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Undercurrents: The Living is Easy, but It’s Not Free

A regular Source feature, Undercurrents explores issues, ideas and events as they develop beneath the surface in the Virgin Islands community.

This is the last in a three-part series about condominiums in the Virgin Islands.

When Melodee Harms bought her two-bedroom condominium at Mountain Top back in 1981 she had been living on St. Thomas for 10 years, working as a public school teacher. She said her decision was largely economic.

 “That was all I could afford,” she said. “Houses were so much more expensive.”

Particularly in areas where land is scarce – like St. Thomas – condos tend to be significantly less expensive than single-family homes.

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Another major selling point for Harms was security. “I thought it would be safer,” she said.

Her neighbor, Valberg Reovan, shares that opinion.

“I like the security of having somebody close to me,” she said. And “if the power goes out, we still have outside lights” courtesy of the emergency generator that runs common area services like water, the sewage treatment plant, and outdoor lighting.

A retired government employee, Reovan grew up on St. Thomas and has lived on the island for all but about 10 years of her life. She bought her condo about a year after Hurricane Marilyn ravaged the island in 1995.

The safety factor is also big with Jan Beuker, a Regatta Point owner, and a long-time St. Thomas resident.

“You can close your door and you can go for a month, and you don’t have to worry,” he said. He also likes the convenience of the life style. “Everything is taken care of. You don’t have to think.” And, he said, “I like the people.”

The sense of community appeals to all three owners.

“It’s a nice comfortable kind of thing,” Harms said.

You can borrow an egg or the proverbial cup of sugar from a neighbor. You can get – or give – a ride to the airport. If you have a flat, there’s probably someone close by who can change a tire.

“I liked here when I move in,” Reovan said. “It was more neighborly … I like neighborly.”

These days, however, she and Harms are a little less taken with condo life. They are concerned by rising costs in ongoing expenses. They say the monthly common charges continue to increase and there have been assessments for major expenditures over the years.

Harms noted that sharing expenses – like overhauling a sewage treatment plant – can be an advantage, but complained that individual owners have limited control over decisions.

Condominium associations are run by boards comprised of owners. Typically, the board is elected annually by the membership and acts on its behalf. Some boards are highly accessible, others less so. (Harms and Reovan have both served on their board in the past; Beuker is currently serving on his and has served many times in the past.)

“You really need to be community-minded” when you live in a condominium complex, Harms said. You have to think of the neighbors when it comes to everyday things like parking spaces and noise levels, as well as major policy issues and expenditures that affect the common areas that are shared by all owners.

Legal Concerns

“I think there’s some people who don’t quite understand the concept of common areas,” said Carol Rich, a St. Thomas attorney who handles a lot of cases involving condominiums.

Some people buy a condo without fully understanding that they have taken on a responsibility to be part of a mini democracy and abide by majority decisions. Some think of their monthly dues as similar to rent payments, rather than their share of common expenses.

The obligation to pay dues, or “common charges” is separate from any other consideration, Rich said.

You can’t stop paying because you don’t like the board’s decision to hire new landscapers, for instance, or because a washer in the laundry room isn’t working or you disagree with the decision to engage a lawyer for some matter. The responsibility doesn’t go away because you lost your job either, or because you suddenly have a child in college, or alimony payments to make.

Many people do stop paying, however, and end up on the opposite side of a court case from the condo association.

Foreclosure actions are “definitely the most common reason” condo associations go to court, said George Ethridge, another V.I. attorney who handles a lot of condo cases.

Also common in the territory, Rich said, are disputes over major repairs and the distribution of insurance payments on disaster claims. And sometimes an association builds up legal fees over what are essentially personality issues.

Foreclosure actions can be protracted and often the association does not get fully reimbursed.

If a person stops paying his condo fees “it’s almost always the case” that he has stopped paying the mortgage too, Rich said.

“Generally speaking, the bank and the condo association are on the same side,” she said. But the bank, as the primary lender, has priority and it is the bank that directs the foreclosure action.

In the very recent past, lenders have complained that the process can take years. But Rich said that should be changing in light of the fact that the Superior Court has just established time standards that include a 270-day deadline for resolving simple foreclosure actions.

What isn’t changing is the order of priority. If there are property taxes owing, the government has first dibs on proceeds from a forced sale. Next is the bank, then the condo association. So if the condo is “under water” – if the owner owes more on it than it can be sold for – then the government and the bank get paid first, and the association gets what’s left over, if there is anything.

In the long run, whatever loss there is on the common charges is shared by the other owners in the association. Since the association is a non-profit, it matches fees to expenses. So if one owner doesn’t pay his share, the others – eventually, indirectly, but very much in reality – take up the slack.

Especially in a small complex, a few delinquent owners can have a large, detrimental effect on the others, Rich said.

“I still believe that there are more pluses than minuses to living in a condominium,” said Rich, who lives in one herself.

“I think it’s a really great system,” Ethridge said. He said he only recently moved from a condo to a house because his family outgrew the condo, and he misses it. Now “I have to spend half my Saturday cleaning the yard and clearing out the gutters” and performing other chores that he used to be spared.

In general, said Harms, “Condominiums are really give and take. They have their pluses and their minuses.”

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