A blog post on the tyranny of homeowners association boards sparked a chord of frustration and disdain in me this morning. The blog post was by Jonathan Nettler, “The Tyranny of America’s Homeowners Associations,” on the Planitizen website, “a public-interest information exchange for the urban planning, design, and development community.”
Nettler’s post selectively quotes a post by Kaid Benfield, “Coercion by Contract: How Homeowners Associations Stifle Expression, Sustainablity” on the Natural Resources Defense Council site for staff blogs, Switchboard. Benfield’s original post is much more balanced than Nettler’s quote that portrays condominium boards as equal to Nazi’s in style and substance. It was Nettler’s distortion that was frustratingly passive aggressive.
Who Rules Homeowners Associations?
The problem with associations of homeowners, when there is one, is not the board, but the homeowners themselves. HOAs are self-governing. The state in which they are established generally has few regulations, usually limited to disclosure and owners rights. These are totally minimal compared to what homeowners themselves establish. The board can only enforce the regulations the homeowners have approved.
New homeowners agree to follow the HOA regulations when they sign their contracts. One presumes that these are adults who are beyond the age of consent and can read. They rule themselves.
One of the tragedies of life is the lack of understanding of self-governance. In the years between 1850 and 1950 when people were struggling to build new democratic governments out of the aftermath of revolutions, the right to self-governance was hard-won. The refrain of progressive education in the early part of the 20th century was the importance of universal education in order to maintain a democracy. Civics was a required study on high schools. I don’t remember the statistics but this is no longer true.
Self-governance requires knowledge. The skills and understanding have to start in the family, the neighborhood, the schools, and villages. Whether a homeowners association is responsive to the needs of residents, depends on the residents, and on their ability to self-govern.
Do Condo Boards Have Any Power?
A homeowners association board only has as much power as the homeowners give it, and the only people on the board are the ones the homeowners elect. Objecting is hard but it’s the only way to confront the issue of badly performing board members.
Board members are people who have the same skills and deficiencies that each of us has. They are not miracle workers. They need help and support too.
The Buck Does Not Stop at Voting
Voting is not enough to ensure that our associations are democratic. Voting is actually nothing. What is important is the day to day understanding of what decisions are being made, how they are made, and evaluation of their results. It’s a living process, not a voting booth process—though attention to voting would be a start.
After serving on a condo board, I understand completely why board members become Condo Commandos: the behavior of homeowners. They don’t participate, don’t educate themselves, and don’t pay attention even to the financial health of the communities in which they have invested both financially and personally.
Self-Governance Requires Self-Education
It takes lot of work to make the decisions board members have to make. It can be overwhelming to do all the research and study that each decision takes. On top if it, to have to gently coax homeowners (or jerk them up by their collars) to make them pay attention is more than most board members have time for.
Being a board member means giving up many evenings and weekends to do the work required. Homeowners have to do the same in order to develop and protect a community they would be happy living in.
Each homeowner, like each citizen, has to self-educate if they want to self-govern. They need to help board members make good decisions. What many people do is leave the decision-making to someone else then sit around and complain about tyrants.