Homeowner Associations in Disrepute

By Gail Graham

Special to the Arizona Daily Star

Tucson, Arizona | Published: 2008

Across the United States, homeowner associations are falling into disrepute. People hate them. But what’s the alternative?

Most planned communities include common areas and amenities like swimming pools, tennis courts and clubhouses, all of which must be maintained. Somebody has to hire tradesmen, pay the bills and maintain standards. And who better than the residents themselves?

In theory, it’s a great idea. Unfortunately, it no longer seems to work in practice — if it ever did. The most common complaint is that homeowner association boards are dominated by pettifogging tyrants who use the slightest infraction of rules and regulations to impose Draconian penalties. And it certainly makes headlines when someone is hit with a $17,000 fine because the doctor caring for her terminally ill son habitually parks in her driveway.

Unfortunately, incompetence and corruption are much less spectacular but far more common. For the unscrupulous, HOAs are sitting ducks.

Suppose — for the sake of argument — you want to take charge of your homeowner association and its $100,000 annual budget. With a five-to-six member board, you only need two accomplices to run on a “slate” that includes several innocent, well-meaning types who only want to “serve the community.”

Once you’re in, you make sure that one of the suckers gets elected president and can therefore only vote to break a tie. At that point you’ve got a permanent majority, three against two. Plus, the well-meaning types give your board a veneer of respectability.

Why would you want to do such a thing?  For the money, of course. Some contractors give kickbacks, and a landscaping contract of $40,000 can put $2,000 into the pocket of the person who expedites it. Even if residents are suspicious, nobody can prove a thing.

Homeowner association boards can be magnets for sociopaths. Martha Stout, author of “The Sociopath Next Door,” says 1 in 25 Americans secretly has no conscience and can do anything at all without feeling guilty. Stout says sociopaths typically gravitate to situations that allow them unsupervised control over small groups of people who are relatively helpless, or vulnerable. They become psychotherapists, divorce lawyers, human services directors or board members of their homeowner association.

Many buyers shy away from homes in communities controlled by homeowner associations. More of these communities are taking back control of their lives, using a majority vote to amend their documents of incorporation, and replace incompetent and self-serving boards with professional, accountable management companies.

Homeowner associations were a product of the ’60s and ’70s. They worked in that world, but they often don’t work in this one.

For most people, their home is their biggest investment and protecting that investment has got to be their first priority.

Many are concluding that if this means getting rid of the homeowner association, so be it.

Write to Gail Graham at g.graham001@comcast.net.

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