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Article Courtesy of "The Columbian"
Sunday, November 4, 2001
Homeowner associations are meant to keep neighborhoods beautiful, but some ugly battles rage behind the scenes.
And that's not just at weed-and-street level. In Texas, California and elsewhere, lobbyists and attorneys regularly do battle with disgruntled homeowners over legislation that shapes the way homeowner associations do business.
Those battles haven't reached Washington state yet, said John Weaver, a professor at Seattle University Law School who specializes in real estate and land-use law.
"There are places where the law seems to be developing more rapidly because they have so many of these things," Weaver said. "In those places they have imposed a reasonableness standard: Homeowners associations can't make unreasonable rules."
In state and national legislative battles, homeowner associations and management firms have in their corner a heavyweight called the Community Association Institute (CAI). Based in Alexandria, Va., CAI publishes a magazine, lobbies government officials and legislatures and files "friends of the court" briefs in state and circuit courts on behalf of associations.
CAI has supported association powers to adopt and enforce strict architectural controls, beef up powers to collect assessment and place liens, ban signs and vinyl siding, restrict parking on public streets, require payment of assessments even when services have not been rendered, make final decisions about required maintenance, regulate placement of personal property in common areas, restrict manufactured homes, and exempt homeowner associations from liability for worker injuries.
Potential for abuse
Opposing CAI is a bevy of smaller organizations, many of them mom-and-pop operations without any budgets but with a fierce belief in property rights.
For example, there's California homemaker Elizabeth McMahon. Her activism and research have led her to start a Web site, under the name American Homeowners Resource Center, at www.ahrc.com.
McMahon believes powerful special interests are forcing homeowner associations and highly restrictive CCRs onto people who really shouldn't be burdened by them.
Trial lawyers, insurance companies and property management firms top her enemies list, along with politicians not interested in checking the powers of homeowner associations.
"The big players begin with government, which wants to privatize some of its responsibilities so somebody else is taking care of the infrastructure," she said. "There's been a trend toward privatizing, which basically means that general controls and protections the public once had are turned over to private corporations.
"And corporations exist for the people involved to make money," she said.
The result, McMahon believes, is a de facto government that has the power to levy taxes (renamed dues, or assessments), penalize rule breakers and even take private property.
"They've created a shadow government that doesn't want to be called a government," she said. "It doesn't want to be regulated in any way. We need some protections for the public when we're faced with that kind of potential for abuse."
McMahon said she sometimes feels like a lone voice in the wilderness, but she's far from alone.
In many states, including Texas, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, Arizona and California, Web sites have been started by individuals or groups seeking to fight the power of homeowner associations.
In Nevada, a weekly radio show called "Homeowner's Voice" warns prospective home buyers away from the allegedly opulent homeowner associations there. In Fairfax County, Va., there's a similar radio talk show called "On The Commons."
And in Colorado there's Joni Greenwalt, who offers free telephone consultation to disgruntled homeowners. Greenwalt, a real estate agent and former condominium association president, is the author of "Homeowner Associations: Nightmare or Dream Come True?"
Her advice to miserable homeowners, she said, is simple but daunting: Stage a revolt. That's what she did when a condominium association board went sour just months after she moved in.
"They were vindictive; they were self-serving; they set out to fine people they didn't like," she said. "I did a (neighborhood) survey and ... got a whole grocery list of misery.
"So I organized a coup. We targeted a few people to be voted off the board, and it worked."
Greenwalt always advises prospective home buyers to approach homeowner associations with caution. "Knock on doors and ask people how they like it and what it's really like," she said.
"I don't hate them all," she added. "Especially with condominiums where you have shared walls, you can't get along without one. In those cases I say, shame on you if you don't go get involved and stay involved."
Because, she said, "You're always one election or a heartbeat away from being miserable again."
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