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When Martin Kessler moved to Solivita Development in Poinciana, Florida in 2008, he says he quickly realized it was a big mistake. It was the first place the 97-year-old had lived with an association of owners.

“Living in an HOA isn’t really a pleasant thing for a resident,” Kessler said. A retired economist, he said the fees he had to pay were “a corporate capitalist’s perfect dream. People have to join whether they want to or not, and they pay all the expenses of the business.

Kessler is among more than 5,000 members of the over-55 community locked up in a class action lawsuit since 2017 against Solivita developer Avatar Properties, who they say misperceived the HOA fees. On November 2, in Polk County, Fla., Circuit Judge Wayne Durden awarded residents $ 34.8 million.

“This is the biggest award I’ve ever heard of,” said Harvella Jones, president of the National Homeowners Advocate Group. Based in Texas, Jones’ organization specializes in helping people fighting HOAs and homeowner protection lobby groups. “We get calls from all over the country, but no one has ever reported such a big win to us as (Solivita).”

Experts agree that fighting HOAs is difficult for residents, and big wins are even rarer. In Florida, HOAs rule over 44% of the population, according to a study by analysts at iProperty Management.

With costs reaching thousands of dollars for approximately 3.5 million homes in the state, HOAs can make lawsuits long and expensive for residents.

“Their goal is to bleed homeowners dry,” said Jan Bergemann, president of Cyber ​​Citizens for Justice, a DeLand-based homeowner advocacy group. “They’ll hit you move after move, tie it up for years.”

HOAs are infamous for restricting signs that can go up meters, raising issues of free speech. They sometimes even ban basketball or other sports equipment goals in yards or tell residents how many cars they can have. A Florida HOA was charged this month with threatening a family with a $ 100-a-day fine for turning on Christmas lights too early.

Avatar, which was purchased by homebuilder Taylor Morrison in 2018, developed Solivita and other communities in Poinciana in the early 2000s. Avatar also built amenities such as swimming pools and pavilions. When the time came to hand over the management of the community to the Poinciana Community Development District, Avatar wanted to sell them to the community for $ 73 million.

But there was a problem. A licensed appraiser said amenities were only worth about a quarter of that.

“I was immediately against it. It was the dumbest thing in the world, ”Kessler said.

Avatar based its figure on the future value of the roughly $ 86 per month club fee they were charging, said attorney Carter Andersen of Bush Ross in Tampa, who represented the residents. These charges, according to the lawsuit, were illegal. Residents could not opt ​​out and could even see their home seized for non-payment.

Taylor Morrison, who has looked after the defense in this case since acquiring Avatar, did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Andersen said the $ 34 million figure was just the start. He estimates an additional $ 27 million in pre-judgment interest and at least $ 4 million in fees collected this year that were not added to the ruling.

There will also be, Andersen estimates, $ 5 million to $ 10 million in legal fees for the two firms that represented the residents. The case was taken on a residents’ bounced contingency, meaning it was a gamble for the lawyers who fought for it.

Bergemann says it’s rare to find lawyers who will handle such a complicated case without payment insurance. “Unfortunately, wins [such as Solivita] would be very common if the owners had the money, ”he said.

Bergemann says he’s spoken to lawyers who want thousands of dollars just to get construction documents that residents should be able to see anyway. “And who has this? ” he said.

Jones said another issue residents face is harassment for speaking out, which she says occurs when residents don’t act together. “You can’t have one or two people taking all the weight,” she said.

For Jones, much of the problem is a lack of government oversight. She says many HOA board members cling to their power.

“Even when we have election rules, they still don’t hold up [to] them, ”she said. “If you can’t get rid of it, that’s the main problem.”

Jones began fighting a homeowner’s association in the 1990s when she lost her home in Texas for non-payment of HOA fees. “They are profiting from foreclosures, which is why they should be regulated,” she said.

Although Andersen says the Solivita case is likely to be appealed by the developer, Bergemann said wins such as Solivita’s are important because they can create a domino effect leading to more wins for homeowners. of State.

“The owners have rights, but they are often not enforced,” he said. “[HOAs] I don’t want the decisions to be up to the owners.

The victory gives hope to people like Slade Chelbian, a resident of the Bellalago community in Poinciana, also built by Avatar.

Chelbian is a class action plaintiff for the same activity that has led to Solivita’s lawsuit since 2019.

“It was great news in the fight to stop this kind of action,” Chelbian wrote in an email. “It makes me believe that we can win this action in court. “

For Chelbian, winning would mean the end of the fees he disputed.

“Defeat is the status quo,” he said, “paying the developer mandatory“ for-profit ”fees forever. It is not fair.”

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