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Bills Target Homeowner Associations

In a battle of rights vs. rules, state measures would loosen the grip of community boards on financial data, decision- making and flag flying.

September 01, 2003|Daniel Yi and Jia-Rui Chong | Times Staff Writers

A trio of bills in Sacramento would strengthen the rights of people ruled by homeowners association boards in California, the latest sign of a growing rebellion against restrictive codes affecting nearly one in four state residents.

These private neighborhood associations have become the first level of government for an estimated 50 million Americans, regulating such things as how homes are painted, the condition of lawns and the placement of flowerpots.

In California and elsewhere, a growing number of angry homeowners are pushing for legislation to rein in perceived abuses by their associations.

"It's like being under a Gestapo," said Maurice Carmeli of Corona, a townhouse owner who was fined $100 last year for feeding stray cats. "They said they were worried about [attracting] pests -- but you know, I saw all these cats and they looked hungry, so I fed them.... It's crazy."

That kind of resentment is sparking action by lawmakers around the nation, said Evan McKenzie, an University of Illinois political science professor and author of "Privatopia," a book about the rise of homeowners associations. "Legislatures are seizing on the issue because it is a hot one."

In Sacramento, homeowners have made inroads in recent years with laws that limit association powers to foreclose on homes and give members better access to board meetings.

This year, two bills have passed key hurdles in the Legislature and another is awaiting the governor's signature. If approved, they would strengthen homeowner rights to scrutinize association finances, appeal board decisions and fly flags and banners that are usually prohibited in such communities.

Trade groups that represent associations and private community managers -- companies and individuals hired by associations -- say more laws will lead to more conflict and litigation. They point out that people choose to live in neighborhoods controlled by homeowners associations and they say the great majority of residents get along. They argue that a handful of high-profile cases have painted a distorted picture of widespread discord.

But critics of the current system say it is ripe for abuse because, unlike government, there is little in the way of checks and balances, even if association directors are elected by homeowners.

Some boards act like military regimes, the critics say, issuing judgments based on whim and fining residents for innocuous violations such as owning oversized pets or flying flags without authorization. The flag issue, in particular, has sparked criticism in many private communities after the terrorism of Sept. 11, 2001.

After the terrorist attacks on the East Coast, some homeowners "found that they could not express their patriotism, and that's ridiculous," said Elizabeth McMahon, director of the American Homeowners Resource Center, a clearinghouse for those battling their associations. "It was a relatively minor issue that helped expose a pervasive problem."

Homeowners associations began to multiply in the late 1970s as a means to maintain the character of each newly minted condo project or suburban tract. Many homeowners like them because they protect property values. Cities like them because they pick up much of the burden of code enforcement and infrastructure maintenance.

According to the state-run California Research Bureau, the number of homeowners associations in the United States was less than 500 in 1964. Industry estimates put the number at 250,000 today. In California, 34,000 such communities are home to 8 million people, according to the bureau.

The increasing popularity of such developments has meant more conflicts, and homeowner rights activists say the issue is reaching a critical mass that cannot be ignored by legislators.

"So many more people are affected by these mini-governments, on which there are no restraints," said Marjorie Murray, legislative committee member of the Congress of California Seniors.

Last year, the group sponsored a successful bill that requires homeowners associations to give 30 days' notice before putting a lien on a member's home over unpaid dues and fines, something they were not required to do before.

Dozens of other bills regulating homeowners associations have been proposed around the country in recent years. After the terrorism of Sept. 11, states from California to Florida passed laws making it illegal for homeowners associations to ban the flying of U.S. flags.

In May, Arizona passed a law that prohibits homeowners association boards from meeting out of state, a practice that critics said was meant to keep association members from voting in community decisions.

This year, Texas debated a package of bills aimed at weakening homeowners association powers, including a bill that would have made it easier to dissolve such groups. Though most of the bills were defeated, one of them, a law giving homeowners more leeway in choosing how to maintain their lawns, passed.

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