#4 Homeowners Associations: Whose rights are right?

Some people see homeowners associations as vile beasts that prey upon the elderly, the unsuspecting, and anyone wishing to live in a neighborhood without broken-down cars, unsightly lawn jockeys, pink flamingos, or someone’s drunken Uncle Harry who likes to sit in a chair at the curb and curse at passing Japanese cars.

You are not allowed to buy your home unless you agree to pay tribute and abide by the rules set forth by the nameless and faceless association. If you are late in your annual payment, your association can remove you from your house, seize your property, and sell it for pennies on the dollar. And, you will have to pay the association’s lawyer for drawing up the paperwork that had you kicked out onto the streets.

Just ask Wenonah Blevins of Houston, Texas. The 82-year-old widow answered a knock on her door back in 2001 and saw a constable with an eviction notice and a moving truck to haul her away from the $150,000 home she owned free and clear. Her crime was failure to pay her dues to her HOA.

They claimed she was two years behind. She agreed, but said she paid the $814.50 with a check the association failed to cash. The association did not disagree.

Blevins admits she may have received notices in the mail, but she thought they were junk mail because they were addressed to her dead husband. And, she doesn’t answer the door at night because she’s an elderly woman who lives alone in Houston. Hey! I don’t even answer the door during the day. I make my wife do it.

So there she was, a widow with no children and no family except for a cat, forced by a gun-totting constable who was only following orders to condemn her to a life of homelessness.

And this tale gets more absurd. When the house was put on the auction block, the association put in a bid of $4,200. The final bid was $5,000, which was made by a tax-dodging cretin who owes about $140,000 in back property taxes to the county and the school district, and whose initial bid was the $499 minimum.

Not every property owner loses the house. Those who get to keep their homes have to pay astronomical attorney fees tacked onto any fines imposed by the associations. That’s what happened to a woman who paid her annual dues, but lost a picket in her fence and lacked a net on her son’s basketball hoop. She fixed the fence and netted the hoop, but she got a lawyer’s bill anyway. She kept her home after dipping into her retirement account for several thousand dollars.

Another woman was told by her association to close her home day-care. Even though the law was on her side, the courts stood with the association. She, too, kept her home, but she had to file for bankruptcy when the association’s lawyer charged her $19,000.

And heaven help you if you decide to change the color of your front door. A Texas Court of Appeals found that an association has the right to create an architectural control committee, and to require all homeowners to get committee approval before changing a home’s exterior paint color.

Right now in Austin, the Texas legislators are debating proposed reforms to the state’s laws covering homeowners associations and the rights of homeowners. As it stands today, associations and lenders can repossess a person’s home for breaking association rules.

Reform advocates in Texas are the latest to join a nationwide move to put homeowners associations, or HOAs as they’re known, on notice that homeowners are mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore.

Part of the dissatisfaction, anger, or paranoia, depending on your stand on the issue, is the belief, right or wrong, that HOAs have gone well beyond their original mandate to protect property values and now have become money-making machines for real estate developers.

Some folks would even like to put HOAs under some of the same open-meetings and open-records laws as public bodies like school boards, city councils, and the legislature.

I’ve had a couple of run-ins with my HOA in the 12 years we’ve lived here at the ranch. To tell you the truth, I’ve ignored just about all of them, including the one that told us we needed to clean the mold off of the back of the ranch house. Had there been mold, and I’m not admitting to it, someone would have to trespass to see it.

But my dealings with my HOA pales when compared to some other folks in the Houston area.

Mike Merola of Cypress wants to fly the US and Marine Corps flags on a flagpole he put up on his property, but his HOA says he can’t, because his flagpole violates the subdivision’s design guidelines.

In a Houston Chronicle (www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/military/7369837.html)
story, an attorney for the association says her clients encourage residents who wish to fly the flag as long as it is attached to a 6-foot pole mounted on a resident’s home, as the bylaws stipulate.

The 60-year-old Merola who served in the Marines for eight years, says that’s a nitpicking lame excuse. He says he applied to put up a 20-foot flagpole in his backyard, but was denied. After a some letters exchanged hands, he put up the pole anyway.

The HOA sees the flagpole as a detriment that will cause imminent harm and irreparable injury to the HOA and to neighbors because the flags flying in the wind cause noise that bothers the neighbors. They’ve filed suit against Merola, asking for a $10-a-day fine, a court order for removal, and payment of HOA attorney fees.

Merola claims the neighbors don’t mind and haven’t complained. The HOA attorney says there’s always the chance someone will, or that someone will try to put up a flagpole on top the house.

I guess that would be like the White House, huh?

Up in Travis County, home to the state legislature a brouhaha is brewing over solar panels.

The Austin newspaper (www.statesman.com/news/texas-politics/travis-homeowner-association-tangle-over-solar-panels-1237451.html) carried the story of John Thoppil who is building a 6,000-square foot home in the Hill Country. He wanted to put in solar panels to run his water heater, but his HOA said no because the HOA architectural control committee said the neighbors would see the panels.

State representative Jeff Wentworth (R-San Antonio) introduced a measure to allow homeowners to put up solar devices as long as they are on a roof or behind a fence on the property. Similar legislation two years ago failed.

An attorney representing homeowners and associations, and author of the book Texas Homeowners Association Law says he doesn’t see a problem with solar panels as long as they are consistent and harmonious with the community, and not intrusive.

A spokesperson for Texas Community Association Advocates, which represents homeowners associations and homebuilders, agrees but adds that HOAs should have the right to establish guidelines for aesthetics purposes.

But another Houston-area HOA took a person’s condo for unpaid legal fees.

Hillary Lamb has lived in her condo since 2005. It was purchased for cash by her youngest son’s father, but she’s been unable to keep up with the $184-month maintenance fee on her paycheck from working at Wendy’s.

According to a report on a local TV station (http://www.myfoxhouston.com/dpp/news/investigates/110209-home-owners-association-takes-home-over-legal-fees), Lamb paid off her balance in April 2009 before falling behind again.

In September of last year, she got a letter from the HOA attorney saying she needed to pay $921 in late payments and legal fees or else the association was going to foreclose. She paid the $368 in back-maintenance fees the next month, but not the attorney fees. That got her another letter for the attorney telling her to pay their fees or else.

Well, she didn’t pay the attorney fees, but she kept up with the maintenance fees, but on December 11 of last year, three months ago, her condo was sold at the Harris County foreclosure auction, all because she didn’t pay the few hundred dollars in legal fees incurred by her condo association.

Apparently that’s all legal.

Texas law says she has 180 days to buy back her condo, but she’d have to come up with several thousand dollars to do so.

We should point out that HOAs comprise all the homeowners or units in a development. It often has an elected board, which collects fees, maintains common areas and enforces the HOA rules.

And, another important part of this whole debate is the deed restriction, also known as a restrictive covenant. This places legal limits on what can be done on the property, and it’s enforceable for any future property owners.

Related links:

HOA Reform Coalition http://hoareformcoalition.org

Texas Community Association Advocates http://www.txcommunityassociationadvocates.org/Welcome-to-TCAA~313851~20176.htm

Texas Legislature http://www.capitol.state.tx.us

HOA rallys in Austin, for and against HOAs http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ocFKvmkAkiM

Tomorrow here on the big blogcast we’ll take a blog talk tour of Texas Independence with Bryan Frazier of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.  That show airs live tomorrow at our usual time, 2pm Central, 3 pm Eastern and noon Pacific.

And, Friday is Open Blog Friday, which is your turn to decide what we talk about.  Fair warning, if you don’t call in during the live blogcast, you’ll have to suffer through some of the items in the news this week that I find interesting or curious.  That’s Friday at 2 pm Central here on Gone to Texas.

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About John David Powell

John David Powell - Gone To Texas is a daily blogcast from ShadeyHill Ranch carried exclusively on Blog Talk Radio at www.blogtalkradio.com/johndavidpowell. We feature discussion of events in Texas and the world hosted by multiple Lone Star Award-winning journalist and author with 5 decades of news and broadcasting experience.
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