We put out the call, “Tell us your HOA horror stories,” and you came back in your millions. Okay, your dozens. Okay, nearly a dozen. The issue was courage. How could people report on the hell they were living without incurring the wrath of their homeowner association condo-complex captains, who ruled members’ daily lives, from where to place their garbage bins, to what color to paint the doors of the homes they owned, to whether they could park in their own driveway?
Here’s “Ada” (not her real name — like many, she is afraid of retaliation), HOA-complex resident, venting: “Life in my complex? Think a thousand little Watergates.
“Noisegate — I complained about the neighbor’s noise. The HOA board sent me a letter — and I was on the HOA board.
“Treegate — I got neighbors to complain about the board’s removing too many trees without notice, like the one outside my door. They tried to remove me from the board.
“Doorgate — The board harassed me, first by making me repaint my screen door twice, then making me remove it, taking away my only view.
“Petgate — I complained about cat poop and dog bark, and the board continued to allow all sizes and number of pets.
“Woodgate — The property manager is replacing wooden decks needlessly, and the board is helpless to control them. And we’re expected to pay for them.
“Meetingate — The board canceled two meetings in four months when owners wished to complain. The board does not allow any discussion except for three-minute complaints. It holds secret sessions about contracts and claims this is the law.”
And more. You can get fazed by the largeness of the number of issues and the apparent smallness of each individual issue. But Ada echoes a sentiment of the many condo homeowners living at the whim of the few, the powerbrokers who can do anything from fining you to actually foreclosing on your home in the vague legal atmosphere that governs the 6000 HOA condo complexes of San Diego County.
Why no easy-to-understand laws governing this very San Diego societal phenomenon? San Diego is the most HOA-dominated county in the state after Los Angeles. And interestingly, San Diego HOAs seem to be a lot richer: they have a total annual revenue of $1.5 billion, just a hair behind L.A.’s $1.6 billion, even though L.A. has 13,258 HOAs, double San Diego’s 6000, according to figures put out by Levy Erlanger & Co., a San Francisco accounting firm representing 1000 HOAs in the state.
That shouldn’t be a bad thing.
Homeowners’ associations are supposed to be an exercise in democracy, right? The developers build the complexes, people buy the condos, then take over responsibility for the upkeep and appearance and running expenses — and legal title to the place through their duly elected representatives on the HOA Board. So how come there seems to be a continuous chorus of complaints from people living what you might call the perfect kibbutzin, socialist-capitalist marriage: homes, but in a community setting, designed and grouped together to share grounds and gardens and values for harmonious living?
In a way, the whole HOA is a sucker’s game set up by a collusion of developers and local governments. Unpaid HOA boards use HOA assessment fees to pay for what should be the municipality’s responsibility, such basics as roads, electricity, sewage, and water. Developers create high-profit, high-density housing and then hand it over, lock, stock, and all financial and legal responsibilities to these amateur boards not only to run what often amount to million-dollar businesses, but also to keep on paying property taxes to local government for the infrastructure services those authorities didn’t actually have to provide or keep up. No wonder cities love them just as much as developers. No wonder HOA-run condo complexes have mushroomed sixfold, from 7000 in California 20 years ago to about 43,000 today, housing around 10 million, maybe a quarter of the state’s entire population.
HOAs are basically nonprofit associations that homeowners form to maintain their development’s common areas, with a bottom-line mandate to protect their property values. Each homeowner pays a monthly “assessment,” or fee, to finance common expenses, like maintenance of the landscaping, repairing of walks and roads, and keeping pools swimmable. Fees are also supposed to fund a reserve of money to take care of big jobs, such as reroofing, that might come up. Even though each owner has a deed to his/her home, they agree to a set of rules that restrict their independence — including a recognition of the HOA board’s right to foreclose on your home, just for not keeping up with the monthly HOA assessments.
In the ultimate in outsourcing, some giant HOAs run virtual cities in the government’s place. Irvine’s Woodbridge Village Association has to maintain 35 parks and 48 swimming pools. The Aliso Viejo Community Association is responsible for over 15,000 housing units, a small metropolis of maybe 50,000. And authorities love these cities within cities. In fact, many mandate that any new developments be run by HOAs, because they always substantially relieve authorities of new infrastructure costs.
But the one saving grace is this is supposed to be democracy in action. HOA boards are elected and work at the pleasure of homeowners.
That’s what Ada believed, too. “I live in a condo complex in a lower-income area on the border with Clairemont, and they’re probably the cheapest ones in the Western Hemisphere. I paid $40,000 for my studio in 1998. One-bedrooms were $60,000 at that time. Now they’re worth maybe three times that much. Our mortgage and the maintenance is $600 a month. And this complex is half studios and half one-bedrooms. A lot of single people live here. Maintenance [assessment fees] started at $150 per month, and now it’s at $250. It’s 12 buildings with two levels. I’m a ‘downstairs.’ We have these patios that face each other. You go on your patio, you might as well be in my bedroom. Patio, studio/bedroom, that’s it. Nowhere else to go. You can hear everything, but for that price, who’s complaining?
“I got in here and I was so rah-rah. I volunteered for the board. I ran against no one and I got on the board.”
That’s when the problems of close-living started.
NOISEGATE: “I heard a scream in the middle of the night. [A neighbor] was watching a horror movie. [After I complained] the woman who made the noise started yelling at me. And I just said, ‘Hey, wait. I’m a volunteer [board member]. Don’t treat me like that.’ She comes down [to the board] and tells them that I was using my position on the board to tell her to be quiet.
“And they said to me, ‘No, you’re not allowed to do that.’ It was nothing like me [throwing my weight around], telling her I’m on the board. But there were three people who just didn’t want to hear from me or anyone else on the board.
“We had a woman with a 50 lb. dog that would jump off her bed every morning at 4:00. Thump! We had another lady who left her dog at home crying until 2:00 in the morning. We had people putting their dogs outside and [the dogs] barking all night. Also, parties late at night. There has been one quiet year since I have moved in. Now they’re saying we can’t talk to our neighbors? We’re supposed to go straight to the police? Come on. The police tell us, ‘Work it out. With the board or whatever.’ Right.”
DOORGATE: “My screen door was that very dark brown-black metallic that it comes in. They were supposed to be black or green. The [HOA] told me to paint it. I painted it black. It was one of the colors that was allowed. But they told me to paint it again. And then as soon as I finished painting it green, they told me to remove it. Remove the door. They can do that. They were saying that it was too old. Except, if I wanted a view, I had to look out the screen door. Now I have no view. I don’t think anybody else in the complex ever got asked to take their door off. I felt that that was a certain amount of harassment. They can do things like that, so people are afraid. The atmosphere is just terrible.”
TREEGATE: “They don’t ask, they don’t tell you that they’re going to take down this tree that you’ve been living with for ten years. You wake up one morning to see people outside your door just cutting down your tree. I called up neighbors and said, ‘If you don’t want the tree removed, call up the president or someone on the board.’ And someone did and must have yelled at them. So they got very mad at me. It’s ‘You’re not allowed to contact the board, except [for] that three minutes you’re allowed at the [monthly] meeting. I said, ‘Why did you remove this tree, when that [other] tree is the one overhanging the cars?’ And they removed that one too. It’s just awful. Nobody voted on this. Nobody votes for anything.
“Then they wanted to save water, so they cut all the bushes back to the bone. So now we don’t have bushes, we have sticks…with little leaves growing out of the trunks. The hedge was here for ten years. All of a sudden it’s dead. And now we have a little hedge here and there, and it’s totally barren.”
PETGATE: “I had an incident with a cat [pooping] on my porch for six months. And every time you bring it up to them they say that a cat is a feral animal and they can’t regulate it. People told me exactly who it was: it was somebody who had two cats, and one would stay on the property, and the other would have to go [poop] somewhere else. Until I finally took the droppings and brought it to whom I thought it was, and then, magically, it stopped.”
PIPEGATE: “They gave us notice on a Monday. They were going to put locks on our door on Friday, start[ing] on Monday. We got one week’s notice. And some people weren’t even home. They were [doing repairs, including] putting epoxy [lining] in our pipes, which we know is more toxic, but also only ten years’ warranty, and we know that it can’t be fixed. If anything rips again, we don’t know what we’re going to do. You can’t replace epoxy-lined pipe.”
Again, no consultation, she says.
“I mean, it’s our property! We couldn’t even get 30 days’ notice. People had pets that they had to get rid of for two weeks, three weeks. We got one extra week’s notice. The whole attitude in the letter was ‘Remove your stuff or we will remove it for you.’ Just this attitude like a landlord. Very harsh. I was much happier as a renter. My worst landlord was a dream compared to these people.”
BOARDGATE: “I found out that we [the homeowners] are supposed to vote for any contracts with vendors, like the landscapers. It’s more than a year [since] I found that law, and they somehow have got around it. They go into secret session for contracts. I even asked them, ‘Why is it secret?’ ‘Oh, it’s the law.’ Whenever you ask anything, they just tell you, ‘It’s the law.’ For me, you’re only secretive when you’re fining somebody or when you’re talking about an individual homeowner. I asked them to give notice [of meetings, for example], but they don’t respond to things like that. Here it is 2010, and they don’t communicate with us by email yet. They post things on a bulletin board that they’re having a meeting, and that’s it. We never get any minutes. We have to pay for minutes. Yeah. Real bad.”
But can’t an active majority of the homeowners sway the board? “They’re not active! Not too many people come down to the meetings. We have a lot of apathy and a lot of younger people moving in who don’t quite know what’s up yet. And we have a lot of absentee landlords because we’re probably 50 percent rental, so we have a lot of trouble with those owners, who don’t even show up or take care of their tenants. There are some owners that I’m friendly with, but people are afraid to make any waves. They just give up. I’m almost always there alone.”
My Neighbor, the President: Or, take Warren Reidel, living proof that the rich don’t escape HOA conflicts either. Those small, intensely annoying things between neighbors, and especially neighbors hog-tied to HOA rules, can create a war that makes only lawyers happy. Dr. Reidel — a physician specializing in gastroenterology at Scripps Clinic in Torrey Pines — lives on a four-acre swathe of Rancho Santa Fe, in the gated community of Rancho Farms Estates. The homes go for from $1.5–$8 million and range from 5000–10,000 square feet. There are 40 residences on four different streets. It’s a 13-year-old development without guards, so you punch your code in or use your garage opener to open the gates. Or wait for a gardener to come through, then follow him in.
It looks idyllic — if you’re into breaking the social contract and living a kind of apartheid life of exclusivity. But Reidel is at war with his HOA…and its president, businessman Dean Reese, who is not only his neighbor but also accesses his home via Reidel’s driveway.
“I live on a long private drive, which I own,” Reidel says. “Only one neighbor on the driveway has access to drive his car in and out over my property to get to his house. Otherwise there are no homes on the street. So all was peaceful. Then a few years ago, [my wife and I] were parking our cars up our driveway in front of our garages, and when he [Mr. Reese] was driving by to his house, he would see them. He decided that he didn’t like to see our cars parked in front of our garages. So, being the president of the homeowners’ association, he sent out a letter saying, ‘You’re not allowed to park your car in front of your garage. It has to be in your garage.’ Now the homeowner association’s CC&R [covenants, conditions, and restrictions] just says everyone must have a garage. Doesn’t say you have to park your car in the garage. So he sent out this letter. He’s the only one who can see my house. That was four years ago.
“And then we decided we would improve this driveway by planting it with lots of nice California peppers and bougainvilleas. We irrigated it and lighted it and I spent a lot of money. And while I was doing it, he said to me, ‘This is great.’ Because he’s getting a free driveway done. He gets to drive up my driveway. And he said, ‘Oh, by the way, you have $5000 that the previous owner had put down as a deposit for this landscape project, and when you finish your driveway, if you show them receipts for what you spent’ — and I ended up spending $20,000 on it — ‘you can get that money back.’
“So this was two years ago. We finally finished the job, and they said, ‘How wonderful, lighted at night, trees, all irrigated.’ Of course, I’m paying for all the irrigation and electricity for the driveway that he gets to use, okay? So then when I finally brought the receipts in this last summer to the HOA, they said, ‘Oh, there’s no money. That was all gone years ago. There’s no record of it here.’
“Then last year I built the swimming pool. It was expensive — about $60,000. The whole backyard project cost $120,000. I decided I would put a solar panel in to heat the pool. So we put that in. I must say it was big and ugly, and it was on the side of my property facing his home area.
“Once it went up, and we didn’t even finish it, he went berserk, and he planted large trees to block my sunlight. And you can’t do that. There’s something called the California Solar Rights Act. Then the homeowners sent me a ‘cease and desist’ letter. So we stopped in the middle of it. And they said, ‘Now we want $4500 as a deposit for you to finish your project, or we’ll fine you.’ We gave them $4500 this last February, and they were obligated to respond to our plans within 45 days. So they said, ‘We’re going to have the architectural committee come over to your house and review what you’ve done, and we’re probably going to ask you to move your solar panel to a different location so it’s not in his face.’
“In the meantime, he called the County Building Department on me to see if my solar panel was in a legal spot, and they said it’s fine, it’s legal. There’s nothing he can do about it.
“And then he called the county on me to say that we did illegal grading, because when we built the swimming pool, we took some of the dirt out of the pool and put it on the side of the house on what’s called Open Space. And we packed it down. We just added some more dirt to an area of dirt. So the county came out and said, ‘It looks fine,’ and that was the end of that.”
But still the war escalated.
“In 135 — not 45 — days, [the architectural committee] finally came over to my house, and they wanted me to move the solar panel and plant large ficus trees to the side of the panels, so fewer people could see it, including a neighbor who lives a quarter-mile away, up on a hill. The ficus trees were $250 each. I said, ‘Forget it. I’ll take the solar panel down.’ I removed it. Meantime, they charged me $300 to have the landscape architect come around and say that ‘you should plant the ficus trees over here, and you should make your fence black instead of silver.’
“And then they said that some chain-link fence that I put up way over on the other side of the property was galvanized, silver color, and not black. One of the other neighbors said, ‘Sometimes I can see the reflection of your galvanized fence from my property.’ My house is 100 yards from hers.”
At this point, Reidel says, he was seething. “At a homeowners’ meeting two weeks ago I went with a demand letter. I wanted my [$300] back, and I asked for money back for dismantling the solar panel. So I asked for $1400 back.
“In the meantime, my neighbor who was so adamant that I couldn’t park my cars in front of my garage has parked his cars for the last three years in front of his garage. The homeowners say you can’t store a boat: he’s had a boat in his back yard for three months. I took pictures of it every week. This is the president. He thinks he can break all the rules. He can store the cars [outside], he can bring a boat in, and then on top of that, in his back yard he’s got silver-colored fencing with barbed wire on it. How come they don’t make him change his silver-colored fencing?
“You know what he says? ‘It’s not on my property.’ But it surrounds his back yard. Then he’s got this large shed in his back yard, and the CC&R says no sheds are allowed. He even has a flagpole, and I don’t really care about his flagpole, but the CC&R says you’re not allowed to have flagpoles. So he can break all the rules.
“It has been a nightmare, and I’m ready to sue them in small-claims court if I don’t get some satisfaction here.”
And as with Ada, Reidel’s problem is a dormant democracy. “Nobody who lives here really cares about the homeowners’ association. These are wealthy people who mind their own business. At the meeting there was the president and two other people. That’s it — plus me, the only homeowner who was not on the board of the committee. You’ve got this guy there [the president, Dean Reese] who’s making all the decisions, like, ‘We should raise the homeowners’ monthly fees,’ and we should tear down a certain queen palm tree. For $3000. He’s happy to do that with my HOA money. When I read this demand letter, he said, ‘Get a life.’ And ‘I pity you.’ I brought out pictures to the other two members. I said, ‘Look. Here’s a boat. It’s been there for three months. I can see his boat, but I really don’t care. But how come he complains about my silver fence when I can see his boat. Here’s his flagpole, and here’s his shed, and here’s his barbed-wire gate.’ They did nothing.
The final nail? “His wife sends us an email that says, ‘Would you like to have the community Christmas party at your house this year?’ First of all I’m Jewish, so that’s one issue. Secondly, I hate them. Why would I want to spend my money holding a Christmas party at my house?”
Why doesn’t Reidel run for president of the HOA himself?
“Well, I could, and I could start by sending out an email, attaching all the pictures of his boat and his shed, and his barbed wire, and his flagpole, and then his cars, and then saying, ‘This is your president! He breaks all the rules! Maybe we should get rid of him!’”
Reidel thinks a moment. “The thing is there’s such a giant [lack of] interest in it, nobody wants to be the president. That’s why there are only three people at the meetings. Nobody cares!”
“It’s a thankless job, being president of the HOA, an unpaid, thankless job,” says Dran Reese, Dean Reese’s wife. Both are prominent in business and the social life of the county. “I’m not 1000 percent that my husband would want to give you an interview, only because there are so many things that go on in our neighborhood. We try to be so good with all of our neighbors, but when you have neighbors who don’t care about you as a neighbor and don’t go by the good-neighbor policy and do what they feel like, it’s harmful to the rest of the community, and especially to immediate neighbors. And we deal with that. Not just one time, two times, three times, but multiple times. It’s like having a set of little children. And you can quote me on that. They’re childish! They’re petty and childish.”
But Dean does agree to talk, a day later. “I try not to let [this issue] rent space in my brain,” he says on the phone. He and his wife made their money selling earthquake kits they created and now have settled in this expansive (though less expensive than the coveted Covenant) area of Rancho Santa Fe.
He emails me a packet of three photos. They show spacious yards in the foreground, with messy business going on next door, behind a band of young trees. Builders’ barrows, lengths of pipe, construction debris. A long sloping frame, ready to accept solar panels.
“We dealt with this amount of garbage and this crap that we all had to look at for six months,” he says. “We requested on multiple occasions for Mr. Reidel to clean up this area and to do something about the drainage as well.”
So how about the whole cars-outside-garages issue?
“If you were to drive up there right now, you would see most of his cars parked in front of his garage. Because he has custom cars that take up all the space on one side. The other side is full of his personal whatever…[stuff]. That has not been an issue. But the association asked for people not to park their cars on the street overnight. Mr. Reidel had spare tires and debris and garbage in his front area — an eyesore — that we were asking for him to remove or relocate to another position, where it would not be visible from the street. He was able to build a small wall. Did a nice job. Looks good. Was able to cover all that stuff up. So kudos to him. Thank you very much for doing that.
“With regard to my property: Yeah, in the summertime, sometimes I’ll leave my boat there. I travel quite a bit so…should I have left it there for as long as I did during the summer, when we were using it? No. Can anybody see my boat from anywhere in the association property? No. When Mr. Reidel told me that it bothered him, I removed it.
“The flagpole? Actually I think that there might be something [in the HOA’s CC&R] that allows you to fly a United States flag. I’m not sure. I’ll have to check on that one. If it really bothers him that much, that I fly the American flag on Veterans’ Day, Memorial Day, and those days acknowledging our fallen heroes, if it bothers him, I’ll tear down my flagpole. If Mr. Reidel has any issue with me doing anything, all he has to do is submit, in writing, to the architectural review committee, any complaint he might have. He has not done so. So until such time as he submits a written complaint, verbal complaints are not subject to action.
“There was a special hearing for Mr. Reidel sometime in the spring, when we asked him to submit plans. At that meeting, he did not submit complete plans, did not submit plans of the solar [array] and [its] location. He did submit a planning schedule, and an irrigation schedule, but he did not submit any schedule with regard to his fencing, or the solar.
“As one of the neighbors put it at the Board meeting when Mr. Reidel was present: ‘Please, just try to be a good neighbor. You’re making everybody else suffer. Just get past this, and be a good neighbor. It’s not that difficult.’ We try to be good neighbors. But when somebody won’t get out of their car and acknowledge you, or wave, or even look at you, then it’s very difficult to be a good neighbor.”
Stalled Parking: Carol and Richard Reed’s condo dream has been wrecked by a parking problem. They lived in San Diego for 25 years, then moved to the Phoenix area. Now, the retired couple has decided they want to spend their summers in San Diego. Grandkids, friends, whatever.
“So we found a place that was right for us. It has 92 units. Looks beautiful. And it ended up that the price was right. It overlooks the Coronado Bridge. It’s a two-bedroom, two-bath conversion that was done about six years ago. The price was $120,000. It was very good because [even though] it borderlines on a bad location, it’s a gated community right across from the police precinct. We put in an offer and tried to start wrapping up the details. But we came to realize that the preliminary deed did not refer to the parking stalls that we had been told would go with the unit. In this complex, the parking stalls are not deeded spaces. They are controlled by the HOA. We were told it could not be a part of escrow, since they’re not deeded spaces; that we would have to go to the HOA, and since the HOA doesn’t really talk to prospective buyers, we would have to go to the management company that manages the complex for the HOA and have them verify the two parking spaces that went with the unit. We agreed on a price, based on our assumption that this unit had two parking stalls. We communicated with the management company in writing, and they confirmed to us that the parking stalls went with the unit, in writing. We closed on the property.
“We went the following week to move in and went into our parking stall — and immediately got a nastygram on our windshield that we were going to be towed because that was not our parking stall. And then the you-know-what hit the fan. The HOA came to us and said, ‘You must be mistaken. You only have one parking place that goes with your unit.’ And we said, ‘Oh, no, no, no. We verified this in writing with your management company.’ And they said, ‘Sorry. Screw you. It comes with one space. You don’t get [the second space].’ And the bottom line is our real estate agent, our escrow agent, everyone told us there was no other way to verify this except from the management company who maintain the records of what parking goes with which unit. So we had no recourse. And we’re understanding that many complexes are like this. And I think the public is absolutely unaware of how badly they would get burned on something like this.
“Because now we’ve sent hundreds of emails, we’ve had three meetings with the HOA, two meetings with the management company. And they have just flipped us [brushed us off], told us, ‘No way in heck are we doing anything for you. It’s not our fault.’
“We contacted a lawyer about it, and he said, ‘You’ve got a winning case, but it’s going to cost you more to litigate this than the darned parking space is worth.’ It has cost us so much time and energy and put such a terrible bad taste in our mouths with respect to this particular management company and the HOA, that it has been extremely difficult. We showed them their letter, they said, ‘Sorry. We made a mistake.’ So we have met a total roadblock. The HOA — and I understand that it’s a thankless job — but at least they could show some respect. They told us that we screwed up. Just unbelievable. In other condo situations, we’ve experienced members of the board who were on top of the situation, willing to listen. The board members in [our HOA condo complex in] Phoenix are extremely competent. And that was the case when we lived in San Diego before. This is the worst, most stressful experience we have ever had in our lives. We have never been talked to like this. And all over a parking space.”
Property Management: Fiend or Friend? Claudia Medina is so-o-o glad she’s out of it. You try organizing a large complex’s HOA, where that HOA is continually broke. Medina says she was in effect a one-woman property management company for a 310-unit HOA just north of San Ysidro. Most owners and tenants are Spanish speakers — not a problem for Claudia; she’s bilingual — but she says many don’t understand their rights as community owners of the property and allow their HOA to assume too much power.
Medina, a realtor/property manager, is aware that property management companies, which most HOAs subcontract to do the actual running of their property, get a bad rap, often rightly so. Incompetent HOA boards throw money at them and hope they’ll manage the condo community properly and honestly. But at least they know what they’re doing. In hard times like these, says Medina, an increasing number of boards save money by dumping the management companies and trying to run things themselves.
“Condo associations are having a lot of problems, because there are so many foreclosures, and people are not making the money, and they’re not paying their association fees. That’s the bottom line,” she says. “They don’t have enough for maintenance.”
Not only that, but foreclosed properties are being bought up by investors, who then rent them out till condo unit prices rise enough to sell at a profit. “So what happens is that the percentage of renters goes up, and the homeowner-occupancy ratio gets lowered.”
And that, says Medina, has real consequences. For, say, first-time homeowner wannabes —
and HOA-managed condo units are the classic entry-level opportunity — loans come with specific conditions. “In a VA or FHA government-backed loan, you have to have a certain homeowner occupancy rate in the association. It could be anywhere between 50–55 percent.”
She says the government may soon lower that to 45 percent. But “if there are too many renters in an association, that means a potential homeowner can’t qualify for government loans.” And investors crowd out the market. “They bring down the value of the property,” Medina says. “Also, the more renters you have, the less those renters care about the property. In the complex I managed, the majority of the problems were renters. Loud parties, dogs, cats, [ignoring] weight restrictions on dogs. With pools, they’d invite over huge numbers of guests. In associations, you only have a certain parking spot. But the tenants take up assigned owners’ spots. That was a big issue. Every day somebody gets towed. I used to manage trying to collect the [HOA] fees. What a job! Especially right now. You have to be knocking on doors. People are running from you because they owe you money. And even if you file a lien on their property, you’re not likely to get anything from them, because most of the time they’re in default.”
She says a lot of the problems come because HOA homeowners don’t know they have a voice in running their association. “A lot, especially the Hispanics, don’t know that they have certain rights or that they can vote. When I got to that association, because it’s pretty much Hispanic — 80 percent — they didn’t know that they could kick out board members. So they got the same [people representing them] over and over. And these board members tend to pretty much dominate. So I started giving advice: ‘There are things you can do.’ ”
Where these essentially amateur boards, who have fired the management company, often fall short, she says, is in prioritizing money. “When a lot of homeowners say, ‘The priority is, let’s get our landscaping done,’ I say, especially when you don’t have any money, ‘The priority is paying the water bill, your electricity bills, and the plumbing.’ That was my biggest priority in that complex, the water and plumbing. They do patch-up jobs. Like water heaters. In my first two months I [told them they had to] replace three water heaters, $5000 apiece. I said, ‘It’s better to spend the money now, because in the long run you’ll be spending more.’
“But often they wouldn’t listen. And when you have HOAs not bringing in the $30,000–$40,000 a month they’re supposed to, and you’re only bringing in $10,000 and your water bill’s $10,000, and you have to pay your insurance of $1800, and your electric bill, it was just a laugh.
“And here’s the thing: nobody was interested! Of the 310-plus homeowners, only ten would show up. This was their future. And that’s how the board members would get away with doing whatever they wanted. Plus, renters don’t get to have a voice, and that’s why, if it’s more investor owned — investors don’t care, as long as they get their rent, right? — they just pay their HOA fees. They don’t go up to the meetings. And right now, the number-one foreclosures are in the condo associations, because they’re not paying their dues. That association lives by those dues. Basically, those dues have to pay insurance, maintenance, water, gardeners, pool maintenance, roofs — that’s a big thing — paving — right now, that complex hasn’t been paved, and it was going to be, like, $100,000 just to do the whole paving of the place. They don’t have $100,000. They don’t even have reserves. They were down to $20,000–$30,000. The last time they did the paving was about eight years ago. And even then, eight years ago, it was just a patch-up job, one of those coatings. It’s so bad that the actual board members themselves started buying cement and patching up the holes. The actual board members. It was ridiculous.”
It also affected the complex’s eligibility for FHA approval for prospective condo buyers. “You have to have a certain amount of money in your bank account, and this complex didn’t have those reserves. And that’s why this complex was not approved for new homeowners. The majority of the board members don’t get this. They get on this high and mighty trip sometimes. There are some people who have been [on the board] forever, and they just don’t get it.”
So Medina wanted to change the CC&Rs not to allow investors. “Investors are bringing down the home-occupancy rate, and you have problems with tenants, and homeowners don’t want to live around tenants. That’s why they bought a place, right?”
No luck. And the HOA said they could run the place without her.
Would she go back, if the board asked her? “That’s what a lot of the homeowners asked me. I said, ‘Look, if I don’t get this association back in 30 days, then I won’t come back, because I just know that they’re going to mess it up so bad that it’s not even worth it for me.’ They have gone through three or four property-management companies in the last ten years. The same board members have been in position all along.”
So, do HOAs work? Yes, they provide entry-level buy-ins to the American Dream of home ownership, at least in good times, and privileged islands of compatibly wealthy folk and, for millions of middle-class folk, clustered communities of relative security. Yet problems go beyond the mechanics of running them and access to management, to the concept itself: They were supposed to create high-density accommodation solutions for inner cities, but for a long time they bolstered the rush to suburbia. They were supposed to embody the democratic community, but as private enclaves, they are walled off from normal constitutional guarantees to the individual and the normal constitutional restrictions on the limits of the HOAs’ powers. These “outsourced” mini-polities, like private armies, can become rogue fiefdoms where, if individual homeowners want to sue the HOA Board for, say, breach of duty, they have to pay for it from their own pockets. Whereas HOA insurance will pay not only for a board member’s legal expense, but any judgment against him or her. More disturbingly, several court judgments have hinted that HOA boards may have the right to place limits on entrenched freedoms such as political speech. Could HOAs turn into little bubbles of not-America, where a private, corporate “constitution” trumps the national Constitution? HOA voting rights are based on property, not the individuals committed to living there. Shades of 18th-century England? And where maybe half of the properties are owned by investors, renters have no voting rights, and the investors become like absentee voters. The result is that permanent owner-dwellers are underrepresented, the threat of a bullying, unimpeachable HOA government rises, and you get the scenario at Medina’s complex where 10 voters out of 310 regularly turn up to decide the future of all.
Yes, there are probably thousands — millions — of satisfied customers out there. And so many of the fights are neighbors’ issues, not peculiar to HOA situations. But with a quarter of the nation’s most populous state living under HOA rules, somebody — an elected somebody — needs to take a hard look at how — if — HOAs fit into the greater society and the rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution — or if they are a gathering force committed to sidestepping those freedoms behind walls of corporate law. Let the horror stories continue!