Homeowner Boards Blur Line of Who Rules Roost

New York Times


PHOENIX, AZ— Joseph Haggerty may own the most expensive garbage can in America.

Because he kept it in the front yard, not the back, his homeowners association took him to court for violating community rules. After a four-year standoff over whether neighbors could see it behind a shrub, he lost and was ordered to pay $11,978.75 in fines and legal fees.

For Ralph Blevins, the problem was an unsightly toolshed behind his town house in Raleigh, N.C. His homeowners association removed the shed one night, and Mr. Blevins, a 62-year-old civil engineer, protested by withholding $750 in maintenance fees. The association foreclosed and bought the town house at an auction for just $3,000.

About one in six people in the nation, or roughly 50 million residents, lives in a community governed by a homeowners association, from co-op buildings in New York City to suburban subdivisions. Formed to take care of the small tasks that fall through the cracks of municipal government, like picking up garbage and repainting curbs, some homeowners associations are asserting far broader powers, backed by local courts.

Cities and counties, which are reluctant to raise taxes to pay for services, have in many cases stepped aside, allowing associations to become de facto governments with increasing authority over daily life.

The growth of associations has created "a whole sector of people who don't use public services," said Evan McKenzie, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois in Chicago who has written widely about the subject. Homeowners who live in such communities, he added, "don't need local governments."

Homeowners associations collect dues, which finance a variety of things, including landscaping and playgrounds. The boards, composed of elected volunteers, dictate house paint colors, lawn-mowing schedules and parking policies for recreational vehicles. The boards can fine residents who break these rules and, in some cases, foreclose on homeowners who cannot afford the monthly dues.

While many homeowners say the codes preserve neighborhood harmony and property values, a growing and vocal group of opponents say the way association rules are enforced is actually tearing apart communities. "Homeowners associations are based on a negative attitude that you can't trust your own neighbor," said George Staropoli, a business broker in Phoenix who founded Citizens Against Private Government H.O.A.'s two years ago.

Grass-roots networks of critics, linked by the Internet, have formed to lobby state legislatures. Lawmakers in Arizona, California and Texas have proposed measures restricting the powers of homeowners associations to foreclose without due process.

About 20 million homes, of 106 million in the country, are governed by an association. That is a 21 percent increase since 1998, according to the Community Associations Institute in Alexandria, Va., whose members include homeowners associations, property managers and lawyers.

Part of the growth has been fueled by builders who lure buyers with amenities like pools, golf courses and recreation centers, and then — when the builders move on — shift the costs of maintaining those perks to a homeowners association. The associations are usually created by the developer, and a buyer signs a contract agreeing to abide by the rules.

Cities and counties generally support — and sometimes require — the associations because they often pick up the costs of building public parks and roads. In Phoenix, an estimated 85 percent of new homes are built in communities governed by homeowners associations. Gilbert, Ariz., about 25 miles east of Phoenix and the fastest-growing city in the country last year, according to the census, issues building permits only to developers who build within an association.

In a 1999 Gallup poll commissioned by the Community Associations Institute, 75 percent of respondents said they were "very or extremely satisfied" with their associations. "People are moving to communities like that because they are looking to create a lifestyle for themselves," said Paul D. Grucza, president-elect of the institute.

But only 40 percent of those surveyed said they would buy their next home in a community governed by an association.


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