COMMON COMPLAINTS

 
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                                Common Complaints 
    Fairfax Radio Show Finds National Niche With Tirades on Homeowners Associations 
 
By Jennifer Lenhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 10, 2001; Page B01 
© 2001 The Washington Post Company

She flips the "On Air" switch: "Coming to you from Fairfax, Virginia, you're 'On the Commons' and I'm 
Shu Bartholomew."

Trim in black, her face hidden behind big glasses and a sweep of auburn hair, Bartholomew used to be just one more suburbanite irritated that her property was subject to a homeowners association. Now she's a suburbanite with an audience, an Internet and cable talk show devoted to the alleged failings of HOAs and their rule enforcers. "You're brought up with this idea that this is your home, this is where you express yourself," radio show host Shu Bartholomew says, "and then you have some bozo arriving with a clipboard telling you what you can and cannot do." (Susan Biddle - The Washington Post) 
"You're brought up with this idea that this is your home, this is where you express yourself," Bartholomew says before airtime, "and then you have some bozo arriving with a clipboard telling you what you can and cannot do."

"On the Commons" is a briskly paced hour of news, interviews, calls and e-mails at 2 p.m. Saturdays on the Internet at www.fcac.org/webr; as audio-only on Fairfax County cable channels 27 or 37; and on cable radio at 94.5 FM. It uses music from "The X-Files" as its theme, because the Fox network show once did an episode about a homeowners association in which residents who broke the rules were killed.

Bartholomew had a hunch that, just maybe, bellyaching about homeowners and condo associations was widespread -- 42 million people in this country live in homes governed by one -- and could be material for talk radio.

Could it ever.

Although the size of her audience is difficult to gauge, many members of homeowners associations clearly believe that their upside -- preservation of order and property values -- comes with a sometimes mindless devotion to regulations about paint colors, basketball hoops, mailboxes, window air conditioners and other minutiae. Moreover, some members of older HOAs actually worry the reverse, that their board members aren't enforcing enough rules, allowing real estate values to sink.

"We hear from people in Iowa, Kentucky, Arizona, California," Bartholomew says. "There's a tremendous amount of anger out there, anger and frustration. I think you have to reach out and let people know there are others out there. You've got to talk about it."

The show is a whistle-blower's paradise, less yell-fest than informational swap meet, and it already has an imitator, a fan who started a similar show in Las Vegas.

Broadcasting from a grubby industrial park near the Capital Beltway, Bartholomew, 52, is host and producer of "On the Commons," which takes its name from the commonly owned property, such as playgrounds, that is a feature of homeowners associations.

"I want to tell you something," Mica from Tucson says to Bartholomew on the air. "I've been in litigation with my HOA for three years."

The reason, Mica explains, was an election for the association's board of directors, which oversees day-to-day operations and long-term financial planning. Believing the election was unfair, Mica explains, she sued. Now a judge has ruled in favor of the association and, citing a new Arizona law, said Mica alone couldn't dispute the election.

"He's saying because of a new statute, I can't challenge anything my HOA has done unless 10 percent of the members agree," Mica says. "I think that's un-American. It's as if they're above the law."

Bartholomew listens, tsk-tsks sympathetically. But time is limited. Only an hour per show and so many troubled homeowners. She asks the caller to e-mail more information (onthecommons@cox.rr.com).

"Maybe we'll do a show on this," she says, adding, "Wow. That's kind of scary. What do you think?"

She knows the turf, having been part of an association for 20 years, the Lake Braddock Community Association. Like many of the newly arrived in HOA-land, Bartholomew at first didn't understand the nature of the place. There was a social contract, she knew. You mind your own business. But she didn't realize the extent to which other people mind your business, too.

Seeing her neighbors enforce that contract raised her consciousness, she says. She made the leap from observer to participant when some residents began a crusade to have cars towed when there weren't enough places to park.

"I didn't know what an association was when we moved here," she says. "I said, 'What's that?' They said, 'It's an association. You pay the dues, and we'll collect the trash and shovel the snow.' I think it's oh so much more than that."

A firebrand when necessary, Bartholomew persuaded managers at Fairfax Public Access to give her a coveted slot in the crowded weekend program schedule. William Hutchinson, director of operations, says Bartholomew's gabfests fit right in.

"People get on for an hour and rant and rave about what's wrong with America," Hutchinson says. "Our mission is to allow access."

"On the Commons" debuted in July. Besides giving callers a venue for venting, Bartholomew aims the frustrated masses in the direction of help: cyber communities and grass-roots groups.

With her no-nonsense tone of voice pitched somewhere in the alto range, she deploys barbed remarks about homeowners associations as she moves between segments of the show. But she also admits to ambivalent feelings about homeowners associations: She doesn't like the infringements on her freedoms, but she's glad they try to keep property values up.

Her fans can't get enough of the HOA-bashing.

"I gotta say, that show is very good," says Rick Happ, a regular listener from North Carolina. "I've been recording it and sending to other people."

The Community Associations Institute, an Alexandria-based lobbying group for HOAs, isn't quite so enamored.

"We've agreed to disagree. She falls about 110 percent on the side of HOAs have too much power and shouldn't be able to do anything to homeowners because they abuse that power," said Bob Diamond, a lawyer in Northern Virginia who helped found the institute. "My position is, HOAs do have a lot of power. They need it to enforce the rules and collect assessments."

A moment after Mica hangs up, another caller is ready to go. (This being public access radio, the station has only one telephone line.)

"Hi! This is Bob in Ocala," says a voice.

"Hi, Bob in Ocala."

Bob wants to complain about the "typical deal in Florida," where, he says, a home buyer doesn't get the association's governing documents until settlement. If you're like most people, he says, you don't have time to read it. You're signing so many other documents.

"Why on earth," Bob wants to know, "is that stuff not given to you until closing?"

Bartholomew says she's well aware of the practice. The documents are for anyone and everyone who lives in an association. Her listeners shouldn't be bashful about asking for a copy -- before they buy.

"Thanks a lot, and I appreciate it, Bob," she says. Keep listening, she adds, "and we'll keep you informed."

The guest for the week's interview is Jan Bergemann, 56, a retired chef and anti-HOA activist in St. Augustine, Fla. On the air, Bergemann tells how he founded the requisite grass-roots group -- his is called Cyber Citizens for Justice -- and rounded up 60 of the 160 residents of his association as members.

"We were always told in school that America is a country where freedom is the main word," Bergemann says. "When you're here, it looks a little different."

People relate to this kind of talk. But there will be no more of it on this day. The hour is up.

"I don't know about you, but I'm sort of reeling from the things I've heard," Bartholomew says. "So those of you out there, keep fighting."