Downtown Orlando condo war rages over fees, rentals – Orlando Sentinel


A battle between residents of a high-end condominium in downtown Orlando and the building’s governing board has spilled onto the internet and into the courts.

Residents of The Jackson in Thornton Park allege that two brothers elected to the board of the condo association four years ago delayed subsequent elections and abused their power to turn the building into their own income generator, using units as Airbnb rooms in violation of city codes and raising fees.

One of the brothers, Nabeel Ansari, says in a letter reportedly sent to residents and in a defamation lawsuit against one resident that all of their actions have been in the interest of increasing property values and improving the building.

The Ansaris did not respond to requests to be interviewed.

Andrew Aponte, a web developer from Miami who moved into The Jackson in 2021, created a website called jacksonorlando.com to detail what he sees as the struggle of residents. According to Aponte, after being elected in 2019, brothers Nabeel and Faisal Ansari used the COVID-19 pandemic to postpone elections in 2020 and 2021, during which time they gained a controlling share of the 51 building units to give themselves a permanent voting majority.

“Nobody can stop them now,” Aponte, 35, said. “We’re slowly being squeezed out.”

How many units the Ansaris own is not a public record, as many are registered to corporations. The Ansaris are listed as owners on six, according to records from the Orange County Property Appraiser, and none of them have a homestead tax exemption, implying these aren’t units they live in.

Only nine of the building’s units are listed as owner-occupied.

Aponte said he first became suspicious of the brothers’ motives when they added $133,000 to the building’s budget in October 2021 for a doorman, a move that raised monthly fees for the residents.

The board said the move was for security, but Aponte and other residents say the person is helping the brothers rent rooms as short-term rentals on sites such as Airbnb and VRBO, even though such rentals violate city codes.

Stephen Komives, 55, a former Orlando Sentinel employee who has lived in The Jackson since 2011, says early last year he started noticing people with suitcases in the lobby.

“They’d be checking in and getting instructions from reception and we’d think, ‘Are we paying for this?’” he said. “Turns out we were.”

He and Aponte both say they’ve seen lock boxes – often used for short-term rentals – around the building. They added that the renters leave trash in the hallways and hold loud parties.

“I’ve called the police four or five times in the last year for noise complaints,” Komives said.

“The irony is, they say [the doorman] is for security, but we feel less safe with transient renters staying here for a weekend than with someone staying here for a year,” Aponte said.

Orlando has had an ordinance against rentals under 30 days since 2018. Kory Keith, code enforcement manager for the city, says residents have given him a list of units to investigate. “We’re investigating each one,” he said. “Wherever we find sufficient evidence, we are going to prosecute.”

Owners found to violate the ordinance are taken before the code enforcement board to be given a “time frame” to come into compliance, said Lilian Scott-Payne, the city’s deputy director of economic development.

If owners refuse to comply, they can be hit with a fine of $1,000 per day and have a lien put on their unit. On average, city code enforcement cites about 120 properties per year with violations.

Twenty-one units in the building are in violation of short-term rentals, according to the city. Two units are being brought before code enforcement in February for being repeat offenders, including one owned by a company that has the Ansaris listed as officers.

The city can only investigate complaints against individual units, not owners who may be using multiple units for this purpose, according to Scott-Payne. “We are not doing investigations of the entire building or the HOA or the directors,” she said.

In a letter that both Aponte and Komives say Nabeel Ansari sent to residents, Ansari doesn’t deny using his units for short-term rentals.

“Even though short-term rentals (Under 30 days) are against city ordinances and punishable civilly by fine they also do not violate any laws and are not illegal in the figurative meaning of the word,” the emailed letter reads. “My family is sympathetic to any unit owners wanting to capitalize on the same inefficiencies we see in renting their units to garner the highest rents possible in a legal manner.”

Ansari in the letter says that when he moved into The Jackson in 2014, the building was in disrepair, calling it the “red-headed stepchild” of Thornton Park. He says that he and his brother worked to improve it, and now he rents three units in the building to long-term tenants for between $6,000 and $7,000 in rent per month each.

Ansari goes on to appeal to the owners, saying that under his plan, owners stand to make more money renting out units while demand for downtown rentals is so high.

Aponte says he has nothing against the Ansaris or anyone trying to make money on their units, but that moves by the board is making it impossible to be an owner resident.

Aponte said the board passed a special assessment last February for $1.3 million to replenish the cash reserves for the building. That has increased his monthly fees to $1,800, he said.

Komives says his fees, which were $370 per month when he moved in, are more than $1,100 now.

Andrew Aponte, on Wednesday, January 4, 2023. Aponte is one of several residents of The Jackson condominium in downtown Orlando complaining that the HOA board has been taken over by a profit-seeking family, who have been turning units into Airbnb rentals in violation of city codes. He says fees are forcing out residents and making life in the condo miserable.
(Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/ Orlando Sentinel)

Aponte says the high fees have put a strain on some owners, forcing them to sell. But he also accuses the board of imposing a right of first refusal, which gives the board the ability to review and approve or reject any sale.

In December, the board held elections again, this time under the supervision of a monitor from the office of Spencer Hennings, Florida’s Condominium Ombudsman, a division of the Department of Business & Professional Regulation. The Ansaris voted themselves back in, according to Aponte.

The Ombudsman’s office did not return a request for comment.

Matt Firestone, an attorney with ShuffieldLowman in Orlando with experience in condominium law, says that residents have no legal remedies to remove board members who control a majority of the votes.

Also in December, Nabeel Ansari filed a defamation lawsuit against Aponte because of his website. In the complaint, he takes issue with Aponte’s characterization of his motives and procedures and accuses Aponte of paying people to leave negative reviews about the condo.

In the letter to residents, Ansari says he and his brother have a “grander vision” for The Jackson, one that includes a gym and a pool.

Aponte says he likes the condo he paid $485,000 for, with its view of Constitution Green and proximity to downtown. However, he says if fees keep going up for new amenities, he isn’t sure he’ll be able to stay.

“They say they’re going to raise the properties values, but they don’t say how people are going to survive long enough to see that increase,” Aponte said.

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