Nobody wants to foreclose on a home—not a mortgage banker and certainly not a community association. Countless Americans lose their homes when lending institutions are unable to collect mortgage payments. In a perfect world, no one would ever face foreclosure—for any reason.
That’s why foreclosure should always be used as a last resort, applied only when a community association has exhausted all other collection options and only when a homeowner refuses to remedy a significant debt to the association.
CAI does not support people losing their homes to foreclosure for insignificant sums of money. Even when the debt is significant, foreclosure should be considered only after other approaches have failed. In all cases, homeowners facing foreclosure deserve reasonable opportunity to appeal the issue to the leadership of the association.
There is no universal threshold that should trigger a foreclosure. The decision should be based on many factors, including the amount of the debt, the financial health of the association, the reason for the debt, and the homeowner’s willingness and ability to bring the account up to date. The magnitude of this decision requires an approach that is fair, reasonable, and consistent with practices and procedures established by the association’s governing documents.
While there are isolated instances of inappropriate foreclosure, this action is viewed as a last and unavoidable step by the overwhelming majority of community associations. Knowing that people occasionally face financial hardship—a lost job, for instance—many community associations do work with homeowners to develop deferred or special payment plans.
Elected by their neighbors, volunteer community leaders are responsible for ensuring financial stability and the continued delivery of services to residents in the community. An association’s budgetary obligations do not change when assessments aren’t paid. Common areas must still be maintained. Garbage must be collected. Insurance coverage must continue. The pool remains open in the summer. Snow is plowed in the winter.
Homeowners who simply refuse to pay their assessments—as they contractually agreed to do when they purchased their homes in an association—are cheating their neighbors, their community, and themselves. When homeowners are delinquent on their assessments, either their neighbors must make up the difference or services and amenities must be curtailed. That affects everyone in the community, perhaps even leading to a decline in property values.
Used as a last resort, the lien and foreclosure process gives community associations a mechanism to ensure the resources necessary to provide services, protect property values, and meet the expectations of the community as a whole. Placing a lien on property, with the ability to foreclose, is typically enough impetus to get delinquent residents to meet their financial obligations to the community.
Courts across the nation are split on whether post-petition community association assessments constitute dischargeable debts under Chapter 13 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. To make matters worse, in November, the Supreme Court denied a petition to review the issue, leaving the community association industry wondering if the existing dispute among the courts will ever have a concise national remedy.
This past July, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which comprise several Western states, had held in Goudelock v. Sixty-01 Ass’n of Apartment Owners, No. 16-35385 (9th Cir. July 10, 2018), that an individual’s pre-petition debt or claim for assessments—created when a property owner takes title to property and which contractually obligates the owner/debtor to pay assessments—is dischargeable when the owner/debtor successfully completes a confirmed Chapter 13 plan. In November, CAI attorneys drafted and submitted an amicus brief in tandem with the (now denied) petition to the U.S. Supreme Court appealing the Ninth Circuit case.
CAI’s amicus brief made it clear to the Supreme Court that the rationale employed by the Ninth Circuit in Goudelock has far-reaching implications for community associations throughout the U.S., as it threatens the lifeblood of community associations—the continued ability to levy and collect assessments and dues for the maintenance and preservation of community property. Due to the Supreme Court denying the association’s petition, the Goudelock decision stands. This decision is already negatively impacting community associations in the Ninth Circuit, as courts have cited the Goudelock decision in their reasoning for denying community associations the ability to collect debts in Chapter 13 bankruptcies.
Yet not all courts across the country agree with this decision. In February, the U.S. District Court in New Jersey handed down a decision that positively impacts the amount of money a condominium association with a properly recorded lien is entitled to receive when a unit owner files for Chapter 13 bankruptcy.
In an appeal filed by the Oaks at North Brunswick Condominium Association, the New Jersey court reinforced that a condominium association lien that is recorded in accordance with the New Jersey Condominium Act is given elevated priority over other claims and that said lien is partially secured and no amount of the lien can be stripped because of the Anti-Modification Clause. This means that condominium associations should receive the full amount of their lien claim when a unit owner files a Chapter 13 bankruptcy.
For now, these conflicting rulings leave our community association attorneys confused and frustrated. Outcomes such as the Oaks at North Brunswick case provide hope for dischargeable debts in our industry. However, Goudelock provides that pre-petition condominium assessments are dischargeable in Chapter 13 proceedings but leaves some critical questions unanswered. This being the first circuit court case on the issue, chances are the other circuits may weigh in. At the end of the day, attorneys need to be aware of Goudelock and its possible application to every Chapter 13 case where the debtor owes community association assessments.
This post also is running on CAI’s Advocacy blog, where you can read about the latest court cases, state and federal advocacy efforts, public policies, and more.
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