Homeowners associations are a three-ring circus

Published: Monday, January 16, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 15, 2006 at 10:28 p.m.
As the new year begins, many homeowners associations will be holding their annual meetings. As we are bombarded with proxy forms and letters telling us why the current board should be retained or thrown out, it seems like a good time to ask ourselves: Is being in a homeowners association really worth it?
This question occurred to me when several state officials responsible for mediating association disputes told me that based on what they've seen, they'd never buy a house in an association. I have to ask myself, why not?
Though homeowners associations were started with the good intention of bringing needed services to the neighborhood in a democratic way, they don't really work that way. Often, homeowners associations unnecessarily duplicate services already provided by local government, and are often run like mini-dictatorships.
What services does a homeowners association really provide that local government does not?
If your neighbor keeps trash in her yard, you don't need your association, because the County Waste Management Division, and even the Health Department, are already responsible for handling such problems.
If you're having trouble with feral animals, Alachua County Animal Services has a staff of knowledgeable and well-trained professionals to help you.
If the guy down the street is using his property in a way that is inconsistent with zoning or code regulations, Codes Enforcement can help.
If you're interested in the proper maintenance of parks in your neighborhood, Alachua County has one of the finest Parks and Recreation departments in the state.
If there's a road problem, the Alachua County Road Maintenance will handle the problem. And if your neighbor is noisy, you can call the Alachua County Sheriff's Department.
So, if Alachua County can provide the services out of our tax dollars, what are we paying these homeowners' associations fees for? It sure isn't for a democratic say in what happens in our neighborhoods.
Homeowners associations are not democratic because votes are counted by number of properties owned, not by the usual principle of one person, one vote. What that means is that a few people who own multiple lots can exercise disproportionate power in an association.
Since most people don't bother to show up at meetings, and most others just sign the proxies sent out by the association, a few owners can end up running an association for their own benefit, and it is very difficult to overthrow them.
What would happen, for example, if an ethically-challenged lawyer and a powerful real estate firm or developer, both who own multiple lots, team up? Two such people might hold 30 percent or more of the votes between them, and if they get enough apathetic owners to send in proxies, they can run the entire association for themselves.
If they don't like someone, or if they covet someone's property, they can selectively enforce association rules by filing expensive legal actions to hound an owner out of his property. They can give themselves, their relatives, friends, and/or business associates sweetheart deals to work for the association.
They can hold annual meetings without the legally required 30 percent quorum, because no one bothers to object. They can become, in short, a law unto themselves, and the association becomes a means for making them money, not for protecting the interests of all homeowners.
So, as we read our proxy letters and decide what we want to do about our associations, we should investigate to see if things are being run according to the rules and for the benefit of everyone. If not, we may want to make some changes. Some of us may even want to get out of the association circus altogether.
Angela V. Woodhull lives in Gainesville.

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