Sunday, August 24, 2008

HOAs: Oversite or Overrun?

I have friends from across the political spectrum. I play poker with a true libertarian; Thomas Paine’s “The government is best which governs least,” pretty much sums up his mantra. On the other side, an old car-pool buddy falls just short of Marx’s “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” My viewpoint falls somewhere within that vast chasm, depending on the day of the week and the price of gasoline at the pump.

But regardless of political leanings, one thing most of us agree on is that we’ve got more than enough layers of government in our lives. Federal, State, County, City. They should be able to get things done, right? Well maybe so, but we residents of Frisco – and most other modern suburban communities – voluntarily add an additional layer of civic oversite: the Home Owner’s Association. In fact, about 95% of Frisco homes lie within the bounds of an HOA. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, they’re a fact of suburban life.

HOAs are usually created as a mechanism to fund and support the common areas in a neighborhood. When builders come in and divide up a plot of land, they like to add features such as pocket parks, green belts and those ubiquitous neighborhood pools, to make their homes more attractive to the buyers. Once the development is complete, someone has to take care of these features. So the builders form an HOA and pass along that responsibility to the future home owners.

HOAs are headed up by residents of the neighborhood and handle things like communication, deciding which flowers to plant and organizing neighborhood events. But the real power of the HOA lies in its bylaws, which are established when the HOA is formed and everyone who lives within the HOA agrees to live by. This includes not only the original members, but anyone who buys a home within that neighborhood any time in the future. Yet, many home buyers don’t bother to read these documents before they buy.

If you want to see what kind of control your HOA has, take a look at a document called the “Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions” or some variation thereof. Restrictions can range from what kind of trees, shrubs and landscaping you can use on your lot, up to what kind of buildings you can have in the back yard or what color you can paint your house. I was surprised to find that my HOA had the final say on what kind of shingles I could use to repair my roof. I’m sure my surprise was dwarfed by Jim Greenwood, a resident of Frisco’s Stonerbriar neighborhood – and presumably, a member of their HOA. He was notified that his HOA deemed his new Ford F-150 pickup truck as unsightly. The Lincoln Navigator up the street was okay. Even the Chevy Avalanche (go figure). But his “Texas Sports Car,” he was told, would have to be kept in the garage.

For a government agency – or HOA – to have an impact on your life, they have to have some control over what you do. Cities can fine you, tax you or throw you in jail. HOAs don’t have the last option, but they can certainly do the first two. They may not call it a “tax,” but your HOA dues are certainly a form of taking some of your hard-earned dollars and using it for the common good. That sounds like a tax to me. And fines are the tool of choice for HOAs to impose their will on residents. Is your yard getting a bit out of control? That’ll be fifty bucks. Haven’t painted in a while? $75, please. Late with your dues? Cha-ching. I’ve seen cases where fines and levies have added up to thousands of dollars. What happens if you don’t pay? Legal action is, of course, one option. But HOAs have a better tool. They file a lien against your property, effectively barring you from selling it until you pony up. In Texas, they even have the ability to foreclose on your home, though this power is rarely used.

The good news and bad news about HOAs is that the decision on how strictly to enforce the provisions of the CC&R documents lies in the aforementioned Board of Directors. These folks are usually elected by a pitiful minority of residents who show up for the annual elections. So it’s not hard for a small group of people to gain control of the board. In a recent example, a group of residents in the Frisco Fairways neighborhood exchanged some harsh words with their elected officials. Law suits and counter-suits were threatened and filed on both sides. Ultimately, they came to a settlement. But more interesting, some of the disgruntled residents ended up replacing existing board members at the next election. A perfect example of “if you don’t like your politicians, become one yourself.”

Which is, I guess, the point. Whether we’re talking about your local neighborhood, the city or the country, our system is built on the concept of citizens getting involved. Too often, people spend their time complaining about how the government did this, or the city didn’t do that or the HOA slapped a lien on my property. But too few actually step up to serve on their HOA board, or run for city council. Whatever your political philosophy, this fundamental concept is key. More government or less, it only works when you get involved.

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