John Oliver on homeowners associations: ‘Glorified debt collectors with the power to upend your life’
The Last Week Tonight host looks into the sneaky powers of private HOAs to collect fines and even foreclose on one’s home

Article Courtesy of  The Guardian

By John Oliver

Published April  14 , 2023



John Oliver looked into American home ownership on Last Week Tonight, and particularly the private governing structure of homeowners associations (HOAs). (For millennials under 35 and unlikely to ever own a home – “sorry, that is the deal you made when you decided to be born after 1988,” Oliver quipped – Last Week Tonight prepared a segment on Chuck E Cheese.)


But for everyone else, HOAs are a sneakily common force in daily life – 29% of the US population lives in community associations, and 82% of all single-family homes sold in 2021 were in one.

They are also often widely loathed. Oliver pointed to one Facebook comment claiming good HOAs are “one vote away from hellish nightmares”, which is a “pretty intense comment”, he said. “It’s also the DNC’s sole campaign message for the last two elections.”

Oliver then dug into what HOAs are and how they wield “surprising power” to “wreak havoc in people’s lives”.

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Formally, HOAs are run by an elected board of fellow homeowners. They collect dues averaging around $200-$300 a month to manage amenities such as pools and playgrounds, and can enforce architectural and landscaping guidelines often mandating a uniform aesthetic.


Usually, such enforcement comes in the form of fines, which can be ludicrously applied. Oliver pointed to the example of one disabled veteran, whose HOA used Google maps to spy on his backyard and fine him for having a shed that was not approved, nor visible from the street. “If you’re relying on the achievements of the space program to find out what is in someone’s backyard, it’s probably not your business,” said Oliver.

HOAs are often not voluntary – developers write them into deed restrictions, with automatic membership upon purchasing a new home. “And they’re set up as not-for-profit private corporations that can often function like a local government,” Oliver explained.

“Basically, the way HOAs work is they get to set the rules and select the punishment for breaking them,” he said. “Think of it like Disney World. When you walk into the mouse’s house, you play by the mouse’s rules. And if you step out of line, Goofy is allowed to break your fucking knees.

“HOAs can have the authority of a government and collect fees and fines like one,” he added, “but when it comes to accountability, they can actively resist it in ways that government officials could only dream about.”

And they can reinforce the racial divides that have long plagued American home ownership. Oliver cited the example of an HOA in Denton county, Texas, which oversaw 2,200 homes and passed a rule that would ban renting to anyone using a publicly financed or subsidized housing program such as Section 8. The measure threatened to displace more than 150 families, 93% of which were Black.

“I know that those HOA officials might not think of themselves as racists, but 93% is a pretty solid A for racism,” said Oliver.

That policy is now under investigation, although there is no state or federal law that forbids HOAs from enacting such bans. “It’s basically a segregation loophole which, by the way, would be a pretty good slogan for the suburbs,” he noted.

Even worse, the majority of the HOAs hire professional companies to handle their day-to-day needs. “The problem is, when you introduce for-profit companies to find problems in your neighborhood, things can change fast,” said Oliver, as people whose job it is to drive around and find infractions will find issues. Oliver cited the story of a woman charged $17,000 in late fees for infractions such as visible trash cans, an unsightly hose, lack of power washing and distasteful lawn art.

Another “incredible power” that HOAs have over homeowners is the ability to foreclose on one’s home. Colorado’s HOAs for example, filed more than 2,400 foreclosure cases from January 2018 to February 2022. “Which is one of those things that sounds ridiculous but is absolutely true,” said Oliver, “like how there is four times as many chickens as people on Earth, or Lenny Kravitz is Al Roker’s second cousin, or that the first song Charlie Puth ever masturbated to was This Love by Maroon 5.”

The nation’s 350,000 HOAs are largely unregulated, as the government considers disputes with them to be private matters. The state of New York’s attorney general’s office says “there is no government agency that can help unhappy owners who are having problems with their homeowners association,” adding “good luck!”

“Which is basically just a cute way to say ‘you’re fucked!’” said Oliver “It’s like ‘you’re fucked’ washed her hair and put on a little church dress.

“I’m not saying that all HOAs should immediately be gone,” said Oliver. “For a start, some people do like theirs and besides, right now local governments just aren’t equipped to suddenly take over the services like trash collection or maintenance that they provide. But at the very least, states should be looking for ways to avoid the worst possible outcome for homeowners who simply find themselves in a tough spot.”

Oliver suggested measures such as mandating HOAs offer payment plans on unpaid debt before taking legal action and banning on foreclosures based on fines and attorneys fees. “At their best, HOAs are annoying student council adults telling you to trim your shrubs and move your trash cans,” he concluded. “But at their worst, they are glorified debt collectors with the power to upend your life and expel people from a neighborhood.”

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