The backlash against homeowners' groups

Residents nationwide are increasingly protesting their associations' fees and rules.

When Robert Best began building a roof for his patio more than two years ago, he thought it seemed a rather modest prospect. The neighbor didn't mind, after all, and the plan was no Home & Garden channel make-over - in fact, the structure barely peeked above the garden wall.

Today, however, the roof is gone - torn down at the command of his neighborhood architectural committee - and Mr. Best has only a slab of concrete and $3,000 in lawyer's fees to remember it. What started as a bit of do-it-yourself home improvement became the latest in a growing number of picket-fence protests against the power of homeowners' associations.

For decades, such associations have occupied a murky niche as more than a private business but less than a local government - collecting taxlike "assessments" but subject to little public oversight. Yet as more Americans move into homes governed by associations, there are signs of a mounting revolt.

Stories like Best's are but one part of the issue, as residents chafe against the authority of homeowners' associations to determine everything from the appearance of patio roofs to the politics of lawn placards. More broadly, legislators are increasingly taking the issue into statehouses, seeking not only to clarify the laws governing homeowners' associations, but also how to enforce them.

"Lawmakers are being forced to deal with the problem," says Marjorie Murray, who tracks the issue for the California Alliance for Retired Americans.

The pressure is clearly coming from homeowners themselves. More Americans own homes in community associations than ever before. In 1970, less than 1 percent of Americans lived in a community association. Today, the figure is nearing 20 percent, and with local governments providing incentives for new homeowners' associations - which assume some of the costs of street and landscape maintenance - the trend is likely only to escalate.

Familiar spats

In some respects, the disputes are the same as they have always been. In Florida, one community has banned a former marine from flying the United States flag because the pole does not conform to neighborhood standards. In Arizona, another prohibited a resident from putting a sign in his window that supported Howard Dean for president.

But beyond such displays of pride or politics, there is deeper scrutiny of the rights and responsibilities of homeowners' associations themselves. Although people on both sides of the debate acknowledge that most associations are fair and neighborly, several instances have become rallying points for reform.

Last month, one homeowners' association in the Bay Area required that each of its 94 members pay a $12,000 special assessment for emergency repairs, angering residents who complain they were kept in the dark during the decisionmaking process. Another California association famously foreclosed on a couple because they failed to pay $120 in assessments.

"In my view, there is an imbalance of power between homeowners' associations and homeowners," says California state Rep. Darrell Steinberg (D), who sponsored a bill that would have banned foreclosures unless the resident owed more than $2,500 in assessments. "There is an unfairness in giving homeowners' associations that much authority."

Although Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) vetoed the bill, it is representative of lawmakers' attempt to more sharply define the laws surrounding homeowners' associations, both here and nationwide. In Florida, for example, lawmakers passed a suite of bills this year that open associations' records to homeowners and require professional mediation before any disputes become lawsuits, among other things. Arizona passed a set of bills with similar goals, as well.

"There have been many complaints to the Legislature and the government during the past couple of years," says William Sklar, who was co-chair of a Florida task force convened by Gov. Jeb Bush (R) to deal with the issue. "We found that there needed to be more accountability across the board."

California's proposal

The question of accountability, however, might be leading California down a more radical path. Next year, a law review commission looking at homeowners' associations is expected to make a sweeping recommendation: that the state create an agency to regulate them. It is needed, officials say, because most association disputes involve relatively small amounts of money - or ideological issues such as access to records - so homeowners aren't likely to spend thousands of dollars for a court fight.

For his part, Best turned to a lawyer as a last resort. After a year-long battle with his homeowners' association about the architectural appropriateness of his patio roof, the association said Best had to pay its legal fees, which totaled more than $5,000. When they did that, "they abused their authority," he says. "At that point, I wasn't fighting over the deck.... It was more a Don Quixote-type fight."

The association says it felt it was within its rights. "Our thought was that this was an enforcement act," says Charles Preston, president of Rollingwood Bluffs. Last month, however, a judge found in Best's favor. Yet Best admits that he wasn't blameless. He didn't submit the plan for the roof to the homeowners' association until after he had finished building it, and he missed a deadline when the association demanded that he tear it down, bringing a $800 fine.

It's a common narrative of mutual misunderstanding, experts say. And as homeowners' associations spread into the American mainstream, homeowners, too, will have to educate themselves and share in the accountability.

"The sense has always been, 'My home is my castle' - I can do what I want," says Mr. Sklar. "But the more you have close-in living, the more you have to give up some of that liberty for the common good."

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