Guest Commentary

It's Time to Stop Homeowner Associations From Enslaving Unsuspecting Victims

Little did some of us realize that the sound of wind chimes, the installation of solar-power cells or the innocuous glow of a rear porch light could land us in hot water with our local homeowners' association, bringing months of harassment from a pseudo-governmental organization that has the right to fine people for non-compliance.

For those not used to the affairs of an HOA or those not aware of the true power of HOAs, these things might seem surprising and draconian. For those like myself--those who have seen the white teeth of the bureaucratic goliaths that are community HOAs--it's more surprising that people would allow themselves to be enslaved in such a manner.

A recent article in the Tucson Weekly by Chris Limberis ("Lawn and Order," Feb. 19) detailed Winterhaven CC&Rs (covenants, codes and restrictions), but the manicured lawns of Winterhaven are just the tip of the HOA iceberg in restricting the liberties of homeowners. My experience comes from serving as president of an HOA at a new development. Having done what most homeowners do--purchase first and ask questions later--I was surprised at just how much the CC&Rs reminded me of some sort of combination between totalitarian fascism and Orwellian communism.

Am I being too critical? HOAs not only have the power to fine their "members"; they also have the ability to place liens on homeowners who refuse to pay the fines. And what are these fines for? They could be for infractions as trivial as planting the wrong kind of tree in one's back yard, or because water is running onto an adjacent property during our rare rain storms.

How did they get this kind of power? Well, you gave it to them. By purchasing a house inside a subdivision that has an HOA, you agreed to the CC&Rs. The problem is that many people buying homes have no idea what they're getting into. Realtors and the sellers of properties in HOAs have an obligation to disclose that such regulations exist, but most buyers don't want to take the time to read the dozens of pages of CC&Rs and subsequently find themselves in the untenable situation of being forced to remove items that they couldn't have imagined would be against "neighborhood standards."

Probably the most Big Brother-like aspect of an HOA is that it turns neighbors into informants; the CC&Rs give those who have a penchant for spying the excuse to do just that. When the notice of violation appears in your mailbox referring to some innocuous plant in your backyard, you might find yourself wondering, "How on Earth did anyone see that?" Yes, your friendly neighborhood political officer has found out about your subversive reactionary activities, and you had better remove the improper foliage--or find yourself hauled before a hearing of the HOA's board.

Originally, HOAs were created to uphold certain "standards" for a community. In the old days, these standards went so far as to restrict what races could live in certain neighborhoods. Civil rights acts have done away with the more heinous parts of the HOA codes, but the government has not seen fit to question the constitutionality of the more invasive guidelines. The reasoning goes that you chose to purchase a house within the restrictions, and that you were fully informed of the guidelines and voluntarily agreed to adhere to them. The upside is that these standards help keep the property values up, since the well-maintained lawns and absence of trash cans on the streets make HOA communities attractive to potential buyers.

Recently, the Arizona Legislature has been considering HB 2374, HB 2380, HB 2381 and other bills that would change the way HOAs operate in Arizona. They would reform everything from disclosures to more haphazard HOA guidelines which frequently allow savvy board members to collect "proxies" to vote at the annual election meetings, thus ensuring their own re-election and allowing them to control the board regardless of what the members who attend the annual meeting have in mind.

These are much-needed improvements. Not only would some of these bills force HOAs to open their books to their own members, but they would also reform the way fines are levied. For those of you who have had run-ins with your HOA, they should inspire a sigh of relief; for those of you who have enjoyed the honorary title of "neighborhood political officer," prepare to find yourself stripped of your powers.

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