The GEICO Insurance TV commercials featuring an over-the-top HOA rules enforcer named Cynthia who takes a chainsaw to a noncompliant mailbox are hilariously satirical because they ring a bit too true. Community associations have a negative image in the minds of many for perceived over-reach in their enforcement measures. Unfortunately for associations, this stereotype is exacerbated by occasional media reports about HOAs and condominium associations being hit with numerous complaints from unit owners about their overly stringent enforcement and collections practices.
One such article, which appeared recently in the pages of the Star Tribune daily newspaper, focused on the disputes taking place between homeowners and their HOA’s board of directors at the Heritage Park community in north Minneapolis. It chronicles how the association regularly sends violation letters and collects fines for what some residents see as minor infractions, and it includes an example of a homeowner who was ordered to remove parts of her garden or the association would do so and bill her for the cost.
The article reported that the association has filed liens and foreclosure actions during the pandemic against homeowners who have failed to pay fees and other costs on time, and more than a dozen homeowners are now organizing and calling for changes.
It concludes by quoting a letter from the association stating it is legally obligated to collect assessments, and it must use liens and foreclosures to enforce its collections if homeowners fail to pay.
News reports such as this perpetuate the negative perception that associations are overly strict and too rigid in their enforcement and collections efforts. The truth is that rules enforcement and collections measures can be very challenging for associations to administer, and those that do it best have found that it takes a complete commitment to resolving disputes as reasonably and fairly as possible with absolute uniformity and impartiality in all their deliberations and decisions.
For rules violations and disciplinary actions, associations should always turn to a set procedure to find effective, reasonable and equitable resolutions. These protocols may include board and/or committee hearings in which witnesses and others representing both sides discuss and answer questions regarding all the pertinent issues and facts. After all these considerations are weighed carefully by an impartial panel, a final decision may be issued imposing a fine or issuing some other determination, such as a mandate for the violation to be remedied.
In any event, community association directors and management should base decisions on reason, and they should aim to find fair resolutions that meet their community’s standards for the uniform and unbiased application and enforcement of its rules and restrictions. Any resulting fines and suspensions should always be reasonable and uniform with those for similar infractions.
Given the massive toll that the coronavirus pandemic continues to take on the livelihoods and financial wellbeing of many community association residents, boards of directors should also now consider all their options for the collection of unpaid fees and assessments. Some are even borrowing a page from the playbook of previous economic downturns by sanctioning uniform payment plans to assist owners who become delinquent.
With the help of qualified legal counsel and financial professionals, associations should consider responding to the financial hardships caused by the pandemic by creating payment plans that are uniformly available to assist all the unit owners who become unemployed. They should also take a hard look at eliminating, deferring or reducing any planned nonessential renovation projects or expenses for the coming year.
As the economic and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to unfold, community associations should seize this moment to reverse the stigma of over-reach in their enforcement and collections efforts. By developing and implementing a fair and effective process for violations enforcement and dispute resolution, and also considering temporary measures to address a looming collections crisis, associations can chip away at the negative stereotype behind the HOA Cynthia commercials and reinforce their positive image for safe and hassle-free living with easy access to exceptional amenities.