Everybody sometimes disagrees with the decisions of their condo or HOA board. Maybe the choice to rearrange the garbage receptacles out front seems ridiculous, or the ongoing clattering of machinery on the roof is driving the top-floor residents nuts and the board seems determined to let it fix itself. These are the kinds of inevitable complaints that every board has to deal with sooner or later, and most manage to handle such issues with prudence and aplomb.
But what if the board does things that seem to be beyond the pale—perhaps even illegal? Where do boards’ powers end? While the board is the governing body of the association, there are certain boundaries and limitations that they should operate within.
There are numerous examples across the country of alleged HOA abuse of power from preventing owners to put up political signs or flags or changing the color of their paint trim or window shades. Pets are also a sticking point as this California woman found out: Pamela McMahan didn’t expect her cocker spaniel Ginger to become a problem at a historic condominium building in Long Beach. But she was fined $25 each time she walked her dog through the lobby because HOA rules required all dogs had to be carried. McMahan, an elderly woman who walks with a cane, said she couldn’t carry the dog. She racked up $1,600 in fines and has since moved from the building.
Overreaching boards may call to mind white-glove, old-money co-ops in prestigious zipcodes, but the truth is that the issue is just as troublesome in suburban condo developments as it is in ultra-exclusive urban high-rises. One recent example of the turmoil caused by board stagnation and overreach is the 450-unit Shadowood condominium complex in Reston, Virginia. According to a recent article in the Washington Post, “the Shadowood Condominium Association imposed fees for things like calling the management office or having the wrong color blinds. It towed tenants’ cars for unpaid fees—on the day before Thanksgiving. It turned off the heat or air conditioning to apartments of owners who were in arrears or in violation of its many rules.”
In 2011, a judge ruled that the association could not level fines and fees not explicitly spelled out in the condo’s original master deed, and issued a legal injunction prohibiting the Shadowood board from collecting any more such fines. The board appealed to the state Supreme Court—and lost. Even with the most recent decision in favor of the condo’s residents however, the issue is far from settled. According to the Postcoverage, residents are still furious at the association board for allegedly spending common funds on legal bills, failing to provide documentation for contracting expenses, and fostering an antagonistic, “intimidating” atmosphere in the development. On the other hand, Shadowood administrators argue that collecting fines and fees is the only effective tool they have to enforce house rules and insure that residents and renters pay their fair share of the complex’s operating expenses.