On the cold nights when she has to sleep in the front seat of her Datsun 280Z, Alyce Vrba often thinks about the dues she's paid, and the dues she hasn't, and the luxury condominium that brought her to such a state.
She was evicted for failing to pay $1,900 in monthly maintenance fees.
The 42-year-old businesswoman lived for 10 years at Ridgegate, a guarded complex of 350 units, four pools and two tennis courts that sprawls across 35 acres in Rancho Palos Verdes near the summit of the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
From the time she arrived in 1978, Vrba said, she used her training as an interior designer to make over her home: A walk-in closet became an Art Deco bar. An entire bedroom wall was painted with a Rousseau jungle scene. Five Burmese cats added warmth.
"It was my own little fortress, in a way," Vrba said. "There was a feeling of security."
That was before Vrba stopped paying her maintenance dues to the Ridgegate Homeowners Assn. Vrba said that in 1987, she began withholding fees of about $165 a month because, she said, the maintenance firm hired by the association wasn't caring for common areas near her unit.
A year and a half later, she has been evicted. Her home, which is worth about $300,000, has been sold by the Ridgegate Homeowners Assn. to pay $1,900 in maintenance fees that the association said she owed.
Vrba's lawyer, Francis Pizzulli, said foreclosure was an extreme remedy for a $1,900 bill. "It's amazing," Pizzulli said. "You hear these stories about homeless people, and you think it's drugs or alcohol. But something like this is kind of shocking."
Vrba, who said she has been living with friends and sometimes in her car, has filed two lawsuits seeking to recover her property. Both are pending in Los Angeles Superior Court, although several preliminary rulings have gone against Vrba. Last week, Superior Court Judge David Yaffe removed legal attachments that had prevented the buyer of her condominium from selling it.
Vrba's complaints center on what she said was the homeowner association's failure to warn her that she could lose her home. A day before her condo was sold, Vrba's lawsuits claim, she was assured that the sale would be postponed to let her pay the overdue balance. If she had been properly warned, Vrba said, she never would have let her maintenance fees lapse.
But a lawyer for the new owner of the unit said all residents at Ridgegate, and most other condominiums in California, should realize that they lose their homes if they do not pay their dues. Vrba received several notices that she had to pay, according to affidavits signed by the new owners of her unit. Condominium associations have few other options to get members to comply with the rules, said Jerry Rappaport, a lawyer for the buyers of the condominium.
Vrba said she and her husband discovered Ridgegate in 1978. He was a transportation planner, and she was an interior designer. The couple had lived in Los Feliz and moved to Ridgegate with the expectation of eventually owning a house on the peninsula.
Then she suffered two serious car accidents, Vrba said, which put a strain on the marriage. It ended in divorce in 1983. Vrba said she received the condominium in a settlement with her husband.
"The house was very important to me," she said recently. "It was the only thing that remained stable through all that."
She said she gave up her work as a designer and began her own business consulting firm, advising other companies how to reorganize. Despite having a master's degree in business administration from USC, Vrba said, she sometimes found it hard to find enough clients.
Still, she said, she paid her bills until a dispute with the Ridgegate Homeowners Assn. over maintenance around her unit. Vrba said gardening went unfinished, a door was not varnished and the roof leaked. By July, 1987, Vrba said, she was fed up and began withholding her fees, which are used by the condominium association to keep up common areas.
A spokeswoman for Bali Management declined to comment on the maintenance question or the foreclosure, and the company's lawyer, who also represents the association, did not return repeated phone calls.
To collect overdue fees, Bali Management Inc. of Torrance, the property manager, placed a lien on Vrba's condominium.
All owners at Ridgegate, and many other condominium complexes, sign contracts that permit foreclosure on their property if they fail to pay dues. State law permits that these foreclosures, unlike most, may be conducted outside the supervision of a court. In such nonjudicial foreclosures, owners do not have one important right that they have in other foreclosures: the right to pay the sales price themselves to buy back their properties.