Condo Siege

From peaceful American dreaming comes a rude awakening

Imagine owning waterfront property in downtown Fort Lauderdale. Imagine it's worth four times what it cost five years ago. Most of us would kill for that rate of return.

For several condominium residents, it's killing them.

"I may make a lot of money," Lou Cioffi admits, "but I'll be worse off in any scenario. How can I replace this lifestyle?"

The lifestyle 43-year-old Cioffi has become accustomed to is concentrated in a tidy rectangle of living space 30 feet above ground level. It's delineated by the four walls of his 700-square-foot unit, which he bought for $37,000 in 1999. Home to his mountain bike, ocean kayaks, bed, stereo, couch, and little else, the dorm-room minimalism of his living space is a handy metaphor for his frugality.

Unlike the vast majority of homeowners in the area, Cioffi owns his place free and clear. By making quadruple monthly payments, he paid off the note in under five years. He carries no insurance and enjoys a yearly tax burden of just $431. "I'm in a fantastic position," he says, despite working as a hotel concierge and pulling in less than $30,000 annually.

But the land underneath his building, just shy of one acre, is more valuable than a gold mine -- worth as much as $8 million, based on comparable sales. Across the river from the Hyde Park Market and the Stranahan House, the parcel is among the most coveted among a downtown caught in the throes of a buy/sell frenzy. Developers have salivated over the spot for years, eager to put the 50-year-old structure out of its misery and erect a new, gleaming tower to join the pack that now populates both banks of the urban waterway, where individual high-rise residences sell for $500,000 or more.

That would put Cioffi and a few of his neighbors on the street -- or at least, not on such a nice street, they allege. "It's irreplaceable," Cioffi says, looking around his modest digs. "We would be banished." Following an attack of ulcerative colitis two years ago, he says the threat of losing his home literally sickens him.

The Edgewater House is a squat older building on the New River, its 30 apartments surrounded by towering new residential skyscrapers and the desirable Rio Vista neighborhood. After Cioffi bought his unit, he discovered the building lay in a developer's sights. Offers to purchase the entire property regularly came up during condo meetings. The value of each unit steadily increased until two years ago, when the majority of the owners wanted to take the money and run. Cioffi says he has been pressured and "hounded" by his neighbors to do the same. But he and others continue to hold out.

"They've tried to pull the building out from underneath us!" booms 62-year-old Ted Levy, who bought his third-floor dwelling 22 years ago and who has also paid off his mortgage. The holdouts now include Levy, Cioffi, Gerald Leger, and Patricia Achille.

Florida condo law requires that 100 percent of a building's owners must agree to the sale. With the selloff foiled, the no-sell minority contends, the majority continues to hold a grudge. Meanwhile, maintenance has been neglected, they say, and the real estate agent who brokered the last buyout offer -- Marianne Winfield of Brickell Bay Realty Group -- has sought more creative ways of getting the property.

Earlier this year, Winfield approached occupants of Edgewater House with a new proposal. Representing developer Steve Perrone, she produced contracts that, she wrote in an attached letter, "are not contingent on 100% participation." Winfield's letter warned that "the intention of the purchaser is to acquire 75% of the owners... by April 15, 2005." The idea is apparently for the developer to establish a dominant beachhead in the building, residents say. Winfield did not respond to repeated telephone calls from New Timesseeking comment.

"They're trying to come in the back door now," Levy huffs.

"Essentially, it's a hostile takeover," Cioffi charges. "They're trying to circumvent the law and push the rest of us out."

At the same time, the holdouts charge, their condo board, which has cooperated with would-be developers of the property, is dominated by absentee owners. Property documents show that some Edgewater House owners live as far away as Ecuador and Great Britain and that several board members don't reside in the building. The holdouts have turned to the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation for help. Harold Hyman of the department's local compliance office confirms it is investigating any possible wrongdoing.

Of course, individual owners are free to sell their holdings (Perrone is now offering an average of $160,000 a unit). But the holdouts worry about what might happen if sold units stay vacant and the building falls further into disrepair.

"What are you gonna do, bolt me in?" Cioffi says he asked Winfield. "Pour concrete down the pipes?"

A Fort Lauderdale attorney who recently performed legal work for Edgewater House doubts it will come to that -- though their concerns are legitimate, he says. "There's certain limits," points out Charles Shelby Dale Jr. "I mean, you can't go and shoot 'em. They'll wait the people out -- or drive 'em out, I assume."

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