What is an HOA “Master Association?”

By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities

Do you live in common interest communities where you are required to pay assessments to more than one HOA — a Sub-association and a Master Association? Then you may be curious about the purpose of a Master Association.

Think of a Master Association as an “umbrella” association that manages common areas shared by members of several different phases or sections of a large planned community, each governed by separate Sub-associations.

You’re most likely to find a Master Association in large master planned developments such as The Villages in Florida, or several of the retirement communities developed by Del Webb.

Other examples: Poinciana or Celebration, in Florida. Reston in Virgina. Leisure World in both Maryland and California. Generally, any large planned development of at least 1000 homes, typically including a variety of recreational amenities or commercial property.

Although Master Associations are most commonly seen in large-scale common interest communities, they sometimes exist in smaller subdivisions.

Whenever a planned community consists of at least two different types of housing, such as condos and single family homes, or a mixture of residential and commercial properties, you’ll usually find a Master Association governing 2 or more Sub-associations.

Powers of a Master Association

Typically, a Master Association has the authority to create an annual budget and set assessments to meet its expenses. A master HOA may collect assessments to pay for private roads, community-wide storm water management, shared recreational amenities, and more.

(Note: sometimes a special district, such as development district or utility district exists as a separate public taxing authority with responsibility for maintenance.)

The master association often enacts rules and enforces CC&Rs and architectural standards. It obtains relevant insurance policies. Matters involving traffic control, parking, crime prevention, security, gated entries, and more, are often addressed at the Master Association level.

The Master Association can raise HOA assessment levels, make major financial commitments on behalf of all members, or amend governing documents.

Master Association generally delegates some management tasks to each Sub-association, because each Sub-association has different responsibilities, depending on the type of housing (condo, townhouse, or detached home) they manage. Or perhaps amenities such as swimming pools or roof decks are exclusive to a single Sub-association, requiring different levels of service.

HOA assessments and fees may be collected by both the Sub and the Master Associations, or one Association may collect fees and distribute a portion of total fees to the other Association. The process varies in each common interest community.

Regardless of the division of responsibilities, it’s important for homeowners to understand that a Master Association’s decisions are normally delegated to a handful of delegates representing Sub-Associations.

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Member voting rights, powers diluted by Master Association

This may be surprising to some readers, but, in master planned communities, HOA members rarely get a direct vote. 

As a paying member of the Master Association, you probably won’t vote directly on Master HOA decisions. And, most likely, you cannot directly vote for each of its board members.

For example, if your planned community is divided into separate Villages, each  Sub-association appoints one of its board members —- usually the President — to serve on the Master HOA board.

A few older large-scale communities appoint delegate or representatives to the Master Association, based upon Voting Districts instead individual Sub-associations.

Like a City, but not…

In some ways, these political structures are similar to that of larger municipal governments. In many cities, registered voters will elect a City Council member to represent their respective Voting Districts. Typically, two additional seats on City Council will be filled by “at large” candidates elected by voters of all Districts.

However, in HOAville, the process isn’t necessarily democratic, mainly because HOA members don’t actually elect members to the Master Association board.

For example read my previous post: Leisure World MD owners seek democratic elections.

See also: What Are HOA District Reps and Delegates? (hoaleader.com, July 2016)

In Leisure world, members of the Master Association are selected by the boards of each Mutual Sub-Association, not elected by all members of the sprawling community.

To clarify, although members do elect their Village or Sub-association boards (after the developer turns over control of the HOA), they do not elect officers of the board. A homeowners, condominium, or co-op board of directors typically elects its own board President, Vice President, Secretary, and Treasurer, and chooses which Officer of the board will represent the Sub-association on the Master Association.

If the community is divided into Voting Districts rather than Sub-Associations, there’s usually no formal election process for the District Representative on the board. Since a Voting District is not a separate corporate entity, no state law governs the selection process.

Often the District Representative (also known as a Delegate or Voting Member) will be anyone who volunteers for the job, someone selected by a Nominating Committee, or informally voted to the position by members of the District.

The usual HOA industry excuse for not giving owner-members a direct vote at the Master Association level: the sheer size of the community makes obtaining a quorum impossible. The quorum sets a minimum voter participation level for the association, often 20-30 percent of total membership.

By contrast, local municipalities of a similar size or much larger than a master planned community have been running elections on a one person, one resident, registered voter basis — without a quorum — for more than a century.

Clearly, it would be possible to conduct a democratic election in large common interest communities, if the HOA industry would allow for removing quorum requirements, among other voting reforms.

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Long term developer control of communities through the Master Association

The truth is, the Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions (CC&Rs), which homeowners “agree” to, upon taking title to their homes, often contain provisions that give the Declarant (developer) legal rights and powers to amend governing documents, including the right to raise assessments without consent or vote of homeowners.

Usually, a developer controls the Master Community Association for many, many years — at least as long as it takes to complete multiple phases of development.

For example, consider the Association of Poinciana Villages (APV) in Florida, a community of more than 50,000 residents that is still developer-controlled after more than 40 years. Poinciana’s board of delegates for the Master Association (APV) consists of the 9 Sub-association or “Village” HOA Presidents.

Poinciana’s developer also retains rights to cast thousands of votes for unsold, even undeveloped parcels. As a result, developer votes almost always outnumber votes of homeowner members in each of the 9 Villages. As long as the developer or its affiliates retains a majority of seats on Village boards, it will also control a majority of the Master Association board.

See Poinciana owners say developer cast thousands of invalid votes in HOA election

Fight over money

Infighting and rivalry among Master Association and Sub-associations

Having once lived in a large-scale association-governed community, and having learned about dozens of others in the U.S., it’s obvious that dividing communities into several separate neighborhoods or villages creates unhealthy rivalries and internal political battles.

Think of master planned community infighting as sibling rivalry.

Sometimes the interests of Sub-associations conflict with the Master Associations, and that leads to lawsuits between associations within the same community.

See: Phase 1 POA suing Millville by the Sea Master Association and others

Village 1 Millville by the Sea Property Owners’ Association (POA) — consisting of homeowners of the Sand Dollar Village — is suing the Millville by the Sea Master Community Association and other developer-controlled enterprises, as well as three former board members. The POA claims that their members are being overcharged for access to the amenity center, in violation of governing documents. The POA also alleges that the developer is no longer funding maintenance of Sand Dollar Village roads, also a breach of contract.

Developer control plus delegation of duties creates potential for conflict

For example, take a look at a the Sweetwater by Del Webb HOA (a Master Association), in Florida.

This screenshot of the CC&Rs for the Master Associtiation states that the developer appoints members to the board — including a minority of homeowner members — so as to maintain a majority on the board until turnover. (Yellow box)

But even after turnover, homeowners will only directly elect 4 of the 7 members of their Master Association board. (Red box)

And that’s generous, because I’ve read many governing documents where all members of the Master Association board are appointed by each Sub-association.

Master association voting rights
Screen capture of governing documents for Sweetwater HOA, a Del Webb Community in Florida.

You can also see that the Declarant/developer (the Class B member) can amend the Bylaws without a the consent of homeowner members (Class A members). In other words, the developer can change the election process, annual meeting rules, in ways that might not serve future homeowners.

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And here you can see how this Master Association can decide how to divide expenses between itself and each Sub-association. If the Sub-association doesn’t pay the Master Association its share of assessments, the Master Association can sue the Sub-association. (Red box)

Think about it. What if the Sub-Association thinks the Master Association is overcharging its members for common services?

And what if the Sub-association fails to render it services, or doesn’t keep up with maintenance?  Then the Master Association may step in and take over, but it doesn’t have to. (Yellow box)

If the Master Association does take over the duties of a negligent Sub-association, it will be able to charge homeowners for its service, probably at a higher cost.

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4th and 5th layers of government

Taking all of these factors together, a community with a Master Association multiple Sub-associations creates two additional layers of government, beyond the local governing bodies funded by property, sales, and income taxes.

In short, your Master Association is the 4th layer of government, and your Sub-association is the fifth. And each HOA demands you pay its fees and obey its covenants, restrictions, and rules.