By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities
The latest report circulating on social media is about an absurd HOA legal dispute over an HOA-mandated $500 mailbox. The Washington Post reports that homeowner Keith Strong decided to sue his HOA when he faced fines of $100 per month for not replacing his new wooden mailbox with the $500 metal mailbox required by his HOA.
After a $33,000, 7-year battle, Circuit Court Judge Leo E. Green Jr. handed down a defeat for Pleasant Prospect Homeowners Association, Prince George County, Maryland. The Judge agreed with Strong’s attorney, Matthew Skipper, who argued that the HOA board lacked the authority to create a specific mailbox replacement mandate without a vote of membership.
In a community of million-dollar homes, a fight over a $500 mailbox ends in court
By Lynh Bui, The Washington Post, January 23, 2017
The $35 wooden mailbox Keith Strong bought in 2009 seemed charming and functional for the home he shared with his wife in a posh golf community in the suburbs of Washington. It was a newer version of the mailbox the homeowners association previously approved and had sat at the end of their driveway since the couple moved to their Bowie-area home four years earlier.
But no more than two months after Strong installed his new mailbox, he received an order to dump it — for a $500 mailbox upgrade.
The board of the homeowners association voted to require all residents in the Woodmore golf community to buy metal mailboxes, monogrammed with the letter “W” and mounted on a decorative post.
The $500 mailbox mandate angered Strong and others in the community, launching him into a seven-year fight that finally ended this month when a Prince George’s County judge signed, sealed and delivered a ruling that the board of the Pleasant Prospect Home Owners’ Association overstepped its bounds with its postal pronouncements.
It’s a victory that cost Strong $33,000 in legal fees — roughly the price of 66 of the new bronze-colored mailboxes.
It is refreshing to read about victories for homeowners against HOA abuse of power. And I applaud Strong for persisting on the principle that the dispute was less about a mailbox, and more about private property rights.
But I am troubled by the fact that this victory happened in an Association of million-dollar homes, financed by a homeowner who could well afford a $33,000 investment to fight for his rights, and, by extension, the rights of his HOA neighbors.
What if you cannot afford to sue your HOA?
The truth is, the vast majority of Association Governed Communities consist of average or “affordable” homes and condos.
What about their rights?
Contrary to popular belief, most residents of HOAs are middle class households that work hard to pay their mortgage, taxes, HOA assessments, and other monthly expenses. Low income residents – many of them tenants, not owners – struggle even harder to make ends meet.
And most American household also struggle to save money. Last June, CBS News reported that Nearly a third of Americans have no emergency savings. According to the report, one third of households cannot easily absorb an unexpected $500-$1,000 expense.
What if that unexpected expense came in the form of a fine from your HOA over something as petty as any of the following actual reasons that HOAs choose to fine homeowners?
- your choice of mailbox,
- the color of your front door,
- the fact that your grass is 1/2 inch too long,
- your garbage can was not returned to the garage soon enough after trash pickup,
- placement of an unapproved flowerpot on the balcony or patio of your condo,
- you put up colored lights instead of white lights for the holidays.
- you replaced your blinds with curtains
What a colossal waste of your hard-earned money!
Most distressing, when most homeowners and residents are faced with onerous rules and restrictions, and punitive measures that include fines, they cannot afford to fight back in court.
For most HOA residents, hiring an attorney at $250-$400 per hour to fight back is out of the question. Their best option is simply paying a fine to get the HOA off their back, possibly depleting their small emergency savings account in the process. In too many cases, a resident must go into debt to pay abusive disputed fines, often inflated by attorney fees.
Likewise, an unexpected HOA mandate to make expensive repairs and upgrades to your home (like a mandated $500 mailbox), or an off-the-chart special assessment, puts many residents over the financial edge. And if you cannot afford to pay the HOA’s fees, you can even lose your home, if the Association chooses to foreclose on your home to collect those unpaid debts.
As Strong understands, once the HOA board and management know they can get away with a $100 fine here and a $500 mandate there, what is to stop them from inventing more covenants, rules, and restrictions, with corresponding fines for breaking them?
The obvious answer is, for most American living in Association Governed Housing, nothing can stop this type of HOA abuse.