Article Courtesy of The Bradenton Herald
By Judy L. Thomas
Published August 6, 2016
The frantic cry still haunts Monica Meeker.
It punctured the darkness as she and her husband lay in bed at the end of a
fun-filled day celebrating daughter Camilla’s third birthday last October.
She rushed to her daughter’s bedroom and found her hanging from a window, the
cord from the blind wrapped tightly around Camilla’s neck.
“She was gasping for air and crying and coughing,” Meeker said. “She had purple
ligature marks on her neck for a week.”
The couple took down the blinds that night, replacing them with curtains.
Within two weeks, a letter arrived from the property manager for their
homeowners association. The gray curtains they’d put up violated the
And so began the Meekers’ foray into homes association hell — a drama that has
played out in homes across the country. Outlandish rules — from the farcical to
the frightening — are being enforced by other homes associations.
Put the horror stories together, add in a mounting number of associations with
funding shortages, and you’ve got an undeclared national housing crisis,
industry experts say.
Jim Segel, a lawyer who played a major role in crafting the landmark Dodd-Frank
financial reform act, has seen the growing number of unhappy residents
handcuffed by strange restrictions. He’s also watched the increasing threat of
homeowners associations (HOAs) that don’t save enough money to pay for projects
and major repairs.
“It’s a serious and growing problem,” Segel said.
“I think it’s going to get a lot more well known as people realize that these
are not just individual stories; they’re part of a much wider network of
problems. … It should be regulated much more tightly than it is, either on the
state or federal level.”
The Kansas City Star has for more than six months examined the homes association
explosion and the problems it has generated. Today, one in five people in the
U.S. lives in a homeowners or condo association, and 80 percent of new housing
starts are in HOAs.
Homes associations wield far more power than homeowners realize. That’s because
local governments have saved money by ceding HOAs more and more authority over
such responsibilities as streets and sewers. Associations can fine you for
leaving a garage door open and seize your home over late dues.
“A lot of people don’t realize, especially first-time homebuyers, that when you
purchase into these homeowners associations you are giving up some of your
constitutional rights and some of your due process rights,” said Dave Russell,
who rescued a troubled Arizona condo association and now runs it to much
HOA boards often are run by volunteers with little training, which can lead to
neighborhood strife and even violence. Lawsuits are filed over seemingly petty
issues such as “unattractive” flowerpots on a front step.
An institution originally created to protect homeowners instead has morphed into
one that sometimes torments them.
Advocates for homeowners associations can rattle off plenty of positives.
Lush, manicured lawns. Houses painted in pleasing colors. Neighborhood swimming
pools and walking trails. All designed to protect your property values and
promote goodwill among neighbors.
The Community Associations Institute (CAI), which represents HOAs in court and
in the legislative arena, says homes associations create better communities.
They safeguard the neighborhood from degradation and preserve the nature of the
community, said Dawn Bauman, CAI senior vice president of government affairs.
When issues do arise, Bauman said, “the majority are a misunderstanding of what
their governing documents say.”
But critics say the system is broken.
Fail to follow the rules — let your grass grow too tall, plant too many flower
beds, paint your garage door the wrong shade or paint your swing set purple —
and you could end up in court, homeless or even in jail.
Few extensive studies of HOAs have been done, and few lawmakers have taken up
the call for reform — although some are learning about the problems.
At a Kansas House committee hearing on an HOA measure this year, Rep. Amanda
Grosserode recounted canvassing one precinct when she ran for office in 2010.
“Door after door, complaints about the homeowners association were laid upon
me,” the Lenexa Republican said.
And cries for change are growing louder as homeowners realize they aren’t alone.
Protesters are starting blogs, writing books, filing lawsuits and even erecting
billboards. Thousands of homeowners have signed petitions to Congress.
“This is an institution that’s desperately in need of reform,” said Ward Lucas,
author of “Neighbors at War: The Creepy Case Against Your Homeowners
“It is destroying people’s lives and their financial well-being.”
All outside dog houses shall be
located in the back yard near the residence, shall be painted (where
appropriate) the same color of the residence, and shall have roofs that are
compatible with the residence.
Nottingham at Heritage Park, Olathe
Homes associations were nothing new to the Meekers. Monica had grown up in HOA
communities, and she and her husband, Giacomo, a surgeon, lived in one in Ohio
before moving to Tennessee.
But as she watched Camilla bounce playfully around her pink and purple bedroom
during a recent interview, she said she’d have to think long and hard before
living in one again.
The couple had put Camilla and big sister Annabelle to bed on the night of the
accident, but Camilla was still hyper from all the birthday cake and ice cream.
When Meeker found Camilla, “I could hear her gurgling, then stop breathing.”
Meeker couldn’t see in the darkness that the cord from the window blind was
wrapped around Camilla’s neck.
“When I tried to pull her down,” Meeker said, “I literally was strangling her
She screamed for her husband, then pushed Camilla up while he untied the knot.
After putting up curtains, the Meekers received a letter from the HOA for The
Enclave at Harpeth Village saying they were required to have 2-inch blinds on
all front-facing windows “to provide a uniform appearance throughout the
Monica, who refused to put the blinds back up, was told an inexpensive product
could keep the cord out of children’s reach.
“I said, ‘Well, pardon me, but I am not going to have anything in my children’s
room that can kill them,’” she said.
Indeed, the Consumer Product Safety Commission says hundreds of children have
been fatally strangled in the past three decades by cords on window blinds.
The developer of the community, Austin Daniel — who also is the self-appointed
HOA president — said the Meekers could install cordless plantation shutters on
the front windows. But the Meekers would have needed three sets of shutters,
which they said cost more than $500 each.
Daniel did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
In an email sent to the Meekers in November, he said, “I have had to make many,
many decisions about the standards for the Enclave” and “not all have been
warmly received because people generally think their own opinion is the most
important one. Fortunately, the market is telling me that our vision for the
Enclave was correct because we are sold out with a waiting list.”
Daniel told the Meekers they had several options: put the old blinds back up
with the device designed to keep the cord out of reach, install plantation
shutters, get 75 percent of homeowners to agree to change the HOA rules, file a
lawsuit or move.
Eventually the Meekers moved out in June instead of continuing the standoff over
the curtains. But 7-year-old Annabelle still feels guilty because she didn’t
hear her little sister scream, and both girls were in counseling for months.
The CAI strongly disputes that HOAs are a significant problem, pointing to a
national survey it commissioned that indicates homeowners love living in them
and have good relationships with their boards.
The March 2016 survey of homes association residents by Zogby Analytics found
that 87 percent of residents rated their overall community association
experience as positive or neutral. Sixty-six percent of residents — down from 78
percent in 2005 — said their association’s rules protect and enhance property
But a recent online survey by the Coalition for Community Housing Policy in the
Public Interest, formed last year to take on the industry and prevent HOA abuse,
found just the opposite: 70 percent said they had been involved in a
difficult-to-resolve dispute with a condo or homes association, and 84 percent
said a lack of transparency and poor communication was a “very serious problem.”
Excessive yard ornamentation
will not be permitted. Items such as figurines, plastic flowers, colored lights,
windmills, bird baths, and feeders shall either be screened from public and
neighboring view or be approved by the ACC (Architectural Control Committee).
Stoney Creek Estates, Lee’s Summit
A petition to Congress to dissolve HOAs includes hundreds of comments, including
one from a Medfield, Mass., homeowner who complained of receiving a
cease-and-desist letter for cutting the grass before the property manager got
around to it.
Such disputes can be intensely personal for homeowners, and the toll can be
In Ogden, N.C., Peter Carl Darius was involved in a dispute with the Planters
Walk Homeowners Association over infractions that included a fluorescent yellow
shed with green trim, a 5-foot windmill and a white picket fence. The HOA began
fining Darius $100 a day, then put a lien on his home and filed a lawsuit.
The fines continued to mount, and even though he’d paid nearly $50,000, the
association eventually foreclosed on his home, saying he still owed more than
$24,000. In August 2010, just days before he was to be evicted, Darius doused
his house with flammable liquid and set it on fire. He perished in the inferno,
and his death was ruled a suicide.
And in 2015, Sergey Peklun took his life during a battle with his condo
association in Florida over owning an emotional support dog. Peklun, who
suffered from numerous medical problems, had earlier received permission from
the association board, but a new president pushed for the dog’s removal.
A mother of three in Tennessee told The Star that she attempted suicide after
becoming wrought with stress over dealing with her HOA.
The woman said that although she had a documented medical condition that made it
difficult for her to move her trash cans to the back of her house, the
association hounded her and repeatedly threatened to sue because she placed them
on the side of the building. She said she also was written up for putting two
8-inch birdhouses — made by her children — in front of the garage.
After she criticized some of the board’s actions on the community’s Facebook
page, she said, she was blocked.
The woman said she felt ostracized.
“We were excluded socially, but also from community resources,” she said. “I was
afraid to even go to the mailbox, worrying about getting another notice of a
Last year, she took an overdose of pain pills but survived.
Sometimes, distraught homeowners have resorted to violence against others,
including HOA board members.
In 2013, Anthony Charles Hardy shot to death two next-door neighbors who were
members of his homes association board in a subdivision in Harrisburg, N.C.,
then killed himself during a standoff with police. Some neighbors said Hardy, a
licensed pharmacist, was upset that the board had approved the recent removal of
some pine trees from behind his house.
In 2012, a Louisville, Ky., man shot and killed the president and another member
of the homes association board during an HOA meeting in a church. Authorities
said Jordanian-trained doctor Mahmoud Yousef Hindi had been in a dispute with
the Spring Creek Homeowners Association over a fence and his driveway in the
upscale neighborhood. Hindi committed suicide in jail in 2013 while awaiting
And according to a lawsuit settled this spring, a former administrative law
judge in Wichita repeatedly hit a neighbor with a crowbar during one of many
disputes involving their homes association.
A Chicago real estate broker said she saw HOA terror firsthand when she bought a
condo and grew concerned about the HOA’s budget. When Sara Benson contacted
other homeowners, she quickly found that they were afraid of risking the wrath
of the board.
“I had to call a psychologist to come in and meet with these owners,” said
Benson, president of Chicago-based Benson Stanley Realty and co-author of
“Escaping Condo Jail,” a book warning about HOA problems.
“One was a public school teacher; another was a principal of a public school.
And they were so scared of the bully board that it was unbelievable.”
Violence and conflict were never the vision for homeowners associations.
They emerged in the 1800s as the U.S. was shifting from an agricultural to an
industrialized nation. Owners were told the HOA was a way to maintain their
property values and improve life for those in the community.
By the early 20th century, some subdivisions were restricting certain racial or
religious groups from owning property. Prominent Kansas City developer J.C.
Nichols was among the first in the United States to promote these restrictive
covenants. From the early 1900s through the 1940s, the J.C. Nichols Co. built
dozens of subdivisions in the Kansas City area that prohibited ownership by
blacks and other minorities.
Courts later banned such covenants, although in many areas they remained a part
of the recorded documents. After The Star wrote about the issue in 2005,
legislatures in Kansas and Missouri passed laws requiring the restrictive
language to be removed from the property records.
Today, the CAI estimates there are at least 342,000 “common-interest
communities” nationwide, including homeowners associations, condominium
communities and housing cooperatives.
Those associations now account for more than $5 trillion in home values and take
in $85 billion a year in dues from homeowners, according to the CAI.
The Kansas City area alone has more than 1,000, although no specific number
exists because there is no regulatory agency that keeps an official count.
“Are there any neighborhoods in Johnson County that are NOT in a homeowners
association?” asked one prospective buyer on the online forum city-data.com.
(The answer: Yes, but finding one takes some effort.)
Indeed, many municipalities now require developers and builders to design the
new communities as HOAs, which has played a major role in the enormous growth of
The driving force, critics say, is money.
As local governments struggled to keep up with the costs of maintaining their
infrastructure, HOAs started taking on some of the burden. They created private
streets, private sewer and water systems, their own water detention ponds, lakes
and recreational facilities, golf courses and other amenities, said Evan
McKenzie, a housing law expert and political science professor at the University
of Illinois at Chicago.
To do that, an association had to function as a private government. And cities
were perfectly happy to let them do it, said McKenzie, who as an attorney used
to represent HOAs.
“The local government isn’t responsible for any of it,” he said. “The cities can
wash their hands of them, but they still get to collect the same tax bill for
everybody. So the HOAs become cash cows for local government.”
Bauman of the CAI agrees that cities have a reason to love homes associations.
“They’re able to save a lot of money by transferring the municipal obligation to
the homeowners association,” she said.
Robert McKay, Lee’s Summit director of planning and codes, said handing over
some power to HOAs eases the burden on local government.
“We have a lot of code enforcement that we do,” McKay said. “They are kind of
our self-policing group, so we like them. We would rather have the subdivisions
regulating themselves than the city having to come down on them.”
The city has no problem with an HOA that is more restrictive than the city, he
“Of course,” McKay said, “we can’t deal with the resident that says, ‘Well,
they’re being overrestrictive,’ because you bought into the situation.”
Left on their own, HOAs have become fiefdoms with little oversight, their own
regulations and a lot more power than homeowners may realize.
One measure of their reach:
From 2001 through 2005, homes and condo associations filed an average of 68
lawsuits per year against residents in Johnson County District Court. For the
past 10 years, which included the economic downturn, an average of 157 lawsuits
per year were filed.
The lawsuits can slog through the courts for years, and in some cases the
homeowners have filed countersuits against their HOAs, further delaying a
Most cases involve attempts to collect on delinquent association dues. Others
are over what HOAs deem to be violations of their covenants.
In northern California, one couple learned the hard way how far homes
associations can go to collect late dues. The couple failed to pay the $120 they
owed but said they had been sick and distracted and never knew about the problem
until the association foreclosed on their $300,000 home and they received a
notice saying they had three days to move out. The HOA had sold the home at an
auction for just $70,000.
Those who try to fight their homes associations in court could have an uphill —
and costly — battle on their hands.
“If you have a dispute with your HOA, they’re paying the legal fees to fight you
from your money, and then you have to come up with your own legal fees as well,”
said Deborah Goonan, an adviser to the Coalition for Community Housing Policy in
the Public Interest.
Moreover, critics say, the HOA boards then pit other homeowners against the one
filing the lawsuit, telling them the legal fees could result in an increase in
their association dues.
Lincoln Cummings, a co-founder and former president of the CAI, defended the
tactic of foreclosing when a homeowner becomes delinquent on HOA dues.
Yes, it’s harsh, he said, but that is a way to make an example of the worst
“Unless you put up on the flagpole once in a while the real violators, you will
have more violators,” he said. “And I preach for almost every association. Find
the worst. Foreclose. And then for five years you won’t have anybody that misses
Many HOAs or their property managers also gouge homeowners with transfer fees,
in which buyers are charged for documents when they purchase a home, critics
Such fees are “among the biggest scams in the housing business,” said Lucas, a
retired television investigative reporter.
Some states have outlawed the transfer fees, and the Colorado HOA Forum, a
homeowners advocacy group, calls them “abusive.”
A transfer fee, Lucas said, “means some property manager had to photocopy the
HOA covenants, probably a hundred or so pages.”
But fees to obtain them can cost the buyer anywhere from $150 to thousands of
dollars, Lucas said.
Bauman said, however, that gathering the documents can be complicated and the
process takes time because the information must be up to date and accurate.
Real estate agents contend “there shouldn’t be any fees, it’s easy information,
you should just be able to go online and find the information on a website,” she
said. “Well, it’s not that easy.”
Considering that HOA board members are usually volunteers, most boards handle
their power infusion well, said McKenzie, author of “Privatopia: Homeowner
Associations and the Rise of Residential Private Government.”
But the boards, run by neighbors, can also be political battlegrounds.
“Any given association can go haywire at any given time if you have one bad
election,” said McKenzie.
“You’re just one board member away from disaster.”
Each residence shall be
repainted by the owner every four years or less.
Wilshire Place, Leawood
Even when sincere board members want to do a good job, many simply don’t know
what they’re doing because they’re amateurs, critics say.
And that lack of experience, coupled with homeowner apathy, makes HOAs ripe for
embezzlement and fraud.
In September, a former manager for a condominium association in San Mateo,
Calif., was charged with embezzling nearly $2.8 million over 61/2 years.
Prosecutors said the alleged theft was discovered after the Woodlake Homeowners
Association fired her, then found about 150 phony invoices for construction work
that was never done.
And in Kansas City, the treasurer of a homes association was charged in January
with stealing an undisclosed amount of more than $25,000 from the organization.
Loretta Lock, 77, pleaded not guilty to the felony at a hearing in March.
Lock, a real estate agent, served as treasurer of the Charleston Harbor Homes
Association. According to a Jan. 12 grand jury indictment, Lock stole money from
the HOA between Feb. 6, 2013, and July 2, 2015. She is out on $100,000 bond and
awaits an Aug. 25 hearing in Clay County Circuit Court.
Garage doors and play equipment
should be screened from the view of adjacent homesites.
Hallbrook Farms, Leawood
Instead of increasing home values, HOAs sometimes undermine them.
Debbie Fletcher of Overland Park, who with her husband “flips” houses — buying
two or three a year to renovate and sell — said the first thing she now checks
is whether a house is in a homes association.
“For us, an HOA is just a deal breaker,” Fletcher said. “It limits who your
potential buyers are.”
Fletcher said she and her husband butted heads with an overly aggressive HOA
when they bought a house in west Shawnee about 15 years ago.
She said the board tried to tell her husband, a professional painter, what color
he could paint their house — even though he was going with the standard “Johnson
County taupe.” She said the board threw a fit when one homeowner painted her
house canary yellow but looked the other way when another — the niece of the
developer — allowed her house to become an eyesore, making it difficult for the
Fletchers to sell theirs.
“It was a few select arrogant people,” Fletcher said. “If you crossed somebody
on that board, you could be paying for it dearly.”
Indeed, Shelly Marshall, a leading homeowners advocate from Arizona, said
growing concerns about HOAs are lowering home values.
“Battles in HOAs have gotten so heated and ugly that now, one of the most
important selling points in property is that it’s not in an HOA,” Marshall said.
“So instead of keeping your property values up, they are actually keeping them
The maximum height of any fence
shall be six feet and the material shall be limited to black wrought iron.
Iron Horse Estates, Leawood
One house ad in southern Overland Park in April talked up the
1-acre lot, four-car garage, state-of-the-art security system and complete
“Want a real bonus?” it said. “No HOA!”