Association fees ripped by residents
Critics are decrying the rising charges and questioning
how the money is being spent.

Article Courtesy of the Sacramento Bee
By Nancy Weaver Teichert 
Posted March 20, 2004

Some older Californians who retire to their dream home in search of maintainable and affordable housing are finding themselves locked in legal battles and, in some cases, kicked out on the street.

The culprit is homeowners association fees, charges that cover items such as landscaping and facilities. One in four Californians lives in age-restricted adult communities, condominiums and other developments governed by an owners association.

 Among concerns are fees that legally can be raised up to 20 percent annually, quickly ballooning annual assessments. Also, one study found some associations aggressively pursue collection of late fees and foreclosures for lower amounts of money owed than lending institutions would.

David Wiley moved to Sun City Roseville for a carefree retirement. But instead of going on cruises, he's distributing thousands of fliers, organizing meetings and going head-to-head with his homeowners association.

Wiley's complaint about how association money is being spent reflects the most common beef among people living under the association arrangement, said Marjorie Murray, a housing advocate with the Congress of California Seniors.

The highly publicized foreclosure on a home owned by an Calaveras County couple for failing to pay $120 in association dues has drawn attention to the power yielded - and some say - abused by homeowner associations.

"What begins as affordable housing quickly turns into unaffordable housing," said Murray, who testified before a state Senate hearing last month on proposed legislation to restrict foreclosures.

Murray said many housing communities are well run and provide residents with an escape from yard and home maintenance and provide amenities like gyms, activities and companionship.

While retirees are protected by Proposition 13 from escalating property taxes that could price them out of their homes, Murray said, fewer limits are set on association dues and assessments.

The golf courses, pools, parks or community rooms can come at a big price for some retirees who feel locked into their biggest asset on a fixed income.

The family of Thomas and Anita Radcliff of Copperopolis told state legislators how the couple lost their home at a December foreclosure auction over $120 in late dues.

Murray said it's not just a few rogue debt collectors who are causing problems. She and other senior advocates say the complaints are "systemic" because of the powers given associations, aggressive actions by debt collection agencies and the inability of seniors to pay for private attorneys to fight back.

Sentinel Fair Housing, a nonprofit fair housing enforcement agency in Oakland, studied 5,634 foreclosure actions initiated over one year against residents in five counties including Sacramento.

About 12 percent of those foreclosure notices involved what are called "common-interest developments" and the amount owed was substantially lower than what would have prompted similar actions by other creditors, said Sentinel's associate director, Steve Cogswell.

Cogswell also said there was a substantially higher rate of foreclosure actions sought against Latinos and disabled homeowners.

"This is a big industry for the collection companies. Most of the money isn't even going to the homeowner association," said Cogswell, who testified during the Senate hearing. "Most of the money is going to these collection companies."

The median amount owed when foreclosures were sought by associations was $2,557. Civil lawsuits and banks sought foreclosures when amounts like $190,000 were owed, he said.

Because associations act on such small amounts of money owed, it often costs more to hire a lawyer than to contest a disputed lien, said Cogswell.

Usually it's association dues that are owed, but, he said, a number of cases involve penalties leveled for infractions like homeowners letting their dog run loose. State law only allows collection action for dues and late fees, he said, not fines.

Murray said associations are allowed to raise dues up to 20 percent a year under state law. Higher increases can be approved by a majority of homeowners association members. When reserves drop, special assessments can be levied for a major expense, such as a new roof on an association building.

When David Wiley moved to Sun City Roseville, he said, he was paying $85 a month for all the Del Webb development's amenities.

"We thought we'd retire here, everything would take care of itself," he said. Now, six years later, dues are $110 a month. "They're talking now about raising them another $5. People in here can't afford that."

Wiley said residents have not been able to get detailed information about how millions of dollars a year in dues is being spent. He and others have questioned the appropriateness of association employees having credit cards to purchase gas. They're also worried about reserve funds spent to remodel the restaurant and whether the proposal to host a professional golf event will result in a special assessment.

Bill Petchauer, executive director of Sun City Roseville, said the association is spending $128,000 to remodel the restaurant to keep up the value of the community. No new assessment will be needed if Sun City is selected for the fall golf tournament, he said.

When some residents first questioned expenditures, Petchauer said, the board members reviewed the association's finances. Although they did not find anything wrong, he said, they did reduce the number of credit cards available to employees.

Petchauer said the association has kept dues reasonable despite increases in health insurance and workers' compensation costs for employees.

"You've got all kinds of different folks that live here," with 5,500 people living in 3,100 homes, he said. "You're going to get varying opinions."

Wiley has formed the Advocates for the Sun City Roseville Home Owners and mailed 3,100 fliers to advertise a March 29 meeting to discuss their concerns.

A state law that went into effect on Jan. 1 strengthens the rights of homeowners association members to review financial records.

The state Senate housing committee is discussing legislation that may limit the use of foreclosure by homeowners associations for late assessments, especially small amounts.

Retirees who take on leadership positions in their homeowner associations complain of their own difficulties trying to enforce the community's rules to protect everyone's home values.

"It's very difficult, especially when you're a neighbor," said Tom Sheppard, president of the Lake Camanche Village Owners Association in rural Amador County, who is up against a recall petition over association fees.

Sheppard said the association has never fined a homeowner and would never foreclose over unpaid dues.

Homeowners association fees at a glance
  • The board of directors may increase the regular assessment up to 20 percent per year. If the increase is more than 20 percent, a majority of the association members must approve. 
  • An assessment not paid within 15 days of its due date is delinquent. The association can add a late fee of $10 or 10 percent of the monthly assessment, whichever is greater. 
  • After 30 days, interest of up to 12 percent per year can be added. The case could be referred to an attorney or foreclosure service. A property lien is possible for the amounts owed as well as attorney's fees. 
  • The association can foreclose and take an owner's property for failure to pay assessments. A personal judgment may also be entered.
Source: California Department of Real Estate