By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities
Yesterday I reposted one of my previous articles, which sparked a spirited discussion of abolishing the power of HOAs to fine their neighbors. Today’s post takes the discussion to the next level.
In case you missed it, here’s the link:
Do we really need or want HOAs to be The Enforcers?
Why abolish HOA power to fine?
A growing number of people agree that giving a homeowners,’ condominium, or co-op board the power to fine is a very bad idea. They understand, some of them from personal experience, that HOA boards regularly engage in selective enforcement and abuse of power.
Opponents of HOA fines also recognize that it’s common for HOA management companies and attorneys exploit the punitive fine as an added revenue source. The truth is, management companies and attorneys make thousands of dollars enforcing covenants, restrictions, rules, and regulations — far more money than the HOA generates for itself.
Critics of enabling HOAs to impose fines point out that the internal decision to fine a homeowner or resident lacks a sense of fair play. Let’s face it, board members and their appointed covenants violation committees are rarely neutral, objective parties in HOA disputes.
Therefore, covenant violation hearings don’t offer due process, unless you consider kangaroo court to be due process.
Consider that in most cases, the punishment does not fit the HOA “crime.” A monetary fine is either too small to deter repeat violations, or too large in relation to the offense.
And, quite frankly, a majority of rules in association-governed communities are unnecessary, petty, or just plain stupid. Breaking them, most of the time, causes no real harm to people or property.
HOA rules and fines don’t necessarily protect property values
Perception is not always reality. Home buyer and homeowners have been conditioned to assume that HOA rules will magically create perfect neighbors in pristine communities.
And I confess that when I purchased a home in an HOA about a decade ago, I, too, believed this real estate fantasy.
However, within less than a year, I noticed that the HOA was woefully unsuccessful at making dozens of foreclosure zombie homes look good.
And, while the HOA manager was intent on sending out “scolding” newletters as reminders for owners to power wash their homes and driveways, the walkways at the HOA park were absolutely black and slimy with mold and mildew.
In the meantime, I had to engage in a 2-month long process just to get the HOA committee to approve paint colors so I could repaint my home the exact same colors.
Then the HOA started hassling some neighbors about parking their car in the driveway instead of the garage, having backyard canopies or swing sets in view of the golf course, or leaving children’s toys outside in the front yard overnight.
That’s when I realized that it’s a bad idea to hand over too much power to the HOA board.
I have since learned that my former HOA was way more reasonable than many others.
The decades-old “property values” sales pitch has just about run its course.
In a self-funded 2018 survey conducted by trade group Community Associations Institute, 32% of respondents said they do not believe that the rules protect and enhance property values. That’s a significant increase from 20% of homeowners who responded to the survey in 2005.
But contradictory results of a 2016 survey by the same trade group show that, from 2005 – 2016, less than one-third of residents actively sought out a homeowners association before they purchased or signed a lease.
If nearly two-thirds of HOA residents think rules are good for property values, then why did only one-third of current residents insist on housing under HOA governance?
Something doesn’t jive.
Another HOA research review, written by Erin Hopkins of Virginia Tech, concluded that HOAs and underlying CC&Rs have little to no impact on property values of older, more established communities. In other words, residents of older, more established communities are more likely to see rules and restrictions as undesirable.
The logical conclusions: as deed restricted and common interest communities continue to age, fewer and fewer residents value HOA enforcement of unpopular rules and standards. Therefore, it would seem there will be dwindling support for enabling HOAs to fine their neighbors as a method of forcing them to conform to outdated and arbitrary “good neighbor” standards.
Along the same lines, in another recent survey conducted by InsuranceQuote.com, 52% of Baby-Boomers said they “love” their HOA. But only 31% of Gen Xers and 39% of Millennials share an affection for HOAs. And, not surprisingly, most of the HOA lovers happen to be current and former board members.
Apparently, it’s a lot more enjoyable to be the Enforcer vs. the Enforcee!
To a growing number of Americans, the bad outweighs the good when it comes to HOAs.
After all, if you’re dissatisfied with government officials, you retain a great deal more power to hold them accountable — both at the ballot box and in the court of public opinion.
On the other hand, the typical corporate, nonprofit HOA engages in legal “go-arounds” to avoid accountability to the people at the hyper-local level.
The HOA Defenders fear abolishing HOA fines
Despite these national trends, there’s still a minority base of homeowners — many of them real estate industry stakeholders — who believe that punishing their neighbors with fines serves as a deterrent to “bad neighbor” behavior.
By now, it’s been well-documented that HOA fines don’t work for nuisance disputes. In fact, most HOAs avoid getting in the middle of neighbor disputes over noise and pets.
And there’s very little your HOA can do to control the behavior of a difficult or anti-social neighbor. Fines won’t help, and may encourage more bad behavior.
But…if we abolish HOA fines, how will HOA force residents to maintain their properties and be good neighbors?
The simple answer is that you cannot control the behavior of other people — you can only control your response to their behavior.
Let’s think outside the HOA box for a change.
If you have a neighbor that hasn’t been mowing their lawn regularly, and hasn’t kept their house looking clean and shiny, how should you react?
1. Don’t assume the worst.
In HOA-ville and beyond, Americans have a destructive tendency to assume that if their neighbor does something they don’t like, it must be intentional. It’s often assumed that the untidy neighbor is being inconsiderate and selfish.
But maybe that’s not the case.
Maintaining a home is hard, time-consuming work.
When a homeowner doesn’t have the physical stamina, skill, or time to do what’s necessary, he or she may have to hire someone to help.
All of us have been there at some point, or will be in the future.
And with a shortage of skilled labor, it can take weeks or months for a homeowner to find a trustworthy contractor to take on maintenance and repair tasks.
Or, maybe a homeowner doesn’t have enough money to pay for help.
We sometimes forget that people have lives beyond their homes. Family illness, marital problems, a recent divorce, a death in the family, job loss, or any number of circumstances can get in the way of maintaining one’s home to HGTV staged-home standards.
More likely than not, there’s a reasonable explanation for the declining condition of your neighbor’s home.
2. Offer to help
At one time, good neighbors used to help one another through difficult times. They would occasionally visit the old woman who lives alone, and offer to mow her lawn.
A group of neighbors might bring prepared meals to a new parents, to family members tending a sick child, or mourning the death of a loved one.
Enterprising youths would offer to help shovel snow or rake leaves for a few dollars, or maybe some milk and cookies.
We need to return to this more productive, compassionate mindset.
So, for example, if your neighbor’s moldy garage door bothers you, why not stop over with your power washer and offer to let him borrow it for the day? Or offer to help with the task.
3. Work with your HOA to negotiate neighborhood discounts for local home services
If your HOA wants to take on a more positive, proactive role, the board should talk to local contractors about offering discounted rates within the community. This solution could be a win-win for small business owners and homeowners.
Homeowners would have a short list of recommended service providers to call when needed, and at competitive pricing.
Small businesses would have the potential to grow their customer base.
But — and this is important — don’t force homeowners and residents to use only “approved” contractors.
To help homeowners who cannot afford to pay hired help, the HOA might consider doing an annual fund-raiser to help neighbors with a documented hardship.
4. Fences (and hedges) make good neighbors, if the HOA allows
When neighbors cannot agree on standards of appearance, the standard HOA opposition to backyard privacy gets in the way of this common sense solution. This takes us back to the discussion of why so many homeowners dislike HOA restrictions.
What if your HOA could amend CC&Rs to relax or eliminate fence or hedge restrictions? In some cases, a simple barrier goes a long way toward creating privacy and neighborhood harmony.
In conclusion, homeowners can be better neighbors, and build stronger communities by protecting the value of people instead of property.
Abolishing HOA fines would be a great first step in the right direction.