Will John Oliver’s critique convince Legislators to fix HOAs?

By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities deborahgoonan@gmail.com

HOA homeowner supporters are all abuzz about John Oliver’s recent 25-minute HOA critique. The tirade on homeowners’ associations in the U.S. appeared on the popular HBO Last Week Tonight series. Oliver beings by poking fun at enforcement of petty HOA rules. Then he dishes out harsh criticism over aggressive HOA fines, outrageous collections practices, and the HOA’s abusive power to foreclose on homes for as little as $3.24.

Full disclosure: I’m not a regular viewer of HBO or John Oliver, but I did watch the entire episode on HOAs. Due to its extensive use of graphic content and vulgar language, I am not going to share the link to the video. But, if you’re curious, you can easily find it by doing an internet keyword search of “HOA and John Oliver.”

My takeaways from John Oliver’s critique of HOAs on Last Week Tonight:

  • John Oliver makes many truthful and valid points about suburban HOAs.
  • His opinion of HOAs is unmistakably negative, which accurately reflects the current view of HOAs by the majority of Americans.
  • Oliver concludes that,
    • “at a minimum” HOAs should have to offer a payment plan to owners who fall behind on their HOA fees, and
    • HOAs should never be allowed to foreclose for repayment of fines and attorney fees.
  • Oliver is silent on urban HOA issues, and he does not address problems for owners of condominiums, apartments in housing cooperatives, or townhouses.
  • Likewise, there’s no mention of pervasive HOA problems such as:
    • deferred maintenance and unsafe buildings or infrastructure.
    • the reserve funding controversy, and the fact that many owners cannot afford to repair and replace aging infrastructure.
    • corruption and theft committed by rogue board members and management agent.
    • rampant internal conflicts among co-owners and neighbors.

My thoughts on John Oliver’s critique of HOAs

I have mixed feelings about the significance and usefulness of the HBO celebrity’s scathing critique of HOAs.

I understand that some people feel justified in using crude language and scathing sarcasm to incite anger for HOA abuses. After all, several serious news investigations of HOA issues have failed to create meaningful and bold reform of HOAs.

Several examples of past attempts:

The HOAs from Hell series in Kansas City Star (2016); 60 Minutes segment on the Surfside, FL condo collapse (2022); ProPublica’s Homeowner Hell series on HOAs (2022-2023); AARP on harsh treatment of homeowners who fall behind on HOA fees (2019); HomeAdvisor’s survey that found homeowners don’t think HOAs are worth the added stress (2022)

Don’t get me wrong. I wholeheartedly agree that HOAs, the HOA management industry and HOA collections attorneys deserve criticism for the havoc they create. But I also have concerns about the delivery of John Oliver’s ‘report.’ How it will be received by HOA haters and HOA supporters alike.

Will it backfire?

I fear that John Oliver’s crude style of exposing injustice could backfire on homeowner advocates. Negative, spiteful discourse has become all too normal in the U.S. in the past decade. Hurling insults at the opposition is a rampant problem that inflames conflict. It the HOA world it often leads to bitter disputes, senseless lawsuits, and, in the most extreme cases, violent behavior.

Frankly, I worry about how much fuel John Oliver has thrown on the already smoldering HOA dumpster fire.

How will young homebuyers respond to John Oliver’s HOA criticism?

I’m told that Last Week Tonight appeals to younger adult viewers. Indeed, several homeowner advocates who have contacted me recently applaud efforts to educate younger homebuyers. But I have grave doubts about how these younger viewers will respond.

First of all, will young, first-time homebuyers take Oliver’s warnings seriously? Or will they simply write off the whole tirade as satirical comedy?

The fact is, even if they want to avoid HOAs, too many first-time homebuyers cannot find non-HOA housing. At least, not in their price range and preferred location. Most people don’t want to give up their dream of owning a home. Emotionally, it might be a whole lot easier to rationalize the decision to buy into an HOA after all. Homebuyers might conclude that John Oliver is grossly exaggerating the potential for HOA abuse. (He isn’t.)

How will the HOA-industry respond to a celebrity HOA critic?

No matter how valid one’s point of view is, it can be easily diminished and dismissed by skeptics. That’s especially true when the opposition (HOA industry) uses the critic’s anger and aggression against them.

Eight years ago, when I started my IAC blog, I would have been pleased about the current brash John Oliver critique on HOAs. However, over the years my knowledge of the challenges of reforming HOAs and housing policy has evolved. I now understand how the HOA industry conducts its deceptive public relations campaigns.

That’s why I made the conscious decision several years ago to avoid angry tirades and rants about HOAs and all their problems. I also chose not to stoop to the ignorant, deceptive techniques of CAI and HOA developers. (CAI = Community Associations Institute, an HOA-industry trade group). And I don’t cover HOA horror stories that owners can’t or won’t document with facts.

The trade group lobbyists — primarily HOA attorneys affiliated with CAI — somehow manage to convince state Legislators that those of us who want to regulate HOAs are “uneducated” or “disgruntled” homeowners.

CAI writes off most media coverage of HOA issues as sensational. They tell lawmakers that these stories are extreme cases, not the nor. They aruge that HOA horror stories are covered by news channels and cable TV pundits for high viewer ratings.

So I have no doubt CAI will also dismiss — if not completely ignore — John Oliver’s critical take on HOAs. They’ll convince their allies in state Legislature to do the same.

And who will Legislators choose to believe – homeowners or HOA-industry ‘experts?’

I think it’s a toss-up. In the short term, the uprising of anger and disgust over HOAs, and, more precisely, the HOA industry’s exploitation of homeowners and residents of common interest ownership communities might lead to new HOA reform bills. Some of those bills could include meaningful regulation of HOA collections, fines, liens, and foreclosures.

For instance, Colorado homeowner advocates had some success last year, passing legislation to significantly curtail HOA powers to fine and foreclose. It came on the heels of the ProPublica investigation of HOAs, which I cited above.

Unfortunately, as soon as the dust settled from last year’s media frenzy, Legislators seem all too eager to soften any regulations that were enacted last year.

I suspect the pattern of watering down or neutralizing HOA regulations will continue, despite John Oliver’s latest scathing report. Why? Because CAI and HOA community developers have cultivated many loyal allies in state Legislatures.

At the same time, homeowner advocates have not been as successful at gaining loyal allies willing to regulate the HOA-industry. The angrier their approach to justice, the more likely their complaints are written off as irrational and desperate.

In my humble opinion, owner advocates ought to spend a lot more time cultivating allies in local and state government vs. pursuing allies in the media. The media can only go so far in shaming lawmakers into doing the right thing.

Advocates for property owners must make legislators understand that happier, more secure homeowners, and peaceful HOA-governed communities will help cities and states to grow, prosper and be healthy. That goal stands in stark contrast to the current reality of HOAs. Too many are chaotic war zones that plague property owners and residents of HOA communities.

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