EXAMINER PUBLICATIONS – JUNE 27, 2007
A VIEW FROM THE CHEAP SEATS
By: Rich Trzupek
To steal from ( and bastardize) the immortal Groucho Marx: No one who runs for a position on a homeowner’s association board should ever be elected to the board.
The theory behind homeowner’s associations is sound enough. Certain decisions affect only the residents of a particular subdivision. So, instead of having the municipality collect and distribute money for issues that are sub-division specific, why not let the residents handle it themselves?
It sounds good, don’t it? If a sub-division has a wetland, for example, to contain stormwater, then let’s let the subdivision maintain that wetland. It affects no one else. Let the association collect fees and hire contractors. That’s self-government at its most basic level, right?
In theory, yeah. But most people who have lived under the thumb of a homeowner’s association know better. The people who end up in charge of most (but no, not all) homeowner’s associations–to quote the immortal Hank Hill–”ain’t right.”
Homeowner’s association boards are a haven for busybodies. Nobody– absolutely nobody–is happier on the board of a homeowner’s association than the stereotypical crabby old lady who spends her life spying on her neighbors, imagining all of the horrible things going on next door.
The problem, of course, is that nobody gives a damn about association elections. Rational, reasonable people have much better things to do than sit through homeowner’s association meetings every month. Nor do rational people require the pay-off of power. They just want to be left alone and they figure that whoever is on the board will share that desire.
It doesn’t work that way. Nature abhors a vacuum, and that includes a vacuum of leadership. Rational homeowners envision a benign association board that will act as a caretaker, much as they would. That’s not what they get, in too many cases. Instead they get a board determined to enforce existing rules to the letter and, worse, to create new rules that will make life wonderful.
Homeowner’s associations can have enormous power, depending on how the association’s charter is written. Too often the charter provides that the homeowner is responsible for all legal costs in the event of a dispute.
That kind of provision gives unscrupulous lawyers free reign to rack up thousands–and tens of thousands–worth of legal bills. The longer the homeowner fights, the more they owe. And if they can’t pay? The association can often seize their property and sell it to pay those legal fees.
It’s appalling, but some homeowners lose everything–every year– because they are foolish enough to believe in concepts like “fairness” instead of looking at their contract. A couple of years ago, your humble correspondent documented the case of a homeowner who painted her deck the wrong color, repainted it the right color, and then was threatened with foreclosure because she had not paid the legal fees of the association attorney who racked up over $10,000 worth of hours in pursuing the case.
I’ve even seen the effect myself in the past year. My particular townhome subdivision, the Peoples Republic of Wildberry, features a number of central parking areas that are, theoretically, dedicated to visitor parking.
In practice, those spots serve as overflow parking for residents. People park their second cars in the visitors’ lots, on a routine basis. It’s a “first-come, first-parked” program and everybody gets that. Everybody but the association, naturally.
So a letter arrives telling me that my daughter can not park in the visitors’ lot. Why my daughter’s car when absolutely everybody does the same thing? Who knows. The most likely explanation involves some crabby old lady who couldn’t find a spot and decided that a teen- age gal was the easiest target.
This is the sort of stuff that homeowner’s associations thrive on. I’ve even heard tales about board members training binoculars onto visitors’ lots and carefully tracking license plate numbers. These are busybodies desperately in need of a life.
Look, nobody is saying that the idea behind homeowner’s associations is bad. They are, like government in general, a necessary evil.
But, because they fly so far under the radar, they often become a haven for busybodies and would-be dictators with delusions of grandeur.
At some point, higher forms of government need to step in. State legislatures, or municipalities, can–and should–limit the power of associations. They should start by taking away the power of an association to make residents pay those legal bills for attorneys who harass them. Other states have done the same and Illinois should follow their lead.