Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Help Me Howard: Balcony Battle
Money is short for a lot of people and a lot of cities and counties right now, but is one South Florida county trying to raise money by digging up violations that occurred 30 or 40 years ago? That's what some homeowners think, and it's why they called Help Me Howard with Patrick Fraser.
WSVN -- Meet Priscilla, Freda and Donna, three hard-working women who all own their own condos at the Sovereigns.
Priscilla Roura: "Very quiet, very well-maintained, for the most part."
But in December, their lovely condos turned into nasty nightmares when they got a letter from Miami-Dade County.
Priscilla Roura: "Of course I was surprised. I was actually mad, and I kind of felt like, what's going on?"
The building department notified 146 condo owners that their balconies were enclosed without a permit.
Freda Pereira: "The first thing I thought of when I got the letter was, why after all these years?"
Residents think the work was done in the 70s and 80s, way before they bought here.
Freda Pereira: "When we purchased it, that's how we thought it came, with balcony windows enclosed."
The county said the current owners have until Feb. 23 to pull windows like these out or pull permits and bring them up to current code, or the owners had a third option, do nothing, then the county will start fining them and place a lien on the homes they worked so hard to own.
Priscilla Roura: "A lot of people can't afford to pay their mortgage, in this case, mortgage and association. How can they expect people to come up with a couple thousand dollars?"
Some of the residents who are struggling to pay their maintenance and mortgage suspect this is being done by a county struggling to pay its bills as well.
Freda Pereira: "I said, they probably needed some money, so let's go after these condo owners."
Some people probably agree, but it's not true, says the head of the department that is forcing the residents to make the changes.
Charles Danger, Miami-Dade County Building Department Director. "The only time we collect any money is when we have to issue a fine, and in this case, we've issued notice of violations. The county has not collected one penny."
Danger says one of his inspectors did generate the complaint but not to make money, to protect the residents safety, that in case of a fire, they could not get out through the balcony.
Charles Danger: "Look at it another way, there is a fire in that building and people die. Then you are going to be sitting here asking me the question, why did we allow these people to enclose their balconies, and why did we let these people die?"
Danger's staff is just following the code, but residents say, why today, in such tough times, for violations that were missed 30 or 40 years ago?
Priscilla Roura: "Maybe we can be grandfathered in, maybe get some leniency on the fees and the permit."
Yes, the county can force the residents to do it or fine them if they don't, but can they also find a way to give the taxpayers a break, Howard?
Howard Finkelstein: "The county can't waive the violations because it could endanger people and create a liability issue, but the county can give the cash-strapped residents a break by extending the time to bring the balconies up to code."
Some owners told us they can't afford the repairs, and the county can start fining them, while others will scramble to find money they just don't have.
Priscilla Roura: "The minimum has been close to $2,000 and as much as $4,000-- put it on credit cards and ask family for help."
We called the county commissioner who represents the people in the Sovereigns to see what the county could do for these people.
Javier Souto didn't return our calls. His chief of staff says they asked the building department to work with the residents.
So how do you avoid this happening to you? Before you buy a property, check with the city or county to compare the work that has been done versus the permits pulled for that work. If you already own a home, you can also check to alert you to any potential headaches, if you ever decide to sell.
Got a problem you have permitted to last forever? Need someone to lean on? Contact us. Our code is simple. It's the law, and that's fine with us.
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