Lauderdale, Fla. - The Florida attorney general is investigating a condo association’s efforts to block one resident from affixing a mezuza to her front doorpost.
At issue is the 5-inch mezuza that Laurie Richter, a 28-year-old lawyer, put up at the end of last year, when she began renting a unit in The Port, a condominium building in this area. About six weeks after Richter moved in, the building’s homeowners’ association informed her that hanging the object violated a building rule; she was told to take down the mezuza or face a $1,000 fine and possible eviction.
In an interview, Richter has said that she was unaware of the rule and did not understand what the problem was, since other residents put up Christmas wreaths.
“I’m not destroying the property with the mezuza,” Richter told the Forward. “My neighbor’s wreath was up until February. I know there are some residents who feel strongly about enforcing rules. But when I moved in there were wreaths, so I never thought a mezuza wouldn’t be allowed.”
Richter told the Forward that she recently contacted the office of Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum about the issue. According to Richter, the attorney general’s office sent the homeowners’ association a letter giving it until March 14 to re-evaluate its actions.
The attorney general’s office confirmed that it had sent a letter to the condo board and that both sides were holding discussions on the issue. The office declined to comment further because the investigation is ongoing.
“Making sure that Floridians’ civil rights are protected is one of Attorney General McCollum’s top priorities, so it is an issue he is looking at very closely,” said Sandi Copes, a spokeswoman for the attorney general.
Richter’s attorney, Randy Berg, has claimed that his client has been “singled out on the basis of religion for disparate treatment,” which, he argues, “violates the Fair Housing Act.”
The building denied that it allowed some religious symbols in the common areas but disallowed others. “The Association enforces its rules in a uniform manner, regardless of the background of the persons involved,” The Port said in a statement.
Richter’s plight has gained national media coverage and attracted the attention of the Anti-Defamation League’s Florida chapter, as well as that of two local lawmakers who are supporting legislation that would guarantee a Florida resident’s right to display a mezuza. The state attorney general’s office also has launched an inquiry into the matter.
Richter told the Forward that in the weeks since the controversy began, she received letters from the condo association accusing her of making defamatory comments about the building to the media, leading to a decrease in property values. In the end, Richter said, the association threatened to sue her.
In order to settle, Richter said she wants a signed letter from the president of the board of directors apologizing for saying to the media that she defamed the building, and a statement saying which items residents are permitted to hang on condo doors. The section of the condominium guidelines cited by the building states: “A residential unit owner or occupant shall not cause anything to be affixed or attached to, hung, displayed or placed on the exterior walls, doors, balconies, railings or windows of the building.”
Richter said that the owner of the unit she is renting could face a fine of $100 a day, up to $1,000. The owner and his lawyer declined to comment.
According to Gary Poliakoff, an attorney whose firm represents 4,500 community associations in Florida, the common areas of a condominium are under the control of the homeowners’ association.
“This type of case comes up all the time,” Poliakoff told the Forward. He said that about 99% of the communities he deals with permit the placement of mezuzot but regulate the size. “Most communities respect the religious rights of residents and allow it.”
A recent poll taken by Ira Sheskin, a University of Miami demographer, found that 79% of the 234,000 Jewish residents in Broward County, where Fort Lauderdale is located, have a mezuza on their front door.
In contrast to Richter’s situation, several real estate developers in South Florida have implemented marketing techniques to lure observant Jews into buying new properties. Last summer, developer Eric Harari launched the Carat Townlofts in Miami Beach, luxury condominiums that feature double kitchens for milk and meat dishes and electrical systems that are Sabbath friendly.
Jews and condominiums have deep roots in Florida. According to Bonim: Jewish Developers Building Florida & Building Community, an exhibit currently on display at the Jewish Museum of Florida, the concept of condominium apartments in Florida was conceived by Arthur Courshon, a Jewish developer.
“The condo board appears to be blind to the reality in South Florida, where thousands of Jewish families in hundreds of condominiums display mezuzas on their doorposts without any negative consequences with their neighbors or to the value of the condominium property,” said Art Teitelbaum, director of the southern region of the ADL. Teitelbaum sent a letter regarding Richter’s situation to the condo association. So far, he has not received a response.
One other resident in the building has put up a mezuza in a show of solidarity, Richter said. As of yet, she added, this neighbor has not received similar notices from the condo association requesting that he remove his mezuza.
Richter told the Forward that when she moved in, she had been unaware of the ban on mezuzot. Had she known about it, Richter added, she would have looked for an apartment in another building.
With reporting by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Jennifer Siegel in New York.