WASHINGTON — When Brenda Batts purchased her condominium near Washington's U Street corridor in 2006, she was planning to retire at age 65. Now 62, Batts, an office manager, fears she may not meet that goal, thanks to a nagging worry from when she bought the unit, which assesses a monthly fee for common charges on top of her mortgage and property taxes.
"As I was filling out the papers, an annoying thought was, 'Oh my gracious, one day your condo fees may be higher than your mortgage,' " said Batts, who qualified for affordable housing, allowing her to pay about half the market rate, which was then $428,000, for her one-bedroom unit.
That day is approaching faster than she expected. Her monthly fee, $166 when she moved in, has more than doubled to $371, and a special assessment for building expenses a couple of years ago cost her an additional $583. Now, with no telling how much more the fees will rise, she wonders whether she can afford to retire on schedule.
Fees associated with condos, co-ops and homeowners associations range widely, from $50 per year to thousands of dollars per month, and they often rise with inflation. But sometimes they rise more quickly, and for owners with tight budgets, the hikes can be overwhelming.
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In the past four decades, the number of condominiums, co-op units and houses that are part of homeowners associations has skyrocketed across the nation, from 701,000 in 1970 to 25.9 million in 2012, according to the Foundation for Community Association Research.
The foundation does not categorize ownership by age, but an analysis by AARP's Public Policy Institute in 2003 found that 46 percent of owners in single-family homeowners associations were older than 50, as were 56 percent of condo and co-op owners.
For homeowners who are retirees or who plan to retire soon, fee hikes can be particularly onerous, said Rodney Harrell, a senior adviser at the institute.
Adding to the burden, the number of homeowners 50 and older who own their homes free and clear fell between 2000 and 2009, according to an institute report. And in the lowest income group of people 65 and older without mortgages, 58 percent of them were spending at least a third of their income on housing.
That can create a razor-thin margin for survival when a common charge goes up, either in the form of a monthly increase or a one-time special assessment.
"These fees really pile on to these other things that are going on for folks, and because the vast majority of people want to stay in their homes as long as they can, this really becomes the straw that breaks the camel's back," Harrell said. "They can put someone into debt and, in the worst-case scenario, lead to foreclosure."
For people such as Batts who qualify for affordable housing, the fees can potentially create a Catch-22 situation. She bought her condo in the 103-unit building for below market rate; there is a cap on how much she can sell it for, and she must sell it to a buyer at a similar income level. But as the condo fees rise, they may not be affordable for others at her income level.
Moreover, Batts, like most older Americans, would prefer to stay in her home.
"I love where I live — it's accessible to everything, and I have arthritis in my knees, so I don't know what I'll do if the fees in the next 10 years are too much," she said. "On the one hand, they level the playing field by having these (affordable) units, but on the other hand, if you can't afford the condo fees and I have to move, then the program is not working."
Condo owners who qualify for lower-priced affordable-housing units in mixed-rate developments generally pay the same level of fees as market-rate owners, said Sarah Scruggs, director of advocacy and outreach at Manna, a nonprofit housing corporation in the District of Columbia.
"In D.C., this has been a huge issue," Scruggs said. "There's nothing in the laws that says fees for an affordable resident have to be capped," she said. "So they're at the whim of the condo association."
Tom Skiba, chief executive of the Community Associations Institute, said the issue of common charges rising too fast for owners "applies to a relatively small percentage of people living in associations, but for those to whom it applies, it's a serious issue."
Boards often provide multiple ways for people to pay for special assessments, including letting them pay over time, and low monthly fees can sometimes come back to haunt owners, he said.
"So many boards are under a tremendous amount of pressure" to keep fees low, with some remaining the same for five or 10 years. "That invariably means they're not putting enough money away in a reserve account to provide for unforeseen situations," like a boiler or roof needing replacing. "They're shooting themselves in the foot."
The challenge, he said, is to find a way for people who are struggling financially to remain in their homes without making their neighbors pick up the slack for building maintenance, snow plowing and other services.
Jack Calman, 66, who owns a unit in a large Silver Spring, Md. condominium development, said he has heard a lot of complaints from his neighbors about fees, especially after a special assessment for upgrades, which raised rates by 10 percent for a period of about five years.
"They mostly complain because they don't come to meetings and they don't know what the expenses are," he said, noting that the development needed funds for things like a generator, roof leaks and concrete repairs.
Although he is retired, Calman said he expects to be able to meet his condo costs. "I've had a good career, I saved up, and I'm trying to live under Social Security and hope it's enough."
As for Batts, if the fees rise too much, she said she may sell the unit to her granddaughter and move to a senior citizens home.
"I would love to shelter in place, but I just don't know what the future's going to hold," she said. "I guess it's my hope that, God willing, the creek don't rise, as my great-grandmother used to say."