The Politics of a Homeowners Association

This has been a most interesting year so far. I had planned on it being a low key year, and in some ways, it has been as I have had to postpone my scheduled road trip for this year to next year. However, my responsibilities have increased. I realize that it has been over seven months since I posted on my website blog, but in the opening paragraph of that previous post, I noted that an interesting event had occurred in the previous year, having the position of president of the board of my homeowners association being dropped into my lap. The responsibility has been an interesting learning curve.

The concept of a homeowners association can be varied due to the type and number of homes in a neighborhood where an association can be formed. A homeowners association formed among a group of single family homes on individual lots is more of a collective oversight of the general neighborhood with more individual responsibility of private property. However, when the homes are townhomes or condominiums sharing one or more buildings in the community, more responsibility is placed on the legally controlled association to maintain the community, and individual homeowners are required to provide a monthly fee to cover the oversight and maintenance of the shared areas of the community. A covenant limited board of owners from the full group of homeowners are formed to handle the oversight. When I lived in Los Angeles, I owned a townhome in a building of six units, a small number that basically put every owner on the board. Under this situation, our association was more like a tight knit clique that handled the management of our building simply on our own. Yet, my current townhome is one of over one hundred units spread within a small neighborhood community which requires a professional property management company to handle the maintenance of building exteriors, landscape areas, and roadways, as well as the enforcement of the rules from board decisions and oversight of the association founding covenants. Due to the small size of the community, being on the board as an elected representative of the community is basically a volunteer duty, mainly consisting of attending a once-a-month meeting to handle community decisions. However, good board members realize that the responsibility of members are not limited to just the monthly meeting.

Community issues rise up quite often, which require the property management company to seek input from the board members. Some property management companies try to respond to individual owner complaints and requests on their own with very little reporting back to the board members, but other property management companies seek to maintain transparency with the board by keeping them informed of the communications as they come in. The property management company in my association falls into the latter category, which helps the board make more informed decisions when needed. In a way, it also helps the board members to get to know their fellow owners and neighbors, especially in regards to their concerns and needs. It is amazing how this fast-paced digital-oriented modern society has disconnected people from others living next door within communities. However, it is also amazing how this disconnect has created separate perspectives that have formed splits in the views within the community, a smaller version of what is visible in the political discord within and between countries on a global scale. In my position on the board, I have a front row perspective of this subtle division.

The main issue is basically in trying to find and understand the balance, dividing line, and responsibilities between the individual and society. In our situation, the individual is the person, family, or other legal entity that purchased the defined unit within the group community. Under the concept of ownership, the individual should be free to make decisions on how to enjoy and benefit from the property purchased, but is responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of the property. However, on the social concept of an association, the interconnection of the units and the common property which they all share put a group responsibility on the general maintenance of the buildings and land. The constant question is where the line between social and individual responsibility and ownership lie. Unfortunately, that line is not absolute, but individual perspectives always seek to find that absolute line.

The basic argument is mainly conformity versus individuality. On one side, exterior design should be standard throughout the neighborhood, whereas on the other side, an individual should be free to express themselves within the borders of their property. With townhome associations, since units are interconnected, it is understandable to have the association determine the general color and maintenance of the exterior walls, but it is amazing to see the argument regarding window design conformity. Windows are a pathway from exterior to interior, so the responsibility of maintenance and upgrading is left to the individual owner. However, since windows have an exterior side, there is a sense of design conformity that many feel the association has a right to impose on the individual owner, not just with frame color, but also with design style. Should an owner be forced to have side sliding windows over up and down sliding windows? For some, association conformity rules over individual choice, although for many, the association conformity usually must conform to their own personal view.

Another area of conflict is with landscaping. For one side, the association is there to handle plant and grass maintenance, so they have no reason to get involved with it unless the plants begin to die, which is when they send complaints to the association board about landscape contractor incompetence. However, the other side has an innate avid gardener persona that wants to create and maintain their own exterior garden area. These owners seek a space where individual flower and shrub design is created and controlled by their own views. Over-avid owners seek to impose their design views on common areas beyond their unit in order to assign their own sense of conformity throughout the community, regardless of the cost.

In the end, I see the role in which I have been placed as president of the homeowners association board is to fiscally find the best balance between these sides by listening and guiding owners to find a good level of individual freedom and social acceptance, but I am aware that this level will always change and it will never find full acceptance by all. Still, it is better than accepting one side over the other and encouraging division, something I see on a larger scale in this country and globally.

 

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