J. Patrick Sutton Cases & Issues Blog

HOA's are local-local governement

I think it's not generally appreciated by people who buy into subdivisions that HOA's are really local-local government. The deed restrictions are like a mini-Constitution that defines the powers of local-local HOA government. All too often, a small circle of owners maintain a tight grip on the board of directors of the HOA, effectively running an oligarchy — and sometimes a dictatorship. Many owners aren't willing to get involved, so a small group of owners gets to dictate the rights of the larger group unless and until a victimized owner is willing to sue — always a risky and expensive proposition. Too, the small circle of owners who run things have effective control of the voting processes, and they can make it hard for activist outsiders to get voted in.

Anyone who is thinking of buying into an HOA should consider that the value of the property they are buying is affected by the HOA and its board, plus the restrictive covenants themselves. A bad board can all but ruin the value of properties within a subdivision or condo. Even a good board is not a solution, because good boards in time can get voted out. Every year may bring a change, which at a minimum creates uncertainty. The only real constant is the behind-the-scenes players — the attorneys and property managers who effectively keep HOA's going, year-in and year-out. I call this the "HOA-Industrial Complex." Often, the Complex gets behind boards that behave badly, enabling actions that harm individuals without the resources to fight or defend themselves. Boards that allow the Complex to run HOA's without real human sensitivity not only harm the value of property, but tear apart communities. Often, the Complex argues that it's looking out for the community interest, when in reality it is looking out for itself at the expense of a community.

While I see no prospect of serious reform in the near future, at least the deed restrictions, as a writing that binds the parties, are a check on HOA power and abuse, and every homeowner has a right to seek relief when an HOA doesn't abide by its own mini-Constitution.

In addition, it's not generally appreciated that a small group of owners can usually force a special meeting of the membership to amend the mini-Constitution, such as to remove onerous restrictions on property uses. This is not a particularly difficult process, and it's not nearly as risky or expensive as litigation.
J. Patrick Sutton Cases & Issues Blog