By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities
Today’s feature article caught my eye because, in the past year, I’ve heard from several homeowners concerned about the possibility of their voluntary homeowners’ association converting to a mandatory HOA.
John Romano’s column in the Tampa Bay Times features Venetian Isles, St. Petersburg, Florida. The 50+ year-old waterfront neighborhood consists of 525 waterfront homes, neatly lined up on manmade islands along the western shores of Tampa Bay.
Because of its prime waterfront location — each home comes complete with its own dock — modest homes with dated interiors sell for roughly three-quarters of a million dollars. Updated homes and larger estates on prime waterfront lots start at $1 million. A 4,000 square-foot, 5-bedroom home, currently under construction on Carolina Circle, lists for $3.5 million.
Venetian Isles HOA is a voluntary membership organization. For decades, its primary focus has been maintaining architectural standards and promoting neighborhood beautification.
Streets and bridges leading to the neighborhood are maintained by the City. Recently, Venetian Isles HOA has convinced St. Pete to install a speed hump on Overlook Drive. The City is also in the process of installing a new sprinkler system and landscape near the Overlook Bridge. The HOA has agreed to maintain the new landscape going forward.
Note that, like most of Florida’s subdivisions, Venetian Isles HOA has minimal common property to maintain.
According to Romano, some members of Venetian Isles want their HOA to become mandatory. That would force every property owner to pay their fair share to cover the cost of a property manager.
However, plenty of homeowners don’t want a mandatory HOA. In fact, many purchased property in Venetian Isles because it’s one of Florida’s few remaining communities without the restrictions and hassles of a mandatory HOA.
Romano: Intrigue behind all those manicured lawns
John Romano, Columnist, Tampa Bay Times
June 21, 2018
I’ve always thought homeowners associations had a lot in common with cops.
People love to complain about them and often accuse them of abusing their power. And yet as soon as a neighbor paints his house a hot shade of fuchsia, you’re screaming for the HOA to rescue you.
Which brings me to the manicured entrance to Venetian Isles. If you’re not familiar with it, Venetian Isles is an upscale neighborhood of about 525 waterfront homes in St. Petersburg.
It’s a deed-restricted community, and it has a voluntary homeowners association. For the better part of 50 years, things seem to have worked well under that kind of laid-back power structure.
But behind every closed door there is a story to tell, and lately the secrets have been spilling out of Venetian Isles.
The leaders of the HOA say not enough people are volunteering, and so they are exploring the possibility of hiring a property manager and polling members to gauge interest in becoming a mandatory organization. Meanwhile, some residents say the HOA has gone overboard with nitpicky complaints, and they are fearful of imbuing the association with even more power.
Mandatory HOA, pros & cons
Keep in mind that many homeowners do NOT appreciate an HOA telling them what they can and cannot do with their own property, particularly when it comes to minor issues involving one person’s opinion of what looks “attractive.”
The rationale for “going mandatory” is weak, at best. Those in favor of making the conversion seek to force unwilling participants to pay for property management services they feel they don’t really want or need. Unless the vast majority of homeowners also intend to eliminate most of their nit-picky covenants and restrictions, establishment of a new mandatory HOA could then subject homeowners to even more scrutiny, not to mention more strict enforcement of architectural standards.
Penalties for not living up to the HOA board’s standards could result in fines, liens against the property, costly litigation against homeowners, and, in some cases foreclosure of HOA liens for uncollected assessments.
Who would benefit from this added legal obligation and restrictions upon private property rights?
Think about it.
The fact that most people are unwilling to volunteer their time to the current voluntary HOA leads to the more logical conclusion that the majority of homeowners are simply not interested in maintaining an HOA.
And the truth is, as long as the CC&Rs remain in place, any individual homeowner can take legal action (in small claims or civil court) against any neighbor that violates the terms of the CC&Rs.
In the case of real threats to public health or safety — an overgrown, knee-high lawn, dead and dying trees, or a rodent infestation — the local city/county usually has codes on the books that can be enforced. Homeowners and voluntary HOA members can and should pressure local government to handle the big problems, in return for millions of tax dollars collected annually from property owners.
This may come as a shocker to some readers, but, despite the HOA management indsutry’s claims, an HOA is not necessary, be it voluntary or mandatory.
It’s true that most individuals won’t sue their neighbor, except in extreme or compelling circumstances. Ironically, too many homeowners expect their HOA to do the unpleasant, dirty business of enforcing restrictions on their behalf, so they don’t have to.
So, the HOA concept appeals to the homeowner who fears confronting a neighbor directly about any personal pet peeve, nuisance, or departure from good taste. An HOA also appeals to certain obsessive personalities who crave to control the behavior of others, including the power to punish them, if that’s what it takes to maintain their vision of the “ideal” neighborhood.
Thankfully, Americans are slowly beginning to learn that it’s more important to maintain control of personal property and individual rights, than to control how pristine your neighbor maintains his property.
It comes as no surprise that quite a few Venetian Isles homeowners fear being under the control of a few neighbors with a lot of power.
And, according to the Realtor interviewed by Romano, homebuyers are increasingly avoiding mandatory HOAs — or overzealous voluntary HOAs.
That fact destroys the management industry’s claim that HOAs protect and enhance property values.
What are the alternatives to an HOA?
This is another question I’ve been asked on several occasions.
The answer depends upon the objectives and desires of the people in the neighborhood.
If the primary concern is maintaining a neighborhood of attractive homes, then consider some outside-the-HOA-box ideas.
Instead of threatening and punishing your neighbor for allowing the landscape to become overgrown, perhaps a group of neighborhood teens or energetic volunteers can offer to mow the lawn for an elderly, ill, or disabled neighbor. Even if the HOA kicks in a few dollars for a professional lawn service, it’s far cheaper than inciting a legal battle, and probably worth the expense to maintain good will.
Instead of fining a homeowner for choosing a bold or unattractive paint color for the front door, offer to assist with choosing a more suitable hue. Or add some shutters, potted flowers, or new foundation plants to complement or tone down the color scheme. Consider amending the rules and expanding the approved color palette.
If no one wants to maintain monument signs anymore, consider getting rid of them.
If the HOA has common areas or amenities to maintain, but not enough revenue to cover the costs, petition neighbors to determine the best course of action.
For example, consider selling unused lots, and retiring underused amenities such as swimming pools and tennis courts.
Organize the neighborhood to petition the local government to take over maintenance of private roads and storm water drainage. Don’t take no for an answer, but be willing to work out a reasonable solution to fund needed improvements, without retaining a perpetual burden on homeowner volunteers. The real power in a homeowners’ association comes from its potential for civic engagement and pursuit of common goals that truly benefit everyone in the neighborhood.
Consider outsourcing the architectural review process to a committee of design and construction professionals — skilled individuals with good taste and knowledge of construction standards and building materials.
Or maybe the vast majority of owners would rather amend the CC&Rs to get rid of most of the restrictions and nit-picky rules.
These are just a few suggestions.
Does the neighborhood really need a manager?
The more homeowners reduce the association’s workload and obligations, the less need for a manager.
The easier and more enjoyable it is to serve on the HOA board, or one of its committees, the more willing volunteers will step up to help. When the HOA board stops focusing on being The Enforcers, in favor of buidling good will in the community, everything changes.
Once the HOA board hands over the reins — and its money — to a manager, the less direct control residents have over the neighborhood’s destiny.