Government? Or not government?
Most new communities these days are governed by homeowners associations or property owners associations. These are made up of homeowners who have collectively signed restrictive covenants as a condition of home ownership. Those covenants require certain behavior on the part of each member. Monthly or annual dues are collected to maintain common areas or provide for services such as trash collection or cable tv delivery. Each HOA or POA calls for the election of board members and officers who are given the power to take actions to make sure rules and covenants are followed. The board also has the ability to assess fines or other penalties, up to and including the confiscation of an entire property without reimbursement. For all intents and purposes, Homeowners Associations are mini-governments or quasi-governments which exist outside of most prevailing law. The magic that lets this happen is that the typical HOA is a corporation, a non-profit PRIVATE corporation. In other words, it’s equivalent to a private members-only country club. Homeowners are not considered to be homeowners or taxpayers or citizens, but rather MEMBERS. As willing MEMBERS they have agreed to be governed by the elected board as it administers the restrictive covenants that were WILLINGLY signed by all members.
But just like private non-profit corporations, rules are subject to interpretation. Rules can be changed. And many HOA members in many states have made amazing discoveries about the rights they thought they once had. For example:
Restrictions in selling or renting the house
You may think you’re that as the owner of your home you can sell it whenever you wish. Well, you may discover that your neighbors are partners in your home ownership and they will have a say in who you select as the buyer. In some communities, you may only sell it to a family consisting of two natural married adults. Blatant code for no gays, lesbians or singles.
You may only sell it to people over a certain age, as in age-restricted retirement communities.
You may not be able to sell it to a family with grandchildren (no overnight stays lasting longer than two consecutive nights)
You may also be stunned to discover restrictive covenants outlawing blacks, orientals, jews and other minorities. Federal law prohibits such discrimination, but the ongoing existence of such covenants leaves a powerful and not-too-subtle message. (I’ll have a whole lot more on this subject in my upcoming book Neighbors At War: The Creepy Case Against Your Homeowners Association.
Every person is an individual with different tastes, desires, likes and dislikes. Life might be easier if you could only buy one color of carpet, one style of lampshade or one kind of flower. But we ARE our differences. Human nature rebels against regimentalism. Still, your neighbors are your partners and they want you to abide by certain rules. Properly grown grass, no brown spots, no weeds, no grass longer than 1 and 1/2 inches tall. No pansies, no more than a prescribed number of rose bushes, one neatly trimmed tree planted only on the left side of the sidewalk. All landscaping plans submitted to the architectural control committee. Believe it or not, there are thousands of lawsuits against homeowners who’ve violated one of the above restrictions (Again, lots more in Neighbors At War: the Creepy Case Against Your Homeowners Association)
No parking on the street
This one leads to more arguments, lawsuits and fisticuffs than almost any other. Land developers were given the right to jam more dwelling units into smaller spaces in exchange for creating severe parking restrictions. So, that overnight guest of yours? Forbidden! The birthday party for your youngster? Give it up, unless guests park in some nearby supermarket lot. But even worse? Dictatorial board members hire towing companies to snatch cars the second a delivery is being made to your house, or the moment an innocent guest drops by to say “hi.” Ambitious towing companies have been known to slip an occasional ‘C note’ to the first board member who calls them. Even worse, some communities hire two truck drivers to constantly patrol the streets snatching cars. It can cost a couple hundred bucks to get your car back.
No parking on your own driveway
Seriously! Some Homeowners Associations prohibit the accumulation of junk in your garage. There’s a good reason for that. They don’t want any passenger car visible from the street, so all cars must be parked in garages at all times.
No over-sized vehicles in the neighborhood
This sounds like a reasonable restriction to keep semi-trucks out of narrow neighborhood streets. But this is actually a way of keep out riff-raff. There’s a case in Texas where the local millionaires could have Hummers and Cadillac Escalades. But the owner of a brand new Ford 150 was fined and sued because it was a pickup truck. It cost him 150,000 bucks to fight the case.
No home-based business
This is very common. Obviously, the intent is to keep out homeowners who have a stream of customers coming to visit. But this rule is often used arbitrarily to get rid of ‘undesirables’. Any kind of home-based business can be deemed illegal, even one owned by a writer who rants against Homeowners Associations…
No Green Energy
No kidding! No laundry lines (lots of fines and lawsuits on record). No solar panels (lots of fines and lawsuits on record) No xeriscaping (lots of fines and lawsuits)
In summary, if you’re going to live in an HOA plan for trouble. Even though you may like the kinds of rules you’ll have to follow, set aside a sum of money each month in a permanent savings account. Regular saving is always a wise idea, but especially in the HOA environment. Sooner or later you may need to use that money for fines or legal fees.
Neighbors At War: The Creepy Case Against Your Homeowners Association