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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?

“I got in here and I was so rah-rah. I volunteered for the board. I ran against no one and I got on the board.”

That’s when the problems of close-living started.

NOISEGATE: “I heard a scream in the middle of the night. [A neighbor] was watching a horror movie. [After I complained] the woman who made the noise started yelling at me. And I just said, ‘Hey, wait. I’m a volunteer [board member]. Don’t treat me like that.’ She comes down [to the board] and tells them that I was using my position on the board to tell her to be quiet.

“And they said to me, ‘No, you’re not allowed to do that.’ It was nothing like me [throwing my weight around], telling her I’m on the board. But there were three people who just didn’t want to hear from me or anyone else on the board.

“We had a woman with a 50 lb. dog that would jump off her bed every morning at 4:00. Thump! We had another lady who left her dog at home crying until 2:00 in the morning. We had people putting their dogs outside and [the dogs] barking all night. Also, parties late at night. There has been one quiet year since I have moved in. Now they’re saying we can’t talk to our neighbors? We’re supposed to go straight to the police? Come on. The police tell us, ‘Work it out. With the board or whatever.’ Right.”

DOORGATE: “My screen door was that very dark brown-black metallic that it comes in. They were supposed to be black or green. The [HOA] told me to paint it. I painted it black. It was one of the colors that was allowed. But they told me to paint it again. And then as soon as I finished painting it green, they told me to remove it. Remove the door. They can do that. They were saying that it was too old. Except, if I wanted a view, I had to look out the screen door. Now I have no view. I don’t think anybody else in the complex ever got asked to take their door off. I felt that that was a certain amount of harassment. They can do things like that, so people are afraid. The atmosphere is just terrible.”

TREEGATE: “They don’t ask, they don’t tell you that they’re going to take down this tree that you’ve been living with for ten years. You wake up one morning to see people outside your door just cutting down your tree. I called up neighbors and said, ‘If you don’t want the tree removed, call up the president or someone on the board.’ And someone did and must have yelled at them. So they got very mad at me. It’s ‘You’re not allowed to contact the board, except [for] that three minutes you’re allowed at the [monthly] meeting. I said, ‘Why did you remove this tree, when that [other] tree is the one overhanging the cars?’ And they removed that one too. It’s just awful. Nobody voted on this. Nobody votes for anything.

“Then they wanted to save water, so they cut all the bushes back to the bone. So now we don’t have bushes, we have sticks…with little leaves growing out of the trunks. The hedge was here for ten years. All of a sudden it’s dead. And now we have a little hedge here and there, and it’s totally barren.”

PETGATE: “I had an incident with a cat [pooping] on my porch for six months. And every time you bring it up to them they say that a cat is a feral animal and they can’t regulate it. People told me exactly who it was: it was somebody who had two cats, and one would stay on the property, and the other would have to go [poop] somewhere else. Until I finally took the droppings and brought it to whom I thought it was, and then, magically, it stopped.”

PIPEGATE: “They gave us notice on a Monday. They were going to put locks on our door on Friday, start[ing] on Monday. We got one week’s notice. And some people weren’t even home. They were [doing repairs, including] putting epoxy [lining] in our pipes, which we know is more toxic, but also only ten years’ warranty, and we know that it can’t be fixed. If anything rips again, we don’t know what we’re going to do. You can’t replace epoxy-lined pipe.”

Again, no consultation, she says.

“I mean, it’s our property! We couldn’t even get 30 days’ notice. People had pets that they had to get rid of for two weeks, three weeks. We got one extra week’s notice. The whole attitude in the letter was ‘Remove your stuff or we will remove it for you.’ Just this attitude like a landlord. Very harsh. I was much happier as a renter. My worst landlord was a dream compared to these people.”

BOARDGATE: “I found out that we [the homeowners] are supposed to vote for any contracts with vendors, like the landscapers. It’s more than a year [since] I found that law, and they somehow have got around it. They go into secret session for contracts. I even asked them, ‘Why is it secret?’ ‘Oh, it’s the law.’ Whenever you ask anything, they just tell you, ‘It’s the law.’ For me, you’re only secretive when you’re fining somebody or when you’re talking about an individual homeowner. I asked them to give notice [of meetings, for example], but they don’t respond to things like that. Here it is 2010, and they don’t communicate with us by email yet. They post things on a bulletin board that they’re having a meeting, and that’s it. We never get any minutes. We have to pay for minutes. Yeah. Real bad.”

But can’t an active majority of the homeowners sway the board? “They’re not active! Not too many people come down to the meetings. We have a lot of apathy and a lot of younger people moving in who don’t quite know what’s up yet. And we have a lot of absentee landlords because we’re probably 50 percent rental, so we have a lot of trouble with those owners, who don’t even show up or take care of their tenants. There are some owners that I’m friendly with, but people are afraid to make any waves. They just give up. I’m almost always there alone.”


My Neighbor, the President: Or, take Warren Reidel, living proof that the rich don’t escape HOA conflicts either. Those small, intensely annoying things between neighbors, and especially neighbors hog-tied to HOA rules, can create a war that makes only lawyers happy. Dr. Reidel — a physician specializing in gastroenterology at Scripps Clinic in Torrey Pines — lives on a four-acre swathe of Rancho Santa Fe, in the gated community of Rancho Farms Estates. The homes go for from $1.5–$8 million and range from 5000–10,000 square feet. There are 40 residences on four different streets. It’s a 13-year-old development without guards, so you punch your code in or use your garage opener to open the gates. Or wait for a gardener to come through, then follow him in.

It looks idyllic — if you’re into breaking the social contract and living a kind of apartheid life of exclusivity. But Reidel is at war with his HOA…and its president, businessman Dean Reese, who is not only his neighbor but also accesses his home via Reidel’s driveway.

“I live on a long private drive, which I own,” Reidel says. “Only one neighbor on the driveway has access to drive his car in and out over my property to get to his house. Otherwise there are no homes on the street. So all was peaceful. Then a few years ago, [my wife and I] were parking our cars up our driveway in front of our garages, and when he [Mr. Reese] was driving by to his house, he would see them. He decided that he didn’t like to see our cars parked in front of our garages. So, being the president of the homeowners’ association, he sent out a letter saying, ‘You’re not allowed to park your car in front of your garage. It has to be in your garage.’ Now the homeowner association’s CC&R [covenants, conditions, and restrictions] just says everyone must have a garage. Doesn’t say you have to park your car in the garage. So he sent out this letter. He’s the only one who can see my house. That was four years ago.

“And then we decided we would improve this driveway by planting it with lots of nice California peppers and bougainvilleas. We irrigated it and lighted it and I spent a lot of money. And while I was doing it, he said to me, ‘This is great.’ Because he’s getting a free driveway done. He gets to drive up my driveway. And he said, ‘Oh, by the way, you have $5000 that the previous owner had put down as a deposit for this landscape project, and when you finish your driveway, if you show them receipts for what you spent’ — and I ended up spending $20,000 on it — ‘you can get that money back.’

“So this was two years ago. We finally finished the job, and they said, ‘How wonderful, lighted at night, trees, all irrigated.’ Of course, I’m paying for all the irrigation and electricity for the driveway that he gets to use, okay? So then when I finally brought the receipts in this last summer to the HOA, they said, ‘Oh, there’s no money. That was all gone years ago. There’s no record of it here.’

“Then last year I built the swimming pool. It was expensive — about $60,000. The whole backyard project cost $120,000. I decided I would put a solar panel in to heat the pool. So we put that in. I must say it was big and ugly, and it was on the side of my property facing his home area.

“Once it went up, and we didn’t even finish it, he went berserk, and he planted large trees to block my sunlight. And you can’t do that. There’s something called the California Solar Rights Act. Then the homeowners sent me a ‘cease and desist’ letter. So we stopped in the middle of it. And they said, ‘Now we want $4500 as a deposit for you to finish your project, or we’ll fine you.’ We gave them $4500 this last February, and they were obligated to respond to our plans within 45 days. So they said, ‘We’re going to have the architectural committee come over to your house and review what you’ve done, and we’re probably going to ask you to move your solar panel to a different location so it’s not in his face.’

“In the meantime, he called the County Building Department on me to see if my solar panel was in a legal spot, and they said it’s fine, it’s legal. There’s nothing he can do about it.

“And then he called the county on me to say that we did illegal grading, because when we built the swimming pool, we took some of the dirt out of the pool and put it on the side of the house on what’s called Open Space. And we packed it down. We just added some more dirt to an area of dirt. So the county came out and said, ‘It looks fine,’ and that was the end of that.”

But still the war escalated.

“In 135 — not 45 — days, [the architectural committee] finally came over to my house, and they wanted me to move the solar panel and plant large ficus trees to the side of the panels, so fewer people could see it, including a neighbor who lives a quarter-mile away, up on a hill. The ficus trees were $250 each. I said, ‘Forget it. I’ll take the solar panel down.’ I removed it. Meantime, they charged me $300 to have the landscape architect come around and say that ‘you should plant the ficus trees over here, and you should make your fence black instead of silver.’

“And then they said that some chain-link fence that I put up way over on the other side of the property was galvanized, silver color, and not black. One of the other neighbors said, ‘Sometimes I can see the reflection of your galvanized fence from my property.’ My house is 100 yards from hers.”

At this point, Reidel says, he was seething. “At a homeowners’ meeting two weeks ago I went with a demand letter. I wanted my [$300] back, and I asked for money back for dismantling the solar panel. So I asked for $1400 back.

“In the meantime, my neighbor who was so adamant that I couldn’t park my cars in front of my garage has parked his cars for the last three years in front of his garage. The homeowners say you can’t store a boat: he’s had a boat in his back yard for three months. I took pictures of it every week. This is the president. He thinks he can break all the rules. He can store the cars [outside], he can bring a boat in, and then on top of that, in his back yard he’s got silver-colored fencing with barbed wire on it. How come they don’t make him change his silver-colored fencing?

“You know what he says? ‘It’s not on my property.’ But it surrounds his back yard. Then he’s got this large shed in his back yard, and the CC&R says no sheds are allowed. He even has a flagpole, and I don’t really care about his flagpole, but the CC&R says you’re not allowed to have flagpoles. So he can break all the rules.

“It has been a nightmare, and I’m ready to sue them in small-claims court if I don’t get some satisfaction here.”

And as with Ada, Reidel’s problem is a dormant democracy. “Nobody who lives here really cares about the homeowners’ association. These are wealthy people who mind their own business. At the meeting there was the president and two other people. That’s it — plus me, the only homeowner who was not on the board of the committee. You’ve got this guy there [the president, Dean Reese] who’s making all the decisions, like, ‘We should raise the homeowners’ monthly fees,’ and we should tear down a certain queen palm tree. For $3000. He’s happy to do that with my HOA money. When I read this demand letter, he said, ‘Get a life.’ And ‘I pity you.’ I brought out pictures to the other two members. I said, ‘Look. Here’s a boat. It’s been there for three months. I can see his boat, but I really don’t care. But how come he complains about my silver fence when I can see his boat. Here’s his flagpole, and here’s his shed, and here’s his barbed-wire gate.’ They did nothing.

The final nail? “His wife sends us an email that says, ‘Would you like to have the community Christmas party at your house this year?’ First of all I’m Jewish, so that’s one issue. Secondly, I hate them. Why would I want to spend my money holding a Christmas party at my house?”

Why doesn’t Reidel run for president of the HOA himself?

“Well, I could, and I could start by sending out an email, attaching all the pictures of his boat and his shed, and his barbed wire, and his flagpole, and then his cars, and then saying, ‘This is your president! He breaks all the rules! Maybe we should get rid of him!’”

Reidel thinks a moment. “The thing is there’s such a giant [lack of] interest in it, nobody wants to be the president. That’s why there are only three people at the meetings. Nobody cares!”


“It’s a thankless job, being president of the HOA, an unpaid, thankless job,” says Dran Reese, Dean Reese’s wife. Both are prominent in business and the social life of the county. “I’m not 1000 percent that my husband would want to give you an interview, only because there are so many things that go on in our neighborhood. We try to be so good with all of our neighbors, but when you have neighbors who don’t care about you as a neighbor and don’t go by the good-neighbor policy and do what they feel like, it’s harmful to the rest of the community, and especially to immediate neighbors. And we deal with that. Not just one time, two times, three times, but multiple times. It’s like having a set of little children. And you can quote me on that. They’re childish! They’re petty and childish.”

But Dean does agree to talk, a day later. “I try not to let [this issue] rent space in my brain,” he says on the phone. He and his wife made their money selling earthquake kits they created and now have settled in this expansive (though less expensive than the coveted Covenant) area of Rancho Santa Fe.

He emails me a packet of three photos. They show spacious yards in the foreground, with messy business going on next door, behind a band of young trees. Builders’ barrows, lengths of pipe, construction debris. A long sloping frame, ready to accept solar panels.

“We dealt with this amount of garbage and this crap that we all had to look at for six months,” he says. “We requested on multiple occasions for Mr. Reidel to clean up this area and to do something about the drainage as well.”

So how about the whole cars-outside-garages issue?

“If you were to drive up there right now, you would see most of his cars parked in front of his garage. Because he has custom cars that take up all the space on one side. The other side is full of his personal whatever…[stuff]. That has not been an issue. But the association asked for people not to park their cars on the street overnight. Mr. Reidel had spare tires and debris and garbage in his front area — an eyesore — that we were asking for him to remove or relocate to another position, where it would not be visible from the street. He was able to build a small wall. Did a nice job. Looks good. Was able to cover all that stuff up. So kudos to him. Thank you very much for doing that.

“With regard to my property: Yeah, in the summertime, sometimes I’ll leave my boat there. I travel quite a bit so…should I have left it there for as long as I did during the summer, when we were using it? No. Can anybody see my boat from anywhere in the association property? No. When Mr. Reidel told me that it bothered him, I removed it.

“The flagpole? Actually I think that there might be something [in the HOA’s CC&R] that allows you to fly a United States flag. I’m not sure. I’ll have to check on that one. If it really bothers him that much, that I fly the American flag on Veterans’ Day, Memorial Day, and those days acknowledging our fallen heroes, if it bothers him, I’ll tear down my flagpole. If Mr. Reidel has any issue with me doing anything, all he has to do is submit, in writing, to the architectural review committee, any complaint he might have. He has not done so. So until such time as he submits a written complaint, verbal complaints are not subject to action.

“There was a special hearing for Mr. Reidel sometime in the spring, when we asked him to submit plans. At that meeting, he did not submit complete plans, did not submit plans of the solar [array] and [its] location. He did submit a planning schedule, and an irrigation schedule, but he did not submit any schedule with regard to his fencing, or the solar.

“As one of the neighbors put it at the Board meeting when Mr. Reidel was present: ‘Please, just try to be a good neighbor. You’re making everybody else suffer. Just get past this, and be a good neighbor. It’s not that difficult.’ We try to be good neighbors. But when somebody won’t get out of their car and acknowledge you, or wave, or even look at you, then it’s very difficult to be a good neighbor.”


Stalled Parking: Carol and Richard Reed’s condo dream has been wrecked by a parking problem. They lived in San Diego for 25 years, then moved to the Phoenix area. Now, the retired couple has decided they want to spend their summers in San Diego. Grandkids, friends, whatever.

“So we found a place that was right for us. It has 92 units. Looks beautiful. And it ended up that the price was right. It overlooks the Coronado Bridge. It’s a two-bedroom, two-bath conversion that was done about six years ago. The price was $120,000. It was very good because [even though] it borderlines on a bad location, it’s a gated community right across from the police precinct. We put in an offer and tried to start wrapping up the details. But we came to realize that the preliminary deed did not refer to the parking stalls that we had been told would go with the unit. In this complex, the parking stalls are not deeded spaces. They are controlled by the HOA. We were told it could not be a part of escrow, since they’re not deeded spaces; that we would have to go to the HOA, and since the HOA doesn’t really talk to prospective buyers, we would have to go to the management company that manages the complex for the HOA and have them verify the two parking spaces that went with the unit. We agreed on a price, based on our assumption that this unit had two parking stalls. We communicated with the management company in writing, and they confirmed to us that the parking stalls went with the unit, in writing. We closed on the property.

“We went the following week to move in and went into our parking stall — and immediately got a nastygram on our windshield that we were going to be towed because that was not our parking stall. And then the you-know-what hit the fan. The HOA came to us and said, ‘You must be mistaken. You only have one parking place that goes with your unit.’ And we said, ‘Oh, no, no, no. We verified this in writing with your management company.’ And they said, ‘Sorry. Screw you. It comes with one space. You don’t get [the second space].’ And the bottom line is our real estate agent, our escrow agent, everyone told us there was no other way to verify this except from the management company who maintain the records of what parking goes with which unit. So we had no recourse. And we’re understanding that many complexes are like this. And I think the public is absolutely unaware of how badly they would get burned on something like this.

“Because now we’ve sent hundreds of emails, we’ve had three meetings with the HOA, two meetings with the management company. And they have just flipped us [brushed us off], told us, ‘No way in heck are we doing anything for you. It’s not our fault.’

“We contacted a lawyer about it, and he said, ‘You’ve got a winning case, but it’s going to cost you more to litigate this than the darned parking space is worth.’ It has cost us so much time and energy and put such a terrible bad taste in our mouths with respect to this particular management company and the HOA, that it has been extremely difficult. We showed them their letter, they said, ‘Sorry. We made a mistake.’ So we have met a total roadblock. The HOA — and I understand that it’s a thankless job — but at least they could show some respect. They told us that we screwed up. Just unbelievable. In other condo situations, we’ve experienced members of the board who were on top of the situation, willing to listen. The board members in [our HOA condo complex in] Phoenix are extremely competent. And that was the case when we lived in San Diego before. This is the worst, most stressful experience we have ever had in our lives. We have never been talked to like this. And all over a parking space.”


Property Management: Fiend or Friend? Claudia Medina is so-o-o glad she’s out of it. You try organizing a large complex’s HOA, where that HOA is continually broke. Medina says she was in effect a one-woman property management company for a 310-unit HOA just north of San Ysidro. Most owners and tenants are Spanish speakers — not a problem for Claudia; she’s bilingual — but she says many don’t understand their rights as community owners of the property and allow their HOA to assume too much power.

Medina, a realtor/property manager, is aware that property management companies, which most HOAs subcontract to do the actual running of their property, get a bad rap, often rightly so. Incompetent HOA boards throw money at them and hope they’ll manage the condo community properly and honestly. But at least they know what they’re doing. In hard times like these, says Medina, an increasing number of boards save money by dumping the management companies and trying to run things themselves.

“Condo associations are having a lot of problems, because there are so many foreclosures, and people are not making the money, and they’re not paying their association fees. That’s the bottom line,” she says. “They don’t have enough for maintenance.”

Not only that, but foreclosed properties are being bought up by investors, who then rent them out till condo unit prices rise enough to sell at a profit. “So what happens is that the percentage of renters goes up, and the homeowner-occupancy ratio gets lowered.”

And that, says Medina, has real consequences. For, say, first-time homeowner wannabes —

and HOA-managed condo units are the classic entry-level opportunity — loans come with specific conditions. “In a VA or FHA government-backed loan, you have to have a certain homeowner occupancy rate in the association. It could be anywhere between 50–55 percent.”

She says the government may soon lower that to 45 percent. But “if there are too many renters in an association, that means a potential homeowner can’t qualify for government loans.” And investors crowd out the market. “They bring down the value of the property,” Medina says. “Also, the more renters you have, the less those renters care about the property. In the complex I managed, the majority of the problems were renters. Loud parties, dogs, cats, [ignoring] weight restrictions on dogs. With pools, they’d invite over huge numbers of guests. In associations, you only have a certain parking spot. But the tenants take up assigned owners’ spots. That was a big issue. Every day somebody gets towed. I used to manage trying to collect the [HOA] fees. What a job! Especially right now. You have to be knocking on doors. People are running from you because they owe you money. And even if you file a lien on their property, you’re not likely to get anything from them, because most of the time they’re in default.”

She says a lot of the problems come because HOA homeowners don’t know they have a voice in running their association. “A lot, especially the Hispanics, don’t know that they have certain rights or that they can vote. When I got to that association, because it’s pretty much Hispanic — 80 percent — they didn’t know that they could kick out board members. So they got the same [people representing them] over and over. And these board members tend to pretty much dominate. So I started giving advice: ‘There are things you can do.’ ”

Where these essentially amateur boards, who have fired the management company, often fall short, she says, is in prioritizing money. “When a lot of homeowners say, ‘The priority is, let’s get our landscaping done,’ I say, especially when you don’t have any money, ‘The priority is paying the water bill, your electricity bills, and the plumbing.’ That was my biggest priority in that complex, the water and plumbing. They do patch-up jobs. Like water heaters. In my first two months I [told them they had to] replace three water heaters, $5000 apiece. I said, ‘It’s better to spend the money now, because in the long run you’ll be spending more.’

“But often they wouldn’t listen. And when you have HOAs not bringing in the $30,000–$40,000 a month they’re supposed to, and you’re only bringing in $10,000 and your water bill’s $10,000, and you have to pay your insurance of $1800, and your electric bill, it was just a laugh.

“And here’s the thing: nobody was interested! Of the 310-plus homeowners, only ten would show up. This was their future. And that’s how the board members would get away with doing whatever they wanted. Plus, renters don’t get to have a voice, and that’s why, if it’s more investor owned — investors don’t care, as long as they get their rent, right? — they just pay their HOA fees. They don’t go up to the meetings. And right now, the number-one foreclosures are in the condo associations, because they’re not paying their dues. That association lives by those dues. Basically, those dues have to pay insurance, maintenance, water, gardeners, pool maintenance, roofs — that’s a big thing — paving — right now, that complex hasn’t been paved, and it was going to be, like, $100,000 just to do the whole paving of the place. They don’t have $100,000. They don’t even have reserves. They were down to $20,000–$30,000. The last time they did the paving was about eight years ago. And even then, eight years ago, it was just a patch-up job, one of those coatings. It’s so bad that the actual board members themselves started buying cement and patching up the holes. The actual board members. It was ridiculous.”

It also affected the complex’s eligibility for FHA approval for prospective condo buyers. “You have to have a certain amount of money in your bank account, and this complex didn’t have those reserves. And that’s why this complex was not approved for new homeowners. The majority of the board members don’t get this. They get on this high and mighty trip sometimes. There are some people who have been [on the board] forever, and they just don’t get it.”

So Medina wanted to change the CC&Rs not to allow investors. “Investors are bringing down the home-occupancy rate, and you have problems with tenants, and homeowners don’t want to live around tenants. That’s why they bought a place, right?”

No luck. And the HOA said they could run the place without her.

Would she go back, if the board asked her? “That’s what a lot of the homeowners asked me. I said, ‘Look, if I don’t get this association back in 30 days, then I won’t come back, because I just know that they’re going to mess it up so bad that it’s not even worth it for me.’ They have gone through three or four property-management companies in the last ten years. The same board members have been in position all along.”


So, do HOAs work? Yes, they provide entry-level buy-ins to the American Dream of home ownership, at least in good times, and privileged islands of compatibly wealthy folk and, for millions of middle-class folk, clustered communities of relative security. Yet problems go beyond the mechanics of running them and access to management, to the concept itself: They were supposed to create high-density accommodation solutions for inner cities, but for a long time they bolstered the rush to suburbia. They were supposed to embody the democratic community, but as private enclaves, they are walled off from normal constitutional guarantees to the individual and the normal constitutional restrictions on the limits of the HOAs’ powers. These “outsourced” mini-polities, like private armies, can become rogue fiefdoms where, if individual homeowners want to sue the HOA Board for, say, breach of duty, they have to pay for it from their own pockets. Whereas HOA insurance will pay not only for a board member’s legal expense, but any judgment against him or her. More disturbingly, several court judgments have hinted that HOA boards may have the right to place limits on entrenched freedoms such as political speech. Could HOAs turn into little bubbles of not-America, where a private, corporate “constitution” trumps the national Constitution? HOA voting rights are based on property, not the individuals committed to living there. Shades of 18th-century England? And where maybe half of the properties are owned by investors, renters have no voting rights, and the investors become like absentee voters. The result is that permanent owner-dwellers are underrepresented, the threat of a bullying, unimpeachable HOA government rises, and you get the scenario at Medina’s complex where 10 voters out of 310 regularly turn up to decide the future of all.

Yes, there are probably thousands — millions — of satisfied customers out there. And so many of the fights are neighbors’ issues, not peculiar to HOA situations. But with a quarter of the nation’s most populous state living under HOA rules, somebody — an elected somebody — needs to take a hard look at how — if — HOAs fit into the greater society and the rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution — or if they are a gathering force committed to sidestepping those freedoms behind walls of corporate law. Let the horror stories continue!

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Comments

HOAGOV Feb. 17, 2010 @ 11:21 a.m.

Great coverage!!

For those readers seeking to better understand HOAs, please see http://starman.com/hoagov for articles on the foundations of HOAs and the New America -- the intentions and motivations of the designers of the HOA model in 1964, and of Community Associations Institute (CAI), the HOA national lobbying. The articles contain numerous references to court cases and the writings of others, including the pro-HOA people, over the past 44 years. Statements like those that support HOAs as de facto governments in competition with local government.

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PistolPete Feb. 17, 2010 @ 2:24 p.m.

I'll NEVER own or live in an HOA complex. People who opt to live or own in an HOA complex deserve everything they get.

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SDaniels Feb. 17, 2010 @ 4:44 p.m.

I am a renter, but have observed for years the soap opera that is the HOA in our building. The position of President of the HOA board has been hijacked by a crazy person, who recently sued an elevator repairman for saying "Lady, you need some help." She accomplished her deed by campaigning for votes from the many absent owners who live out of state and are unaware of building politics--or her mental problems, about which the elevator repairman was correct (and the court thought so, too). Now she reigns over a board of people who are apparently unsure of how to depose her. As a consequence, morale is nonexistent, and the building--and unsuspecting renters-- suffer for it.

Example: Last week I reported to some residents who own units that there was a leak in a hallway ceiling that seemed to become a steady stream whenever water was turned on in the unit above. That was Friday. We went away for the weekend, and on Monday, found the leak had gotten even worse, and that the hall carpet now smelled of mildew, as well as being soaked over three times the square footage as when I first discovered the problem. The board waited until the ceiling rotted through to do anything, and now it is a much bigger, more expensive mess than it would have been a week and a half ago. This kind of situation is all too familiar, and it would take a formal PowerPoint presentation to run down all that has gone wrong with plumbing and structure here while bewildered HOA members run around pointing fingers at one another, their only consistent action being to tighten the community purse strings. Sad for democracy ;)

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Visduh Feb. 17, 2010 @ 8:09 p.m.

Sounds like local SD politics in microcosm. Let a simple repair go until you have a major infrastructural failure. At least there's no employee pension plan with retirement at 50 and a DROP option--is there?

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Northee Feb. 18, 2010 @ 1:38 p.m.

Sorry I missed the call for HOA horror stories. I recently went on the board of 2 HOA's, because it seemed the only way to find out where all the money was going.

What I found was a lot worse than I imagined, largely due to lack of interest by most owners. The boards serve the PROPERTY according to their personal preferences, and tend to think of owners and residents as the enemy.

Communication--I found meeting agendas not posted, websites not updated, and even who is on the board not communicated. One project's employees view their job to control their owners, with no inference of serving.

Financial management--Little concern for what the owners want in spending their money. One HOA required owners to pay several thousand dollars to clean dryer ducts, when the on site maintenance worker could have done for almost no cost. Another HOA charges $90 to register a cat and $115 for a new tenant! One HOA pays $700 per month for maintaining potted plants, as we have no yards! The president recently decided to pay over $5,000($60 per unit)for flood insurance, even though the units are not in any flood zone.

Litigation--Owners' funds are at risk with no input, as all decisions are made in executive session. One HOA has spent over $80,000 on a lawsuit because the board did not want to wait for corrections that were likely going to be required already. An attorney was paid over $45,000 last year to collect delinquencies and offer advice; the budget was $15,000 for legal.

Legislation to require better procedures and enforcement is one answer to these horror stories. A great need also exists for business-oriented and fiscally prudent people to serve. I estimate all 86 units in one condo project are paying at least $100 per month more than required. That is a lot of money being wasted!

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bombshell Feb. 19, 2010 @ 3:40 p.m.

I was so disappointed to read the stories and comments in this feature, but somehow not surprised.

I work in the property mgmt business and quickly assume the same role as the "a-hole cops" or "mean judges" and "sucky parents". Yes, I have seen my fair share of porly ran HOA's or bad Boards, but there are laws and civil codes that govern how each of these bodies of authority rule your HOA. Just like the real world people. Educate yourself and you may not be so quick to judge. If you sign into a community where noise must be kept down after 10pm, don't make noise after 10pm. It doesn't allow for family gathering noise after 10pm but not parties of young college student renters. ITS SAYS NO NOISE. Even if you have a perfect account of no late fees or fines, it still says no noise. (Just because there are people speeding on the freeway, it doesn't mean the cops aren't doing their job. You aren't going to get out of a speeding ticket by pointing out to the cop that there are other people speeding or speeding faster.) Rules are Rules. They aren't perfect, but I believe anyway, set forth to create a well balanced and harmonious living basis to exist around.

It is so disheartening to see seemingly capable adults be allowed to own property and then not take pride in following the rules that they sign into governing them. Their failure to comply with the requests of the Association shine a negative light on homeowners who are trying. Who are complying. The only thing worse than that is the attitude, rude remarks, immature behavior, and tanturms homeowners throw when they are held at the same regard as everyone else in their community. And at the same regard for the rules in which were in place when you signed acceptance of the CC&R's for your community.

There is no perfect system within the microcosm of HOA's. But I can assure you there are no kangaroo courts, nazi camps, children haters, or people who sit around coming up with ways to ruin your life. There are however amazing communities out there, with wonderful, well educated Boards of volunteer homeowners, professional management companies, and hard working vendors that get it.

Here's hoping some of you homeowners do as well.

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PistolPete Feb. 19, 2010 @ 3:55 p.m.

Adolph Hitler thought he was right too, bombshell. Just sayin'...

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David Dodd Feb. 19, 2010 @ 6:47 p.m.

"It is so disheartening to see seemingly capable adults be allowed to own property and then not take pride in following the rules that they sign into governing them."

Yes, because owning property isn't a right, it's a privilege. Basically, when you pay a HOA, you're paying some organization in order to not have to beat the snot out of your neighbors when they misbehave. What a load of crap. I actually laughed when I read this piece. And I felt sorry for everyone involved on both sides, because really, it's a sad world when people pay because they don't want the responsibility of keeping their neighbors in check.

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ribbldj Feb. 20, 2010 @ 9:11 p.m.

Being an investor in two different condo complex's and having been part of three different HOA's in other state, I would strongly agree. The HOA's, property management as well as legal system here in San Diego is not in it at all to support the owners. The Davis Stirling Act is a joke, because no court will enforce the civil codes and the CC&R's. So as a warning to all of you who have conflicts with your HOA and/or property management, you need to work with them, not against them. NO ONE will support you even if the CC&R's support you. So you need to work with that BULLY, the HOA, and get them back on track to meet the needs of the owners.
It is extremely sad, because we are in a state where everyone is trying to maintain property value, but in a condo complex, a single owner has every card working against them.

I would love to see more HELP than war stories.

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guest123 Feb. 21, 2010 @ 11:46 a.m.

THANK YOU SD Reader for writing this story!! I live in a fairly new condo complex downtown and it's like the wild wild west out here. The HOA is running the building as if they are kings and the homeowners have NO say. Proper procedures are not followed. Changes to the rules are NOT voted on, and they are starting to hold the meetings in secret.

Any homeowner that voices concerns or attempts to communicate with the HOA is promptly shut out. I thought the HOA was supposed to be a cooperative group since we all have a stake as homeowners! Boy was I wrong.

At this point I'm planning to rent out my unit and get the heck out of here, maybe even sell it and cut my losses. One thing is for sure - I will NEVER EVER buy anything with an HOA ever again. I'd rather rent - at least it's easy to get out if the landlord is a jerk.

Our politicians need to enact legislation to bring the HOA's in check and protect individual homeowners, who often feel vulnerable against a corporate HOA with their own lawyers (paid for by our dues no less).

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StanleyHooperSD Feb. 21, 2010 @ 12:22 p.m.

Okay people, here's what that Dean Reese is all about:

http://www.citizensofthebook.com/Newsletter_May_2009.html

Looks like this guy...has his agenda, and by the looks of his association with MVCF, his mind is not open to discussion. It's his way, or the highway. I feel bad for Dr. Warren Reidel having to live near Reese. He apparently bounces around with his word (you can't park in front of your garage, but I can park in front of mine). This is a "man" who can't be trusted. And how dare he ask Dr. Reidel to host a Christmas party. Uh, hello, Reidel is Jewish. How about Reese host a Kwanzaa party while he's at it. Inconsiderate fool.

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crazyhair Feb. 22, 2010 @ 9:53 p.m.

I currently rent a condo in a complex managed by an HOA. The complex is in a highly-desired area of San Diego, it is gated, and it is very nice. The common landscaping is fairly well-maintained (although it would be nice if the landscape people would plant grass that actually grows), and I am happy with the pest control aspect the HOA takes care of. I don't do a whole lot of dealing with the HOA since I am a renter. However I did have to deal with them about a parking issue recently. We have 3 cars and 2 spaces, so one of our cars is always parked in the common area. Apparently residents have to have a parking permit to park in the common area. We were never informed of this, and it wasn't until they stuck a note on 2 of our cars threatening to tow them that we found this out. After submitting the application for a permit twice, we finally received a call back. This was when we found out that we had to provide proof of registration for all of our cars and then we would be issued a parking permit. When asked why, we were told it was so people wouldn't store cars for other people and take up spaces. Now, none of our three cars are registered in our names (we're young and they are all registered to our parents). So a guy came over and checked our registrations, and approved us, no questions asked about why our names weren't on the registrations. So technically, for all the guy knows, I could be storing a car for my parents. I asked about the guest parking policy, since my boyfriend comes over a lot. There is no real guest policy. Guests can park wherever they want in the common areas, and, in the words of the parking guy, "they can stay as long as they want. Technically they could stay indefinitely parked in the common areas." Hmmmm. So, the HOA makes residents have a permit but guests can park indefinitely. Does anyone else see how backwards this is? Had I been smart I would have told the HOA about 2 of our cars and then pretended the third was a guest. And when I buy a new car, I will not tell the HOA. This whole policy was dreamed up by a person who is retired and has NOTHING BETTER to do than walk around peering into cars (which he readily admits he does), memorizing license plates, and creating problems where there aren't problems. This is the main issue I have come across with HOAs. It's the people who have nothing else to do or are so unsatisfied with their own lives who go around poking their noses into other people's business. The whole premise of an HOA is for residents to manage a community. I agree with this. What HOAs have turned into are obnoxious boards made up of obnoxious people who worry way too much about what other people do, with the odd person who wants to change things for the better thrown in. I will never EVER buy a home in a HOA. I will park wherever I darn well please, I will have a screen door painted purple, and I will decorate my mailbox to look like a cow. And nobody will be able to say a gosh darn thing.

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Alice33 Feb. 23, 2010 @ 4:51 p.m.

"I'll NEVER own or live in an HOA complex. People who opt to live or own in an HOA complex deserve everything they get."

I would agree with that sentiment, PistolPete, except that in many parts of the country, people have NO CHOICE but to buy in an hoa. There aren't any other kinds of housing. Seriously. Any community that has seen any growth in the past 20-30 years will be infested with hoas. Buyers aren't "opting" to live there; buyers mostly don't even want hoas, but the cities and the developers cozy up because they each get something they want.

The developers get to cram too many homes in a teensy plot of land, and they get to control everyone's behavior until all the places are sold. The cities get to increase their tax base without increasing expenses, because hoas fund their own infrastructure at the same time that they pay the usual taxes.

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PistolPete Feb. 23, 2010 @ 9:09 p.m.

LOL, Mindy. :-D I sypathize with people who have HOAs. I can't really say, "Go live out in East County" because not everyone will be able to afford it. However, by knowing what you're getting into, you also have nobody else to blame but yourself. Complacency, unfortunetely, is continuing to murder "The Wild, Wild West".

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guest123 Feb. 25, 2010 @ 10:39 a.m.

PistolPete's comment:" "However, by knowing what you're getting into, you also have nobody else to blame but yourself."

Unfortunately, most people have no idea what they're getting into. You assume that the HOA will follow the CC&R's, right? Wrong. If they break their own rules (which happens often), and abuse their power, how do you stop them? You have to take them to court - which will cost you lots of $$$ and stress, especially when you have to see these people every morning when you step outside of your condo (they're "patrolling" the building to look for "trouble-makers").

Elect new directors? HOA "elections" are a joke. Oftentimes ballots are "inspected" by the HOA themselves. In our case the HOA didn't even post notice of the elections so many homeowners did not even know they were happening. There are none of the safeguards in typical "elections" like we see in government, but the HOA's are like mini-governments because they control how you live your life.

Lots of people just give up, especially if they have health conditions or don't have the money to pay an attorney. Lawyers are expensive. And in my opinion corporate HOA lawyers seem very happy to drag out lawsuits and bill for their time.

Also, many condo buyers are first-time homebuyers - fairly young and inexperienced. They have no idea what they're signing up for. Another large portion are older people who are easily targeted and feel vulnerable, and they are scared to speak up.

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PistolPete Feb. 25, 2010 @ 11:03 a.m.

I understand where you're coming from, guest123. On the other hand, this still America. I know enough about HOAs and CC&Rs to know, you get what you pay for. I'm the type of guy who might get a wild hair up his ass and paint his house black and draw a huge Satan on the side. I don't give a s about home values. Home values don't mean as much as people like to imagine. As long as my neighbors respect my privacy, I don't get two ss if they invite the circus over every night.

America-The NEW and IMPROVED socialism :-D

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scottman April 1, 2010 @ 11:23 p.m.

I've had my experience with the housing Nazi's. Never again.

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hiram Oct. 22, 2013 @ 5:51 a.m.

I agree with many aspects of the article. I own a condo in Asbury Park, New Jersey, The Presidential Condominium, 1615 Park ave. It was a nice place to live when I bought it years ago. Maintenance was around $300 (higher than average) but tolerable. Around 2006 things started to go south. The owners had always kept money in the reserve fund to take care of problems. Assessments were planned and evenly & economically implemented. We had a major roofing issue (cost over $100,000) and the association had money on reserve. The board decided to do an unnecessary $80,000+ lobby makeover. The other six floors were neglected & so was the roof. Next a bright idea from the board: assessment to replace the misspent fund & roof assessment. There was outrage & push back from some owners but it was met with disrespect from the board & the association lawyer. Many people including some of the board members sold their property to get from under the predicament they had caused. I now pay maintenance of over $600. No, there aren't any amenities to justify the cost, unless you consider having access to the main lobby doorbell an amenity. Each new board seems to worse than the last and in conjunction with the Townsmen LLC management company matters are worse. Transparency is a major issue. We paid money into a "beautification" fund, and when asked to see a list of what we paid for at a board meeting one of the board members became up-hauled at the mere question. We later learned that part of the fund was used to repair the boiler and that the remainder of the funds was more than enough to do the beautification. Therefore, we were going to over pay for another project. The list goes on and on. I wouldn't recommend condo living, especially not at the Presidential under Townsmen LLC management. Interview as many occupants as possible before making the decision to buy a condominium.

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