By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities
Baby Boomers won’t run HOA boards forever. Expect to see increased HOA participation of younger homeowners.
Have you ever noticed that most condo and HOA board members are older adults, usually retired people?
Over the years, many of my readers have.
One reader, J.C., wrote to me recently, wondering who, if anyone, will become active in their HOA-governed community when the older generations are no longer around to serve on the board or any of its standing committees?
That’s a good question.
Here’s why I’m optimistic about the future civic engagement of Millennials and GenX-ers. And in HOA-ville, that could be a serious game changer.
HOAs don’t exactly encourage new ways of thinking
At first glance, it appears that the Millennial and GenX generations don’t appear to show much interest in getting involved with their HOAs.
As a practical matter, most working adults, especially parents with children, simply lack the time and energy to attend boring HOA meetings or read the occasional outdated newsletter.
So, are HOA members, especially younger homeowners, apathetic about their communities? Not necessarily, based upon IAC reader emails.
Younger adults in their 30s and 40s often tell me they want to replace their older, entrenched HOA board members with someone their age.
Not surprisingly, there’s a clear generational divide between Baby Boomers running the HOA and younger homeowners and residents with different priorities and world views.
I hear from many new homeowners who are surprised and frustrated with one-way communication from their HOA.
They can’t understand why their current board and management team puts up numerous roadblocks to prevent new candidates from running for election.
Over and over again, owners tell me their HOA makes it difficult or impossible to communicate with other homeowners about their campaign to unseat unpopular board members.
For example, one California HOA homeowner recently wrote to me explaining that younger homeowners are completely fed up with certain members who have been on the board for many, many years.
The homeowner and his friends don’t see the value in the HOA board’s pet projects, including a multi-million dollar contract completely renovate their HOA clubhouse and restaurant —- without a vote of members.
California law requires a membership vote for community improvement projects exceeding $2 million. But the HOA board chose to go around state law by classifying the renovation project as regular maintenance.
Another west-coast reader tells that me he and other owners don’t like their HOA board’s stance against short term rentals. He points out that the small cabin he owns is located in a woodsy, resort-style HOA-governed community, very near near to popular and well known national park.
The mountainous area attracts outdoor enthusiasts from all 50 states and from around the world. Most working-age owners don’t live in this resort community year-round. Their cabins and cottages serve as weekend retreats and summer vacation destinations.
Rather than allow their second homes to sit empty and idle most of the year, many property owners rely on their ability to generate revenue from short-term rental of their homes.
The problem is, every member of the community’s HOA board is a retired, full-time resident. And the since the current HOA board members would prefer a quiet, private community, they object to the steady stream of vacationing strangers passing through “their” private enclave.
Rough road to neighborhood transition
In an ideal world, an HOA board would consider the interests of all of its members, including both full-time and part-time residents. But, alas, HOA governance is far from ideal.
There’s no single “right” was to govern a common interest community.
After all, the best use of an HOA-governed property varies by its location, nearby amenities, and infrastructure. Some communities work best as residential neighborhoods, while others work best as vacation properties.
Furthermore, HOA neighborhoods are dynamic places that cannot avoid transition with each new generation of owners.
Last year, the young upstarts in California made an attempt to recall their old HOA board. While they did rack up a respectable number of votes in favor of the recall, it was not enough to remove the board.
The group’s current goal is to replace the Old Guard HOA with new board members in its next regular election.
HOA change won’t come easy
But political change never comes easy in HOA-ville.
That’s because the board incumbents typically filter the information they choose to provide to HOA members.
Unlike city government, HOAs are private organizations that don’t have to allow non-members to attend meetings. That’s why HOAs typically exclude members of the media and citizen watchdog groups.
With rare exception, HOAs are about as transparent as a brick wall.
The communication Brick Wall
Judging from frequent complaints of readers, official HOA publications are nothing more than a public relations campaign. It’s HOA reputation management on steroids. Homeowners usually won’t read objective or factual content, let alone opposing points of view.
In response, dissident HOA homeowners may start their own social media groups on Facebook or Nextdoor. These groups may be the only way neighbors can engage in unfiltered discussion of important HOA issues.
It’s safe to say that, while younger HOA members are often vocal about their concerns on social media, they have little time or patience for attending long-winded meetings. Likewise, they’re even less interested in following formal, old-school protocol such as Roberts Rules of Order.
High expectations for amenities and service
One other observation about younger adults: Millennials and Gen-Xers challenge HOA status quo, because they have entirely different expectations and aspirations than their parents and grandparents.
Today’s younger HOA owners are used to more modern apartments and university housing. They expect their community to be vibrant and stylish. Despite their small housing budgets, many demand modern conveniences such as air conditioning, dishwashers and microwaves, solid surface counter tops, and smart home technology.
Busy working professionals also rely heavily on convenience services such as home delivery of groceries, meals, and dry cleaning. And they’re willing to pay for these time savers.
Expectation of good service
Although Millennials have delayed buying a home, when they do finally take the leap — often starting with a condo or townhouse — these new, younger owners expect a high level of service in exchange for their HOA fees.
Especially in the eyes of younger homeowners, the HOA is viewed as a service provider, not a political organization.
That’s why younger homeowners don’t think they should have to keep a close watch over their HOA board and manager. Most first-time homeowners don’t expect to deal with messy HOA politics.
This naive perception of reality is not surprising. After all, the real estate industry consistently sells the HOA-governed community as an amenity-rich, “low maintenance” lifestyle choice.
Short-term commitment to “starter homes”
In contrast to retired adults, younger buyers of condos and townhouses don’t expect to live in their homes for the long term. Most plan to sell their unit and buy a single family home within a few years.
And some owners who later decide to move out of the community hold onto their condo as an investment rental property.
As a result, young adults may not bother to get deeply involved in the governance of their condo or homeowners association, unless or until they’re personally hit with substantial HOA fee increases or abusive fines.
On the other hand, Baby Boomers often buy into condo and townhouse communities intending to stay through their retirement years. Because nonworking homeowners tend to have more free time, they’re more likely to wind up on serving on HOA boards or committees.
Moving to a “forever home” increases civic engagement at the local level
Eventually, however, many young adults tire of multifamily living, especially after they marry and decide to start a family.
Once they decide to put down roots and move to a detached “forever home,” homeowners expect to have more control over their property and lifestyle choices.
That’s when many homeowners “wake up” to the reality that their HOA claims way too much power, stomping all over their rights.
Younger homeowners don’t embrace so-called HOA “benefits”
Unlike previous generations, most Millennial and Gen-X residents of HOAs appear to care more about quality of life than accumulation of status symbols. Because they value individuality, they’re not impressed by uniform architectural design and “cookie cutter” homes.
There’s also plenty of hard data to show that younger generations are more racially and culturally diverse. Likewise, adults in their 30s and 40s tend to be burdened with debt and stressed out about it. That makes homeowners even more sensitive to rising HOA fees.
Like their parents and grandparents, adults under the age of 50 value their Constitutional and Civil rights, especially free speech. So the HOA industry should expect continued backlash on their attempts to silence critics.
Technology increases civic engagement
Here’s some good news. Millennials and GenXers do get involved in government when they’re given the opportunity.
For example, local governments that embrace technology are reaching more of their younger constituents though social media. Experts confirm that younger adults are participating in government by viewing videotaping meetings, attending virtual town halls, and completing online surveys.
Public administration experts say these communication methods boost participation across the board, and especially from younger voters.
Optimistic for positive change
For nearly 50 years, the agenda of influential real estate special interest groups has flourished with the blessings of local, state, and federal governments. But slowly, Americans of all ages are discovering that the housing industry is rigged to benefit stakeholders in the industry.
With increased public awareness and political pressure for more diverse and affordable housing choices, government leaders must start to question the wisdom of common interest housing and double taxation of homeowners.
And, with so many poorly managed, troubled, and blighted common interest communities reaching the point of obsolescence, political leaders can no longer cling to the faulty belief that HOAs and deed restrictions protect and enhance property values.
As Millennial and GenX residents of HOA-governed communities come of age, I expect to see increasing backlash against the status quo.
A matter of trust?
Let’s face it. Being much more technically savvy than Baby Boomers, 30- and 40-somethings have astute bulls**t meters. They’ve grown up listening to politicians spin the truth to suit their agendas.
As a result, they’re less apt to blindly trust local government leaders, be they City Hall commissioners or condo and HOA board members.
That’s why I’m actually optimistic that America’s more diverse and younger generations will indeed get involved when their HOAs overstep their authority.
Who knows? In less than a generation, the HOA-governed community and its dysfunctional and destructive corporate management style could become obsolete. ♦
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