Sure, it's legal, but would you really do it?
Article Courtesy of The Arizona Republic
November 12, 2003

By Laurie Roberts

Carol Farnham sits inside her home on Michigan Avenue in north Phoenix and waits. Every once in awhile she casts a fearful eye toward the front door and shudders, as if just looking may bring the dreaded knock. 

"I had one the other day," she says. "They were dressed like lawyers and had briefcases. I just have been instructing my boy to not answer the door to anybody."

Carol Farnham lives in fear of that knock and for good reason. She has committed one of society's greatest sins: She fell behind in her homeowner's association dues. By $660.

When that knock comes, if it comes, this disabled single mother and her 14-year-old son could be put out on the curb.

This is the place where I would normally bash the North Point Crossing Homeowners Association. Where I would use words like heartless and callous and crazy to spend close to $1,400 (so far) to collect a $660 debt.

Instead, I am going to hope that this HOA is one of the "good" HOAs that HOA advocates like to parade before the Legislature every time there's talk about reining in their power. I am going to hope that this HOA will do not the lawful thing but the right thing and let Carol Farnham and her son, Ryan, keep their home.

"I don't have any place to go," she says through tears. "I have friends, beautiful friends, but I can't live with them. There's no place for me to go."

Farnham is 54 and has never worked. Encephalitis disabled her early in life. She can't use her right side or speak clearly. She lives on Social Security and support checks from her ex-husband. In recent years, however, she says those checks have become sporadic.

Something had to give and sadly, she chose the wrong thing. She quit paying her $30 monthly dues in July 2001. At first, the HOA was decent about it. But patience only stretches so far, then it snaps. By May 2002, North Point filed a lien against her home.

She found a volunteer attorney who sent a letter in July 2002, explaining that Farnham is suing her ex-husband for back support and asking to work something out so that penalties and the dreaded legal fees would not continue to mount beyond the $800 she already owed by then. There was no response.

This spring, neighbors offered to pay the back dues, provided the HOA dropped the fees and penalties. There was no response.

By July, the tab was up to $1,966 and the HOA proposed a deal: Pay the $660 in back dues now, and we'll drop half of the $1,306 in late charges, collection costs and legal fees.

North Point may as well have asked for the moon. Farnham is paying her dues again, but she says she can't pay her back debt until her ex-husband pays his. 

She may not have the time to wait, however. Last month, during a court proceeding, North Point's attorney, Burton Cohen, dropped a bomb. "The association," he said, "will probably be foreclosing on your house."

Cohen told me he's received no instructions to foreclose but said auctioning off Farnham's house is the next step. "It's really not the association's responsibility to give people special favors," he explained. "It's the association's responsibility to collect from everyone on an equal basis which is all they are trying to do."

North Point's HOA president did not return a call. But Farnham's neighbor, Pete Stanton, sure had something to say. "To take someone's house over $660 is ridiculous."

It is ridiculous and the reason why the Legislature every year ponders reining in HOAs. Scott Carpenter, an HOA attorney and lobbyist, says it's unfair to blame the association. 

"It is a social question of whether or not people should band together to take care of the widows and the orphans," he said. "This has been an age-old question dating back to the Old Testament. The bigger question is whether the law should be engineered to require that everyone else should carry her." 

No, the bigger question, as I see it, is why an HOA would spend $1,400 to collect $660. And whether there is a need to restrain the considerable powers of these HOAs, or whether they can restrain themselves.

The biblical question is whether Carol Farnham's neighbors, who are, after all, the HOA, are willing to toss her into the street.