We put out the call, “Tell us your HOA horror stories,” and you came back in your millions. Okay, your dozens. Okay, nearly a dozen. The issue was courage. How could people report on the hell they were living without incurring the wrath of their homeowner association condo-complex captains, who ruled members’ daily lives, from where to place their garbage bins, to what color to paint the doors of the homes they owned, to whether they could park in their own driveway?
Here’s “Ada” (not her real name — like many, she is afraid of retaliation), HOA-complex resident, venting: “Life in my complex? Think a thousand little Watergates.
“Noisegate — I complained about the neighbor’s noise. The HOA board sent me a letter — and I was on the HOA board.
“Treegate — I got neighbors to complain about the board’s removing too many trees without notice, like the one outside my door. They tried to remove me from the board.
“Doorgate — The board harassed me, first by making me repaint my screen door twice, then making me remove it, taking away my only view.
“Petgate — I complained about cat poop and dog bark, and the board continued to allow all sizes and number of pets.
“Woodgate — The property manager is replacing wooden decks needlessly, and the board is helpless to control them. And we’re expected to pay for them.
“Meetingate — The board canceled two meetings in four months when owners wished to complain. The board does not allow any discussion except for three-minute complaints. It holds secret sessions about contracts and claims this is the law.”
And more. You can get fazed by the largeness of the number of issues and the apparent smallness of each individual issue. But Ada echoes a sentiment of the many condo homeowners living at the whim of the few, the powerbrokers who can do anything from fining you to actually foreclosing on your home in the vague legal atmosphere that governs the 6000 HOA condo complexes of San Diego County.
Why no easy-to-understand laws governing this very San Diego societal phenomenon? San Diego is the most HOA-dominated county in the state after Los Angeles. And interestingly, San Diego HOAs seem to be a lot richer: they have a total annual revenue of $1.5 billion, just a hair behind L.A.’s $1.6 billion, even though L.A. has 13,258 HOAs, double San Diego’s 6000, according to figures put out by Levy Erlanger & Co., a San Francisco accounting firm representing 1000 HOAs in the state.
That shouldn’t be a bad thing.
Homeowners’ associations are supposed to be an exercise in democracy, right? The developers build the complexes, people buy the condos, then take over responsibility for the upkeep and appearance and running expenses — and legal title to the place through their duly elected representatives on the HOA Board. So how come there seems to be a continuous chorus of complaints from people living what you might call the perfect kibbutzin, socialist-capitalist marriage: homes, but in a community setting, designed and grouped together to share grounds and gardens and values for harmonious living?
In a way, the whole HOA is a sucker’s game set up by a collusion of developers and local governments. Unpaid HOA boards use HOA assessment fees to pay for what should be the municipality’s responsibility, such basics as roads, electricity, sewage, and water. Developers create high-profit, high-density housing and then hand it over, lock, stock, and all financial and legal responsibilities to these amateur boards not only to run what often amount to million-dollar businesses, but also to keep on paying property taxes to local government for the infrastructure services those authorities didn’t actually have to provide or keep up. No wonder cities love them just as much as developers. No wonder HOA-run condo complexes have mushroomed sixfold, from 7000 in California 20 years ago to about 43,000 today, housing around 10 million, maybe a quarter of the state’s entire population.
HOAs are basically nonprofit associations that homeowners form to maintain their development’s common areas, with a bottom-line mandate to protect their property values. Each homeowner pays a monthly “assessment,” or fee, to finance common expenses, like maintenance of the landscaping, repairing of walks and roads, and keeping pools swimmable. Fees are also supposed to fund a reserve of money to take care of big jobs, such as reroofing, that might come up. Even though each owner has a deed to his/her home, they agree to a set of rules that restrict their independence — including a recognition of the HOA board’s right to foreclose on your home, just for not keeping up with the monthly HOA assessments.
In the ultimate in outsourcing, some giant HOAs run virtual cities in the government’s place. Irvine’s Woodbridge Village Association has to maintain 35 parks and 48 swimming pools. The Aliso Viejo Community Association is responsible for over 15,000 housing units, a small metropolis of maybe 50,000. And authorities love these cities within cities. In fact, many mandate that any new developments be run by HOAs, because they always substantially relieve authorities of new infrastructure costs.
But the one saving grace is this is supposed to be democracy in action. HOA boards are elected and work at the pleasure of homeowners.
That’s what Ada believed, too. “I live in a condo complex in a lower-income area on the border with Clairemont, and they’re probably the cheapest ones in the Western Hemisphere. I paid $40,000 for my studio in 1998. One-bedrooms were $60,000 at that time. Now they’re worth maybe three times that much. Our mortgage and the maintenance is $600 a month. And this complex is half studios and half one-bedrooms. A lot of single people live here. Maintenance [assessment fees] started at $150 per month, and now it’s at $250. It’s 12 buildings with two levels. I’m a ‘downstairs.’ We have these patios that face each other. You go on your patio, you might as well be in my bedroom. Patio, studio/bedroom, that’s it. Nowhere else to go. You can hear everything, but for that price, who’s complaining?