When Condo Wars Heat Up, Common Sense Can Evaporate

By Elizabeth Razzi
Sunday, June 22, 2008

Let me tell you a story about a game of hardball played over a hot, summery weekend. It happened not at Nationals Park but in a well-kept condominium complex in Reston just a few weeks ago.

The Shadowood condominium complex, which was built in the 1970s, consists of 450 apartments spread among 21 three-story buildings on nearly 24 wooded and landscaped acres.

It's reasonably priced housing just a few miles from Reston Town Center. The condos are on the market for about $120,000 to nearly $200,000, and rentals go for about $1,200 to $1,400 per month. The beige buildings are tidy; shrubbery is meticulously groomed. The parking lots are in good repair. The condo's board of directors runs a tight ship.

To keep things running well, physically and fiscally, any condo board must rely on two things: rules and fees. At Shadowood, the condo association employs both with vigor, and it won't hesitate to turn up the heat on owners who owe money, even if that debt is in dispute.

Shadowood condo owner Mihai Alexei, 46, and his family of four had their air conditioning shut off about 5 p.m. Friday, June 6, just as weather forecasters were predicting an unusual late-spring heat wave. Starting Saturday, nearby Dulles International Airport recorded four consecutive days with high temperatures of 94 or 95 degrees.

Any requests to turn the air conditioning back on would have to wait until the management office's regular business hours, starting Monday morning.

Air conditioning is among the amenities the association calls privileges, along with cable TV and parking, that Shadowood's board can withhold if an owner is not "in good standing." That could be because someone is behind on monthly dues or special assessments, or has not paid fines levied for violating various rules.

Alexei is convinced that the association timed his outage to coincide with the forecast heat wave. His air conditioning had been turned on, along with everyone else's, in April.

He and the board haven't been getting along for a while. They've argued about elections and other matters, and Alexei thinks it's personal. He said condo board President Brian Olivia "wanted the best moment to hit me."

Olivia, a condo investor, defends the policy. He said owners are sent a certified letter and summoned to a hearing before a turnoff. They have an opportunity to be represented by legal counsel, he said. "We have to be as aggressive as we can in protecting our interests," he said.

Alexei, a paralegal who emigrated from Moldova, said he always submits his monthly dues on time. But he and the condo board have been arguing for almost a year about who should pay for nearly $1,000 in damage to an apartment downstairs from Alexei's that resulted from a water leak somewhere in or around Alexei's apartment.

Where, exactly, was the pipe that leaked? Was it part of Alexei's unit and therefore his responsibility? Or was it part of the commonly owned area of the building and the condo association's responsibility? Who has to pay for damages to pipes, walls or the neighbors' property? Should it come from the $300,000 liability insurance coverage the association requires each unit owner to buy? These are classic condominium disputes, and I'm in no position to settle them. The matter is scheduled to go before the Fairfax County General District Court next month.

But I will weigh in on the tactic of using air conditioning as a weapon, especially knowing a heat wave is on the way. It's a brutal thing to do. People can die in heat waves. And if a building was designed with a central air conditioning system in place, as Shadowood was back in the 1970s, it's unlikely to have windows big enough or positioned in a way to catch as much of whatever breeze might be blowing.

Other entities take the weather into account. Before it will turn off electricity for nonpayment of a bill, Dominion Virginia Power takes the weather forecast into consideration, said Le-Ha Anderson, a spokeswoman for the utility.

Fairfax County administers a cooling-assistance program for low-income households that have at least one person in a category considered especially vulnerable to the heat. That includes people younger than 6or older than 60 and people with disabilities. They can get money to buy a window air conditioning unit or help paying their electric bill so that the air stays on. If severe heat is enough to warrant taxpayer funds, why shouldn't it be a concern to a condo board?

When the condo's management office opened on Monday, June 9, Alexei asked managers to turn on the air conditioning in consideration of his 18-year-old daughter, Doina, who is recovering from an auto accident. They agreed to turn it on, requesting a doctor's note for their files.

I asked Olivia whether the board took weather forecasts into account before a shut-off. "We do not make any consideration for the weather," he said. "Why should we? Why would that be fair to people who paid?"

There's a simple reason the association doesn't use the same tactic during the winter. Olivia said the rules allow it to turn off heat, but doing so might cause pipes to freeze and burst. "It's simply not in the best interests of the association," he said.

Condo associations throughout the area are struggling with their budgets because of the housing economy. When an owner is struggling to pay the mortgage, files for bankruptcy or loses an apartment to foreclosure, the condo association loses many months of unpaid dues. The remaining owners have to shoulder a heavier financial burden to keep the place running.

Condo residents can get well-kept landscaping, security lights, reserved parking spaces and other amenities that make their condo a nice place to live only if their community's rules are enforced and the dues are collected.

But there's a difference between enforcing the rules and coercing people to submit.

The lesson from this story is that condo rules directly affect residents' daily routines. And condos develop personalities over time. Some tend to develop an authoritarian personality. Before you invest, you need to assure yourself not only that a condo is fiscally sound but also that its personality is one you can live with.

E-mail Elizabeth Razzi atrazzie@washpost.com.

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