By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities
2020 has been one heck of a year so far. We’ve endured brutal economic lockdowns and months of uncertainty amidst a global pandemic. Racial tensions and violence are at a fever pitch in cities across America. And we’re all on edge in a highly politicized Presidential election year.
At times of crisis or transition, the people of our great nation have a choice. We can set aside our differences and unite. We can work together to resolve common problems. Or we can dig in our heels and resist any change that doesn’t fit our political ideology — in the process, potentially rejecting solutions that are fair and just.
Unfortunately, too many Americans seem to have chosen the latter option. Many agree that we’re more divided than ever.
And the highly visible political divide over our Presidential election is just the tip of the iceberg. At the local level, and especially in HOA-governed communities, neighbors just can’t seem to get along.
According to a number of reports across the nation, our neighborhoods and housing communities have become war zones. They have become hotbeds for bitter lawsuits pitting neighbor against neighbor, or, more precisely, homeowners and residents against HOAs.
Several recent reports shed light on growing unrest in common interest communities.
A brief summary of HOA disputes in the news this month
In the past few weeks, several reports illustrate the very roots of division within America. Bitter division over arbitrary HOA restrictions and rules. Irrational fear of reduced property values. Paranoia over neighborhood safety and security.
From HOA fines and threats of foreclosure for having a less-than-perfect landscape, to residents filing lawsuits against their HOAs, alleging racial and disability discrimination — community divisions run the gamut.
Here’s a brief news summary.
You’ve tested positive for COVID 19? You can’t come home.
A Los Angeles, California condo association denies an elderly disabled woman the right to re-enter her home after being discharged from the hospital. She and her two home health aides have recently recovered from COVID-19, but the HOA still won’t allow the owner and her caregivers to return.
HOA threat — keep your lawn pristine or else!
In Minneapolis, a neighborhood association cracks down on rules enforcing strict landscape maintenance standards and restrictions on parking in driveways. Despite economic pressures reducing household income for many Americans, some HOAs are hitting homeowners with hefty fines. To make matters worse, as some owners struggle to pay their bills, HOAs are adding stiff penalties and late fees on top of regular assessments. Homeowners are forced to borrow money to pay off the HOA. If they do not pay up, they risk losing their home to foreclosure.
HOA rules trump freedom of speech?
In Colorado, Delaware, and Minnesota, homeowners spar with their HOAs over their First Amendment rights to display the American and military flags and political signs. Some of the signs support activist groups, or others express messages of social justice.
As usual, authoritarian voices in the HOA industry (HOA attorneys and management agents) insist that “the rules are the rules.” They remind residents that they ”agreed” to give up freedom of speech when they chose to buy or lease in an HOA-governed community.
HOA dispute over common tennis courts pits Jews vs. Gentiles.
In Florida, homeowners battle over use of the common tennis courts. One condo owner recently filed a discrimination lawsuit against her HOA. The lawsuit accuses the HOA of punishing her because she’s one of the few residents who isn’t Jewish. According to the homeowner’s attorney, a condo board member is allegedly calling the resident a “Shiksa” and angrily suggested that she move out of the “80 percent Jewish” community.
In its defense, the condo association says that the homeowner threatened and assaulted her neighbors, during a recent dispute at the community’s tennis court.
HOA security guards threaten and oppress residents.
In Pennsylvania, the owner of a home in a gated Pocono-area community is suing his HOA and its security guards. The homeowner alleges that, for no good reason, the gate guards refused to allow his guest to enter the community. The homeowner had to personally go to the entry gate to retrieve his guest.
Shortly thereafter, two armed security guards showed up at his home. The pair allegedly attempted an unauthorized entry, repeatedly threatening and intimidating the homeowner and his guest.
Most residents assume that a gated entry keeps a community safe. But, in this case, a homeowner fears for his safety and that of his guest, at the hands of HOA security guards.
These are just a few examples of oppression and division in HOA-governed communities. See the News Reference section at the end of this post for source links.
Root causes of HOA problems
I’ve been following HOA horror stories — from local news reports to personal experiences shared by my readers — for more than 7 years.
Most of these HOA conflicts follow the same predictable behavior patterns. And, as I’ve explained previously, HOA problems can be exceedingly difficult to resolve.
In my opinion, that’s because the root causes of HOA problems are well-entrenched in government housing policy, as well as the real estate industry.
I’ll discuss several of these deeply-rooted systemic flaws that lead to a poor quality of life for millions of Americans living in HOA-governed housing.
Misplaced “community” values
If you ask leaders in the U.S. housing industry — or their institutional supporters — why HOAs exist, they’ll tell you the main purpose of an HOA is to protect property values. But this well-documented HOA-industry value begins with a misguided assumption.
For decades, the industry has repeated the mantra: if a privately-governed community can keep the neighborhood looking good, then each property will command its maximum possible sale price.
But the financial stakeholders promoting HOA-governed housing fail to recognize a fundamental truth. Most people buy a home to live in. In general, we buy a home to establish our independence, to create our own personal refuge, to start a household or to raise children, or to retire peacefully. Some of us might even buy a second property to enjoy as a seasonal home or vacation destination.
In other words, the vast majority of us don’t view homeownership as a pure investment, completely devoid of emotional attachment.
For most Americans, the whole point of owning a home, aside from slowly building equity over time, is to gain personal control over where and how we choose to live. But in restricted communities, we’re often disappointed to learn we have very little control over our own homes.
The industry relies on HOA control to survive
Fact: Today’s ”modern” HOA usurps control over your property rights and personal freedoms. This is no accident. It’s an intentional part of common interest development. HOA control is baked into the design of restricted and shared ownership communities.
Real estate developers and management companies claim that HOA control is necessary to fulfill the industry’s lofty promises of utopia:
- a low-maintenance lifestyle, especially in townhouse and condo communities
- attractive and exclusive recreational amenities, just steps away from your home
- a safe and secure living environment,
- attractive green spaces and common areas, and guaranteed neighborhood curb appeal.
But here’s what’s not part of the typical HOA sales pitch: you pay a high price for this so-called utopia. Beyond the obvious HOA fees, you have little choice but to hand over a lot of control over your property and your lifestyle to your HOA. Your sacrifice of personal control, in turn, tends to limit your individual rights and freedoms.
HOA power plays
Sooner or later, homeowners and residents discover the truth. As long as they’re building homes, real estate developers will control the finances of the HOA and shield themselves from liability.
And after the developer moves on, the HOA continues to exist as a purely fictitious legal entity — often incorporated. All too often, an HOA governance board is led by volunteer homeowners who are obsessed with keeping up appearances or satisfying their own insatiable desire for power. Sometimes both.
To the overzealous HOA leader, the condition of your property is far more important than your personal happiness. Residents are often shocked to learn the truth. HOA legal structure typically does not support their freedom to choose how to best enjoy the benefits of owning a home.
Put simply, the HOA industry has created a governance model that values property over people. Which is ironic, because, in a true community, those priorities would be reversed.
The great U.S. housing policy divide: Urban vs. Suburban residents
A discussion of HOA industry values leads directly to debates about housing policy in the U.S.
For example, in the 2020 election cycle, Presidential candidates hold opposing views on how to provide affordable housing. The parties differ over federal vs. local control of law and policy that impacts housing affordability.
Joe Biden and the Democrats want to continue to push local governments to change their zoning laws to allow construction of low-income housing. The party assumes affordable housing means apartment or condo communities.
President Donald J. Trump and the Republicans favor local control over zoning decisions, and generally disfavor densely populated development or multifamily low-income housing projects, which have historically led to areas of concentrated poverty, blight, and crime.
The roots of this great divide are not new. The political divide over housing affordability began more than 50 years ago. Progressive housing policies have been tweaked over the years, but the vast majority of urban developers still adhere to the same ideology. The only way to create affordable housing, they claim, is to increase density.
McMansion vs. multifamily, two housing extremes
Allow me to translate urban development industry lingo. Housing density refers to the number of housing units per acre of land. Organizations such as Urban Land Institute, and countless urban planning firms in the U.S. and around the world, tend to favor development of multifamily housing (townhouses, apartment buildings, and condominiums), preferably within walking distance to urban downtowns and public transit stations.
And, generally speaking, for architects, builders, and investors, the bigger the housing development the better. After all, the unstated goal of industry leaders is to either maximize profit from sales or future cash flow per square foot, per acre.
Local governments, by contrast, are primarily interested in economic growth. Policymakers assume new development will lead to higher tax revenue. Higher density development certainly generates more taxable land parcels and housing units. But affluent homeowners build bigger homes and larger lots, with higher taxable values.
Local governments and developers usually negotiate development agreements that require mutual concessions. Final approved plans often don’t reflect the wishes of voters and taxpayers.
Government’s economic development mindset leads to the typical selection of new construction housing: estate homes for the wealthy or utilitarian townhouses and apartments that barely meet current building code. Buyers face a challenge finding any new construction housing in between those two extremes.
The rise and fall of New Urbanism
The New Urbanist movement began in earnest in the 1990s. Construction of so-called “affordable” housing continued at a frenetic pace until the great recession of 2008. As we know from recent history, leading up to the crash of the market, housing prices increased very rapidly, artificially inflating home values that proved to be unsustainable.
The recession hit condominium housing especially hard. Post-housing bubble, much of the growth in new construction has been in the suburbs, mostly detached single family homes.
Yet, despite the poor track record of high density development — and the fact that redevelopment of cities tends to gentrify housing, making it much less affordable — the Democratic Party platform favors more of the same.
Residents fleeing cities for more affordable suburban homes
Prior to the pandemic, land in the city had become scarce and expensive. Urban developers, most of them allied with the Democratic party, had already begun to set their sights on suburban development of multifamily housing communities.
In more recent months, in response to coronavirus pandemic lock downs and widespread civil unrest, thousands of residents have fled densely populated cities. Homebuyers are now seeking more indoor and outdoor living space and lower crime rates.
It’s not-so-surprising that change is happening. Lifelong urban renters are becoming first time suburban homeowners. Families are relocating to neighborhoods where they can afford to rent an entire house, with a yard for children and pets, for a fraction of the rent they paid for their tiny, cramped city apartment or condo.
In general, suburban dwellers don’t want developers to turn their neighborhood into an over-developed, overpriced, over-crowded city.
Presidential elections and housing politics
This year, Presidential election politics is shining a spotlight on the political differences between city and suburban voters.
Perhaps Americans are beginning to notice that long-time supporters of New Urbanism intensely dislike suburban dwellers. All you need to do is spend some time reading essays published by City Lab or follow discussion forums at Strong Towns. You’ll observe plenty of anti-suburban comments.
The most committed disciples of new urbanism believe that, if you don’t live in a city, you’re a selfish person, because you depend on a car to get where you need to go. Based upon commentary observed by IAC, ardent supporters of dense urban development consistently blame suburbanites for being irresponsible about protecting the environment.
Not surprisingly, when urban elites demonize suburban and rural residents, it doesn’t sit well with millions of Americans that have worked hard to pay for a home they can afford.
Where you live influences your vote
As you recall, the contentious 2016 Presidential election also highlighted the deep-seated conflict between urbanites and suburban and rural America. Insulted by Hillary Clinton’s characterization of Trump supporters as “deplorable,” many voters in non-urban areas turned out in droves to support the Trump and Republican Congressional candidates.
In my opinion, the great urban vs. suburban political divide has only grown larger in the past four years. Across the nation, in the most expensive housing markets, we’ve seen a big push to build new affordable housing for poor and working class Americans.
The townhouse condominium
However, construction costs are climbing, and banks are less than willing to loan money on risky real estate development. Therefore, new apartment-style stacked condominium construction is rare these days.
Condos are now more likely to take the form of townhouses clustered around a common stormwater pond or drainage field. And, unlike townhouses of the previous decades, when you buy a newly-built townhouse condominium, you don’t own any land, beyond the foundation’s “footprint.”.
This is an important distinction. It means you don’t own your front yard, your back yard, your driveway, or your front porch. As a result, your property rights are severely limited, even though you assume greater financial risk. Homeowners are legally required to share the maintenance cost of common property, yet the condo HOA dictates rules and restrictions on yard and driveway spaces. (For more details on the risks of buying a townhouse, read this buyer beware message.)
The political push for multifamily development
Urban developers (mostly identifying as Democrats) hold tightly to a long-held belief. The best way, perhaps the only way, to create affordable housing is to build as much multifamily housing as possible.
Historically, nearly all of these housing communities have been controlled by developer-centric HOAs or big corporate landlords. Contrary to the industry’s stated intent to improve affordabilty, this status quo housing policy has almost always resulted in clusters of low-quality, less affordable housing. Most “affordable” housing is located near less desirable commercial or industrial zones.
The end result of decades institutionalizing HOA housing and large apartment communities with corporate landlords speaks for itself.
In expensive housing markets, millions of low and middle income Americans cannot afford to make the transition from tenant to homeowner. Their only path to homeownership is to relocate to a less densely populated area.
Multifamily housing isn’t the only path, or the best path, to affordability
Thanks to COVID-19, working from home is not only possible, it’s part of the “new normal.” Urban-based jobs are disappearing, and migration away from the Big City is well underway.
Americans are discovering that, in many smaller towns and suburbs, it’s cheaper to buy an existing home than it is to rent an apartment.
Homeowners are also opting to share expenses by living in multi-generational households. Other homeowners are renting spare bedrooms or converting their basement or attic into a studio or one-bedroom apartment.
By this process, Americans are organically creating affordable housing, and reducing the demand for multifamily apartment complexes.
Troublesome zoning requirements
Now for a reality check. Highly restrictive local zoning is a huge problem in many local governments of suburban towns. Most local governments zone for new construction of relatively large detached single family homes.
However, local zoning tends to not allow for smaller detached homes that would work for single adults, young families, or retired people. As a result, homebuyers on a budget opt for older existing homes, if available.
In some parts of the country, newer townhouse and condo development has replaced older existing homes.
Across the nation, onerous local zoning policy requires a mandatory HOA to fund and govern virtually new housing communities. And during active construction phases, developers own and control such common interest communities.
This is most unfortunate. Because, the fact is, HOAs make homeownership less affordable, and don’t actually protect property values.
HOA-governed planned community creates more division
It’s a fact that the U.S. is physically divided up into more than 300,000 private community association “islands.” In many cases, gates and security guards separate HOA-governed communities from surrounding neighborhoods.
Is it any wonder that common ownership, common interest development creates fertile ground for tribalism and conflict?
In fact, as documented on this website, it is quite common for HOA residents to suspiciously view non-residents as “outsiders.” The more exclusive the community, the more pronounced the division. And, in the age of COVID-19 restrictions, “insiders” are even more fearful of “outsiders.”
And we see plenty of social division within HOA-governed communities, too. Typically, conflict erupts between majority and minority groups. For example, HOA resident groups can be divided by race, religious faith, or ethnicity.
But communities can also be split into opposing groups with different goals and desires for the future. IAC has documented many examples of divided homeowners and condominium associations: owner-occupants vs. owner-investors. Golf players vs. non-golfers. Young adults vs. retired seniors.
When communities are divided in this way, an “us vs. them” mentality often prevails, leading to frequent communication breakdowns.
Restricted speech, no transparency
It’s no secret that poor transparency by HOA governing boards is a BIG problem. With current limitations on human interaction imposed by government and HOAs (in an attempt to control COVID infection rates), poor communication is bigger problem than ever before.
These days, It seems nearly all HOA meetings are conducted online. Some communities have cancelled all meetings until further notice. Likewise, if and when HOA voting occurs, it’s only by postal mail or email.
Because many HOAs have shut down common amenities or severely restricted access to common areas, it has become a lot more difficult for residents to communicate with each other.
Resident-led social media sites have ramped up in response, only to face threats and lawsuits from their HOAs.
Nothing new here. This has been going on in HOA-ville since…forever.
The trickle up effect of onerous HOA governance
More concerning and frightening, as a nation, we’re starting to see draconian HOA-style controls on speech, assembly, official meetings, and elections at all levels of real government.
We’re even witnessing accusations of Big Tech censorship and allegations of mail-in ballot fraud. Sadly, we’re also observing a lack of faith in our government, and growing distrust of anyone in authority. It’s a natural consequence when people stop talking to one another, and instead seek to control speech they don’t like.
Current and former HOA residents know from personal experience that government oppression thrives when Constitutional checks and balances are abandoned. Many of us have personal experience with bad leadership and divided communities.
Hopefully, those experiences will lead us to act accordingly to end serious threats to our rights and freedoms.
Fines, fees and fear: Minneapolis neighbors speak out against ‘harassing’ homeowners association Homeowners association in Heritage Park has filed liens, foreclosure actions. By Miguel Otárola Star Tribune SEPTEMBER 15, 2020 — 12:26PM (MN)
Women Plan All-Black Community in Georgia After ‘400 Years of Racial Oppression’ PENNY STARR Breitbart 7 Sep 2020 (GA)
Navy Veteran Could Lose His Home in Dispute over a Flagpole 16 Sep 2020Star Tribune | By John Reinan (MN)
Root of bizarre dueling residential lawsuits at west of Boca community – tennis court time by Mike Diamond Special to The Palm Beach Post 12 Sep 2020 (FL)
Hospitalized Woman With Coronavirus Sues HOA to Return Home MyNewsLA.com POSTED BY CONTRIBUTING EDITOR ON SEPTEMBER 6, 2020 IN CRIME (CA)
Political Flag Controversy in Camden Neighborhood WBOC Posted: Sep 24, 2020 6:54 PM EDTUpdated: Sep 24, 2020 6:54 PM EDTBy Cassandra Semyon (DE)
Dakota Dunes woman fighting Homeowner’s Association flag rules KMEG by Jetske WauranThursday, September 24th 2020 (SD)
Residents Appalled After HOA Orders Removal Of BLM Yard Signs By Brian Maass and Kati Weis CBS4 September 24, 2020 at 11:16 am (CO)
Homeowners association sued over guards’ actions TimesNewsOnline Published September 22. 2020 02:45PMBY DEN MCLAUGHLIN DMCLAUGHLIN@TNONLINE.COM (PA)