The moderate-income owners at the Lynnhill condominiums in Temple Hills recently got the latest in along string of crushing news -- their condominium fees are rising by more than their mortgage payments and completely out of reach for many residents there.
About half of the owners last year already were delinquent on their payments at the 219-unit high-rise project, and dozens of owners there now face foreclosure, the condominium's board reported.
The buildings are deteriorating, crime is rising, and there is no money to take care of the many needs there, all involved say. Owners, lenders and the management company are working together to come up with solutions, but the community itself is sharply divided on what it should--and can--do.
Lynnhill is a condominium gone wrong, a fulfillment of the direst warnings of skeptics of condo ownership a decade ago. It provides a worst-case study of just what can happen when such a building is not planned and managed properly and of the consequences that homeowners then face.
The problems did not develop all at once. In fact, some say they could have been predicted years ago, when the two buildings were converted in 1974. There is plenty of blame to go around, as condo association president Mitchell Campbell states succinctly:
"First the developer purposely holds down the condo fees" below what's needed to maintain the building, Campbell said. "When it's time to go, he scoots. Then you get these people owners who don't know their hiney from a hole in the ground about operating a mini-city, and then you hire a management company that hasn't really got your best interests at heart."
Many owners and outside experts say the seeds of failure were sown at the beginning of Lynnhill's conversion by the developer--SRL Properties--because it did not put aside enough reserves to take care of future needs and purposely "low-balled" initial condo fees. Low-balling means that, to sell a project faster, a developer sets condo fees below what is necessary to maintain the condominium regularly, knowing that the fees will have to jump soon after the developer leaves the project.
SRL Properties could not be reached for comment. Its address on the condominium documents was "General Aviation, Washington, D.C." It is chartered as a Maryland corporation, but its registered representative in Germantown, Albert L. Ledgard Jr., said the company is being dissolved. He said the developer had been contacted about a reporter's questions; no one from the company responded.
Some also say the lenders on the project were lax in qualifying people for mortgages when they would not be able to handle the payments, particularly if condo fees were taken into account. Owners who can't handle the payments end up as weak links in the association, and their unpaid fees mean more of a burden on the other owners.
"Anyone who was warm and breathing was qualified for a loan," said one condominium specialist familiar with Lynnhill's conversion. Many of these buyers stretched themselves financially as far as they could go to buy. When they discovered there were no reserves to cover basic preventative maintenance on the buildings, the owners still voted not to raise condo fees, preferring the "shove-it-under-the-rug technique," he said.
The project now faces critical problems: leaking roofs, a faulty electrical system and damage caused by four fires last year and by vandalism. The security phone outside the building has been torn off, the swimming pool hasn't been usable in two years, and there is no full-time person from the management company there to oversee day-to-day operations.
With all the delinquencies and structural defects, the secondary mortgage markets won't accept mortgages from Lynnhill, and people can't sell their apartments.
The result has been a classic condo Catch-22: The more the fees are raised to deal with the major problems, the more people have defaulted on their payments and made the financial situation even worse.
With the latest round of increases, the 1982 condo fees range from $145 for the smallest efficiency to $397 for a three-bedroom apartment, among the highest rates in the Washington area. That is higher than the mortgage payments the Lynnhill owners also have to pay, which seemed like such a bargain when they were buying in the mid- and late 1970s.
A group of Lynnhill owners is sitting in the living room of Lois Collins, one of the five members of the condo board of directors, discussing where it all went wrong and the dilemma they face.
These owners support a recent crackdown on delinquencies that the lenders have instituted at the direction of the condominium board of directors, saying this is what should have been done long ago to get the deadwood out.
But they object to the way the foreclosures are being carried out and to a loan program the lenders have proposed to the association under which individuals could take out a second trust on their homes to pay this year's condo fee increase over a period of seven years.
The loan program has caused a split in the community between those, such as condo association president Campbell, who argue that the idea is a good one to tide the association over until the worst of the problems can be corrected, and those in Collins' living room, who say it will get them deeper into trouble.
"The management company and the S&Ls don't intend for this to succeed," said condo owner Gregory Powell. If owners use the loan program for this year's increase, "they will be right back where they started from next year, and the S&Ls will have a field day" foreclosing on those who can't pay next year, he said.
Powell, regional director for a marketing firm, bought a one-bedroom apartment at Lynnhill four years ago for $17,500. Earlier this year he received notice that his condo fee would be rising by almost $100 a month to $234. This came as a shock to Powell, who thought he had a bargain with a low-interest loan and a mortgage payment of $156 a month.
JoElaine Anderson, a marketing specialist for the Postal Service and a meticulous record-keeper, has lived at Lynnhill since the conversion in 1974. In January she received a foreclosure notice from Perpetual American Savings and Loan Association for nonpayment of a $30 late fee, which she says she never owed. Anderson's condo fee has increased from $90 when she first moved in 1974 to the $330 for 1982, but she said she has continued to pay what she owes.
After a long exchange of letters with Perpetual American, the S&L dropped the foreclosure proceedings and the late charges, but the incident left Anderson and some of her neighbors with the impression that the long-awaited delinquency crack-down will be just another empty hope in their crushed dream of homeownership.
Asked if she would buy a condo again, Anderson replies emphatically, "Absolutely not."
The various players in the development now point the finger at each other for today's crisis.
The lenders and the hired management companies blame the owners for not doing something about delinquencies sooner and say they have done their part to advise the owners and help them out of their dilemma.
The owners believe they should have gotten better advice and help from their professional management companies, who, they say, have been inefficient and unresponsive. But there have been three since the conversion eight years ago, and spokesmen for the firms say their hands were tied without decisions and directions from the condo board to raise fees or start foreclosing or both.
Lynnhill condo president Campbell believes the owners can turn the situation around in a year. Already defaults have declined from about 50 percent at the beginning of the year to about 20 percent now because of the crackdown, he said.
While in disagreement about how best to attack the condo's financial problems, the owners do seem to agree on one thing: They can complain about developers, lenders and management companies, but in the end "they" is "we" in a condominium.
"When the developer let go . . . we really didn't know what we were doing," said Campbell. "I don't want to say we weren't smart enough to run our own business, but you can't really blame the management company, and you can't blame the lenders. You have to blame us."