Family losing home over unpaid association dues

The foreclosures have become more common.

Tom Radcliff is seen outside his home in Coppperopolis, Calif., on Jan. 23.

The Associated Press
Published: Sunday, February 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 31, 2004 at 10:11 p.m.

COPPEROPOLIS, Calif. - When retirees Tom and Anita Radcliff moved into a modest rural home their sons built, they never imagined the price of joining the nation's fastest-growing lifestyle - a neighborhood governed by a homeowners association.

Now, months after moving in, they've lost their home to a wealthy buyer of foreclosed properties and been ordered off the property over what started as $120 in back association dues.

``That's the price of two tires, the price of two PlayStation games,'' said son Joel Radcliff, part of a family stunned by a process that quickly mushroomed when the homeowners association turned the bill over to a collection agency and auctioned the house within six months.

As one in six Americans live under private rules of 260,000 homeowners associations, such foreclosures by an aggressive and some say predatory collection industry that pursues back dues have become more common. In the past three years, homeowners in Las Vegas, San Diego, St. Petersburg and Houston have lost homes over sums as small as $81.

Although unheard of in regular neighborhoods, such draconian foreclosures are legal in homeowner associations that now rule over most of the nation's new housing.

``It's a last resort, but sometimes it becomes necessary,'' said Frank Rathbun, spokesman for the Virginia-based Community Associations Institute, which advises homeowners associations. Without it, he said, ``there is no enforcement mechanism to collect its necessary funds.''

The Radcliffs received a bill last year for $120, which covers annual costs of keeping up a country subdivision in the foothills of Calaveras County.

But they didn't pay it quickly, claiming sickness and distraction, then saying they didn't see most of the late notices and warnings of increasing danger. Deadlines passed and the bill swelled with fees from the collection agency, eventually reaching $1,952. The Radcliffs also owe the Internal Revenue Service more than $5,000 in back taxes.

``They both got sick. They just weren't paying attention. They needed someone to come and tell them this was going on,'' said son Tom Radcliff. ``Even though my parents may have been in the wrong, or didn't know, this is legalized burglary.''

Yvette Villeneuve-Ezell, president of the Copper Cove at Lake Tulloch Owners Association steered inquiries to Michael Woodbury, the association's Sacramento attorney who said it followed all laws.

``The record shows the owners received all the notices they were required to receive by law. The law was complied with,'' said Woodbury, who advises hundreds of California's 36,000 homeowner associations.

Legal or not it's ``morally wrong,'' and ``should never happen again,'' said state Sen. Rico Oller, a Republican from nearby San Andreas.

``There's no way that association, in its entire existence, could do enough good to compensate for what they've done to this man.''

Evan McKenzie, a University of Illinois political science professor and author of the 1994 book on homeowners associations, ``Privatopia,'' said, ``Foreclosure is the last resort for banks, for municipalities, a last resort for everybody except these foreclosure lawyers. If judges don't step in, if legislatures don't step in, this is really going to hurt the market for these common interest developments.''

While an attorney for the Radcliffs staves off eviction and prepares a lawsuit alleging improper procedures, Oller is introducing a bill to ban homeowners associations from selling members' homes unless an owner owes them more than $50,000.

But Oller will push against a powerful agglomeration of interests sure to fight his proposal. As high-profile foreclosures have mounted, legislatures in Florida, Texas, California, Arizona and Nevada have held hearings on the idea. But all have bowed to lobbyists' objections that new laws would inhibit associations from acting, and ultimately, harm other homeowners, who would have to pick up the slack.

Currently, no state bans foreclosures inside homeowners associations, reported the National Conference of State Legislatures, although Florida, Illinois and other states require a judge's review before a house is auctioned.

The Radcliff home now belongs to Robert Vardanega, an Alameda businessman who has bought dozens of foreclosed properties in Northern California and Nevada. In December, he bid $70,000 for the three-acre property appraised at $285,000.

In other high-profile foreclosures, homeowners have won back their homes after hiring lawyers and winning public sympathy. Sonora attorney Michael Macomber said he's hopeful the Radcliffs will, too.

Macomber said Anita Radcliff walked a $156 check to the association office last June, within the required 30-day notice of delinquency. But he said the association mailed it to the collection agency, Coast Assessment of Garden Grove, which returned it, saying the amount fell short of new late fees. "The payment made was $1.50 less than the invoice presented,'' Macomber said.

At Coast Assessment, senior vice president Don Morger defended his actions, which included telling the homeowners association not to have contact with the Radcliffs after it turned the bill over to his firm.

He cited at least 10 notices by mail, in newspaper legal advertisements and property postings before auctioneers moved in.

``I don't know what else we could do, but hit him in the eyes with an ax and wake him up," Morger said. ``We're not dirty rotten foreclosure people. We try to work with everybody, but there comes a time when the association has to follow through with the rules and regulations.''

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