Jackie Schafer is not behind on her mortgage payments, and despite owing more on the loan than her Tampa area condo is worth, she has no desire to move. She wants to stay and pay, but she still may lose everything.
"I thought this was something that I would have, and eventually it would be paid off," said Schafer. "I certainly didn't think someone was going to come and steal it from me."
Schafer is referring to a group of investors who recently bought 80 percent of the condos in her development, Madison Oaks in Palm Harbor, Florida. The investors want to buy out the remaining owners and convert the complex into rental apartments, but they are offering far lower than the owners originally paid—and they may have the legal right to do it.
"They don't care. To them it's business. To us, it's everything," said Schafer, who said she owes more than $90,000 on her mortgage and is being offered just $40,000 by the investors.
Madison Oaks began as rental apartments in the late 1980s, but in 2006, only moments from the start of the housing crash, developers converted the apartments into condominiums. They sold nearly 50 of the 250 units, but then home prices began to crater nationally, most dramatically in Florida. The remaining units never sold, but were rented out. Last year, the complex was sold to a group of investors calling itself Madison Oaks Partners. They said the condominium "failed," and claim they are within their legal rights to buy out the current owners at "market value" and convert the condos back into rental apartments.
The group declined an interview with CNBC, but sent a statement asserting: "The steps we are taking at Madison Oaks will add value to the property, provide desirable rental homes for the market, and improve the neighborhood, while adding to Pinellas County's tax base."
Florida state law used to require that 100 percent of owners approve termination of a condominium agreement, but an amendment to that law in 2007 dropped that to 80 percent. It did stipulate, however, that if 10 percent of owners disapproved, the termination could not move forward. Madison Oaks owners do have 12 percent opposition, but, according to the condo owners, before a vote could be taken, the investors took over the board and changed the terms of the condominium's own bylaws to allow for the takeover.
The amendment to the Florida condo law was passed, ironically, to protect homeowners from natural disasters, such as hurricanes. At the time, few could foresee the economic disaster that would blow through Florida and the rest of the nation. Tampa home prices fell 48 percent from their peak in 2006 and hit bottom in March of 2011, according to CoreLogic. While prices are now rising, they are still 35 percent below that peak.
Stephanie Krasowski bought her unit in 2007 for $162,900. She put 20 percent down. The investors are now offering her $50,000 for the unit. Krasowski is leading her fellow owners in a lawsuit against the investors, and has also started a group of more than 700 condo owners to raise awareness and try to change the law.
"223 complexes have already been terminated in the last seven years, and only six were due to the original intent of the law, which was economic waste or natural catastrophe," said Krasowski. "That leaves 217 complexes. That's approximately 10,000-plus families losing their homes for the financial gain of a bulk buyer."
Similar stories are emerging across Florida, as investors see the potential of lucrative apartment rents in the near term, as well as the potential of once again selling the units as condos down the road, once home prices recover. About 30,000 apartments were converted to condos during the housing boom, and many are in the same predicament. An amendment has been written in the Florida state legislature to change the terms of condo conversions once again, this time requiring that investors pay owners 110 percent of what they originally paid for the units. The amendment is still in process.
Meanwhile, owners at Madison Oaks learned Tuesday that a judge will hear their case.
Ricky Penna stands to lose more than $100,000 on his condo and could be forced to pay taxes if his mortgage lender considers it a short sale, that is, agreeing to take less than Penna currently owes on his mortgage. He and his wife used to use the condo as a vacation home, but moved into it full time last year for their retirement.
"I will do everything in my power and what I can afford to stop them. They're going to have to evict me," said Penna defiantly.
—By CNBC's Diana Olick. Follow her on Twitter @Diana_Olick.
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