “did real, detailed inspections of structural issues, they’d find all kinds of things, but they’re not doing that,” Pizzo says. Instead, he adds, they often do more superficial inspections that won’t result in higher premiums and “sticker shock.”
Board members sometimes artificially suppressed association fees and avoided tough measures “to remain popular and get reelected,” he says. That changed in 2018 when Florida enacted term limits for board members, a progressive measure Massachusetts has yet to adopt.
Compared with other New England states, Massachusetts has relatively few regulations. For example, condos here must have a reserve account to cover unanticipated expenses, but there’s no requirement for how much has to be in it. As CEO of Association Reserves, which provides condo associations with financial planning for renovation, replacement, and repairs, Robert Nordlund helps condos budget for major long-term projects. “If a board isn’t raising the homeowner assessments every year,” he told NPR, “that’s a tip-off that something is wrong.” Matthew Gaines, a lawyer who co-chairs the Community Associations Institute, Massachusetts Legislative Action Committee, believes the accounts of many condos here are underfunded: “God forbid they did have some catastrophe, they wouldn’t be able to afford it unless they did a special assessment,” he says.
Gaines frequently hears complaints about a lack of transparency among boards. In Massachusetts law and, he estimates, almost 95 percent of condo documents, there’s no requirement for boards to conduct open meetings or even keep minutes. “Should the board be transparent and be open for ideas and discussion? Yes,” he says. “Do they have to be? No.” Yet Gaines prefers leaving it up to individual condominiums to govern themselves. If owners aren’t satisfied with board leadership, he says, they can vote them out: “It sort of is the democratic process.”
Sort of. When I first became a condo owner four years ago, I quickly discovered that without independent oversight, a governing process that seems like democracy can congeal into something more authoritarian — a seniority system that leaves dissenting voices ignored. This summer, I suggested exploring an electric vehicle charging station for our garage and received. . . no response. At our annual owners’ meeting in October, my proposal to expand the board was roundly rejected. “Three is more than enough,” one owner said. But why three representatives? Because “it has always been like this.”
It’s time for a change. Following Surfside, the prospects for Pizzo’s bill in Florida are finally improving, yet several common-sense bills to address safety, empower owners, and improve condo board governance have been languishing in the Massachusetts House for multiple sessions. Worcester state Representative Hannah Kane filed two bills: https://malegislature.gov/Bills/192/H1423 including notice of annual meetings, an absentee ballot process, and board member qualifications; and H.1424 would create a special commission to study condominium law to consider matters including board of trustees elections and operations, owners’ rights and enforcement, annual meeting protocol, condo fees, and protocol for resolving owner and board disputes.
“When a dispute in the community rises to the level that it needs legislative relief, it’s usually a pretty serious issue — it’s usually a condo owner who is having a major dispute with their association,” says Allston/Brighton state Representative Kevin Honan. He filed H.1412 to establish an ombudsman, preferably in the attorney general’s office, “to create a place where people who have an issue can go to try to get it resolved.”
All of these bills are a start, but when the biggest investment most of us will make is governed by volunteers, there has to be a way to professionalize the process.
Meanwhile, in my building, we’re making slow progress. Though I never got a response to my EV charging station idea, I finally got a reply to my follow-up request to plug my car into an outlet. “They have said NO to this request,” the management company replied on behalf of the board. The problem? “This would set a bad president [sic] for others.”
In setting policy for Massachusetts, here’s hoping we don’t import our presidents from Florida.
Andy Levinsky is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.