Not-so-United States: a nation divided by HOAs

By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities

Is America a nation divided by homeowners’ associations (HOAs)?

Stakeholders in the real estate industry are fond of promoting association-governed common interest developments as utopian neighborhoods with a “sense of community.”

You’ve probably seen the commercials for lushly landscaped planned subdivisions and villages, right? The ones that show happy, healthy active adults biking, playing golf, or eating sushi together.

Or maybe you’re still working and raising children. You might be familiar with the sales pitches of “family-friendly” subdivisions with community swimming pools, sports facilities, playgrounds, tot lots — heck, maybe even a lake for fishing or boating.

If you’re a city person,  maybe your are drawn to midrise and high-rise condominiums, with amenities such as impressive entry and elevator lobbies, in-house security and concierge service, movie and exercise rooms, and, if you’re lucky, a parking garage. You can just imagine yourself socializing with your neighbors on the rooftop terrace or enjoying summer barbecues by the pool.

Even if you cannot afford such fancy amenities, you may be enticed by a so-called “low-maintenance” lifestyle of a no-frills townhouse or low-rise condo. No more shoveling snow, mowing the lawn, or painting the house for you! Instead, you can play cards or enjoy hobbies with your neighbors in the community room.

Well, sometimes those dreams of creating long-lasting friendships in planned communities don’t come true.

Ironically, as illustrated by so many real life examples, the one thing most common interest developments have in common is their tendency to divide residents rather than bring them together. At the root of that division there’s usually a homeowners, condo or co-op association.

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Divided by restrictions, rules, and standards

Let’s begin with the absurd story of Jim Hildebrand’s battle with Avignon Villa Homes Association in Olathe, Kansas.

The battle in the upscale 156-home subdivision began in 2013, when Hildebrand installed a short, decorative stone retaining wall as part of his landscape design. It’s quite clear from the Kansas City Star video (posted below) that the homeowner’s landscape is attractive. So what’s the problem?

The HOA complains that, although Hildebrand did get approval for installation of his new landscape, he didn’t get permission for the short stone border walls that surround his new landscape beds.

Because the rules are the rules, Avignon board members felt they simply couldn’t let a homeowner get away with such rebellious behavior. The HOA insisted the low retaining walls had to go. The homeowner sued the HOA.

The lawsuit dragged on until January 2018, when a Judge ruled that Avignon Homes Association had to allow Hildebrand to keep his landscape as is, but that the homeowner must still pay $25,000 in fines to the HOA for not following the application approval process.

Many assumed that was the end of the battle. But now the HOA has decided to appeal the January ruling. And they’re willing to spend close to a million dollars to prove their point, despite the fact that quite a few of Hildebrand’s neighbors think his landscape looks great.

So Avignon is divided between the homeowners who side with Hildebrand, and those who side with the board of directors. And it’s all about the rules.

Olathe HOA landscaping dispute heads to appeals court as legal costs near $1 million

Kansas City Star

October 26, 2018 12:23 PM
Updated October 26, 2018 04:45 PM
As legal costs soar toward $1 million, a years-long court battle over a landscaping project in an Olathe HOA is headed to the Kansas Court of Appeals.

The board of the Avignon Villa Homes Community Association has filed notice in Johnson County District Court that it is appealing a ruling issued in January by Johnson County District Judge Rhonda K. Mason.

Many assumed the ruling would settle once and for all the lawsuit that homeowner Jim Hildenbrand filed against the Avignon Villa Homes Community Association in 2013.

Read more here:

Highlighted Excerpt:
[Jim] Hildenbrand said his landscaping project “improved my property value and improved curb appeal and beauty to the neighborhood.” He said he would not cave in to the HOA’s “hardball tactics.”

“Isn’t this what it’s all about?” he said. “Principles and protecting our constitutional rights? I do want an HOA, where I don’t have broken down cars, boats, and campers sitting around. That’s all reasonable, that you keep up the neighborhood. But this is no longer reasonable. This is about total control and people who are not anywhere close to being qualified to run any type of financial business matters.”

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Did you catch Hildebrand’s remarks about the HOA? “I do want an HOA, where I don’t have broken down cars, boats, and campers sitting around.”

With all due respect to Hildebrand, but where do people get the idea that the ONLY way to have a “nice” neighborhood is to have an HOA?

Before HOAs, was there an epidemic of neighbors with “broken down cars, boats, and campers sitting around?”

Because, if there was, I certainly don’t remember it.

Perhaps we need to ask ourselves, why do we not trust the residents of our neighborhood to do their best to maintain their private property? So what if a few fail to live up to our expectations now and then.

If we’re not happy with the way our neighbor’s property looks, why don’t we talk to our neighbor and find out if there’s a reasonable explanation. Is there a family illness? Too much overtime at work? Maybe money is tight due to job loss?

Why not behave like members of a true community, and offer to help with our neighbor’s burdens? That certainly seems to be a better solution than punishing one another by imposing fines for having a less-than-pristine yard.

The sad truth is, when you give a small group of people near-absolute power to dictate how you can use your property, sooner or later, they are likely to abuse that power. And, in many cases, the HOA isn’t fighting about an unattractive property, it’s just making a power play, and dividing neighbors in the process.

Gated community gate house condo townhouse
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Gates added to curtail crime and traffic

In Jackson, Mississippi, several HOA-governed neighborhoods are putting up “public access gates.” Residents say the gates are needed to cut down on crime and to prevent outsiders from speeding along their neighborhood roads.

In most gated communities, a developer installs entry gates near the start of home construction.

But Jackson’s newest gates are being added by homeowners, where no gates currently exist. In fact, citizens pressured City Council to update their gate Ordinance. That allowed for a vote  by 75% of lot owners in each HOA neighborhood to vote in favor of installing neighborhood entry gates.

Of course, the HOAs will pay for installation and maintenance of their new gates. And there’s no guarantee their gated neighborhoods will be safe.

Sadly, only one member of City Council voted against the installation of public access gates, while five members voted in favor. Not surprising, since several Jackson City Council members also happen to live in gated communities.

The new public access gates are a highly visible example of dividing Americans by neighborhood, based upon fear, be it real or imagined.

‘I’m afraid to let my grandkids play in the yard.’ More access gates approved in Jackson

Justin Vicory, Mississippi Clarion Ledger Published 5:30 a.m. CT Oct. 25, 2018 | Updated 8:28 a.m. CT Oct. 25, 2018

The Jackson City Council approved the installation of two public access gates Tuesday night, capping off a multiyear push from some residents to make their neighborhoods more secure.

The council voted 5 to 1 to allow the installation of gates in the Northpointe and Rollingwood neighborhoods, both adjacent to Old Canton Road in north Jackson.

Councilman Kenneth Stokes voted against the gates. Stokes said previously that he fears gates will become commonplace across the city and could be seen as Jackson residents sealing themselves off from one another.

President of the Villages of Northpointe Homeowners Association, Lisa Miller Nettles, called the council approval “the end of a long journey.” Nettles has led the charge to get gates approved by the council and craft an official gate ordinance.

The council’s approval on Tuesday of the two neighborhood gates follows the approval of a public access gate on Kristen Drive by the North Lake Homeowners Association in July.

Homeowners associations bear all costs and responsibility for the construction and installation of gates. In Northpointe’s case, the gates will cost about $100,000, Nettles said.

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50th anniversary fair housing HUD poster
HUD Fair Housing Poster, 50th Anniversary

Divided by race?

Meanwhile, in DeLand, Florida, one HOA decided to tighten up its rental restrictions, even though only four of the community’s 45 homes were rented at the time its covenants and restrictions were amended.

It just so happens that all four of the homes were being leased to black tenants.

Neither the tenants nor their landlord homeowners appreciate the HOA’s new rental restrictions. In fact, the incident has sparked a lawsuit against Sugarberry Glen HOA.

The lawsuit, according to the West Volusia Beacon, alleges discrimination, as well as an improper amendment procedure. The owners of three rental properties purchased the homes as investments, but two of their tenant families have decided to move out of Sugarberry Glen, feeling unwelcome in their own homes.

Apparently, the HOA convinced a supermajority of homeowners to approve tighter rental restrictions by spreading the common myth that tenants don’t take care of the properties they rent. And, of course, if that were true, it would certainly reduce property values.

It’s unfair to assume that homeowners care more about their homes than renters. In fact, some tenants ultimately purchase a home in the very same neighborhood.

Nevertheless, it’s quite common to see division between owners and non-owners in HOAs. And renters are almost always treated as second-class citizens.

Landlords sue over rental ban
Only renters in community were black families

Eli Witek Oct 17, 2018

The spat over whether to ban rental houses in a DeLand neighborhood would be just another HOA dispute, except for one thing: All four of the rentals in Sugarberry Glen were occupied by black people.

According to a lawsuit filed Oct. 16 by the owners of three of those rental houses, there are 45 homes in the 3-year-old subdivision near DeLand High School.

In July, when members of the homeowners association board circulated petitions to ban rentals, the neighborhood had five black or mixed-race families. Four of those families were renters.

DeLand attorney Sherri Akin is representing Tonya and Andrew Bomba of DeLand, who bought their three houses as an investment, and have been renting them for about two years.

Akin said whether the HOA board intended to discriminate against people of color, their action does so. She referenced an HOA-board letter to residents that suggests renters might harm property values.

“Restriction on rentals due to possible decreases in property value is a very concerning statement. It harks back to a time when these types of statements were used to freeze out minorities.”

The Bombas’ lawsuit asks the court to reverse an amendment to the HOA covenants that was recorded Aug. 8.

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Condo apartment interior
Condo apartment interior (Photo by Patrick Perkins on Unsplash)

Where will you live if you rent rather than buy a home?

America’s bias in favor of homeowners has far-reaching effects that go beyond individual HOA-governed neighborhoods.

For example, as reported in The Crier, an influential civic association near Atlanta, the Dunwoody HOA (DHA), has pressured a real estate developer into building 900 condos instead of 1,200 apartments.

The terms of the development agreement are onerous. DHA has negotiated a seat on the “homeowner’s board for the condos,” and expects the future condo associations to limit rentals to 10 percent of all units.

But what if market demand (and lack of financing) won’t support hundreds of condos? And how will future condo boards enforce such a strict rental policy?

Clearly, DHA has a strong anti-renter sentiment.

By the way, the developer knows that when he fails to attract 900 buyers for condos in Dunwoody, he can go back to City leaders to request an amendment to the agreement.

But, in the meantime, if you cannot afford to buy a home, or don’t want to, you probably won’t find many rental apartments in Dunwoody. And if you do, they certainly won’t be affordable if you’re not wealthy.

According to Pew Research Center, more than one third of U.S. households rent rather than own a home.

Where will all of America’s renters live, if HOAs large and small continue to reject tenants in their neighborhoods, while at the same time, objecting to construction of new apartment communities?

900 condos in 4 towers win approval by Dunwoody Planning Commission

By Dick Williams For The Crier

Patience has become a virtue for Grubb Properties in its effort to re-develop a large tract in Perimeter Center.

The company began talks with the city more than two years ago and has seen its plan make multiple trips before the Dunwoody Homeowners’ Association and the city planning commission.

The commission voted unanimously last week to support Grubb in its revised effort to build 900 condo units and attendant parking decks in four towers. In its first go-round, Grubb proposed building 1200 apartments.

The new plan also won the support of the Dunwoody Homeowners’ Association. The DHA’s former president, Robert Wittenstein testified before the planning group.

“We like this project very much,” he said, adding that it includes an agreement to limit the number of rental units at any one time to 10 percent and for a non-voting DHA member to sit on the homeowner’s board for the condos.

The project will replace three buildings, 41, 47 and 53 Perimeter Center East, one of which contained the first Dunwoody city hall and police headquarters.

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