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Regular readers of this column may have noticed that I have a peripatetic lifestyle, which is why I belong to three homeowners associations.
All of them, and many more to which I do not belong, have had to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, just like any other business. But HOAs, and other community associations and private clubs, also must cope with a vocal subset of their members who do not believe they are getting their due for their membership dues.
Earlier this month, the trustees of the Vermont association to which I belong considered a request (it was probably more like a demand) for a rebate of some membership dues because the club’s dining facilities, golf courses and other amenities have been closed or operating under severe restrictions.
According to a note from the association’s president, most of the demands came from homeowners who, like me, live out of state. Vermont has been operating under a strict quarantine order. With very limited exceptions, anyone who has arrived from outside the state has been required to stay home for two weeks or the length of their stay, whichever is shorter. No golf or tennis. No visits to groceries; out-of-staters are expected to bring their own supplies. No walks in the neighborhood, or even in the socially distanced woods.
Like most of the community’s out-of-state residents, I have simply stayed away because the draconian restrictions make it impractical to go there. Such avoidance is a big reason why Vermont has had a very low rate of infection and small number of deaths, despite its proximity to the hot spots of the urban Northeast and its role as a second-home playground for “flatlanders.”
After considering the requests for financial relief, the board unanimously said, “No can do.” Nobody is getting a break.
I am perfectly OK with that. I’ll circle back to my reasons in a moment.
My main residence is an apartment in a high-rise condominium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. My wife and I also have a beach home in the northern part of the state. In both places, facilities such as pools and community rooms have been shut down, although the condominium has begun to allow their limited use under strict social distancing conditions. In both places, but particularly (and oddly, come to think of it) at the beach, some residents have vocally demanded a return to more normal operations. They are not always especially polite about those demands.
In normal times I travel quite a bit for work, which is one reason I keep pillows and pajamas in so many places. I pay my dues and assessments, maintain my properties, and otherwise try to stay as far away from HOA politics and controversies as possible. I do not have time to volunteer on HOA boards and committees, so I try to remember to be appreciative of neighbors who do, even if I might not agree with all their decisions. Serving on an HOA board is probably the very definition of a thankless job, where almost every conversation involves a request or complaint.
Until my Vermont HOA president wrote to explain our board’s decision, it never would have occurred to me to expect a reduction in my dues as a result of the COVID-19 restrictions. Many of those limitations were imposed by state government; they were not the result of any actions by the board. Even where the board had discretion, it had to deal with the financial and practical implications of a statewide quarantine order, and a substantial loss of revenue from dining and sports activities that were limited or shut down entirely.
An HOA swimming pool or gymnasium is not the same as a rented apartment, where the tenant has a right to expect access every hour of every day. Association dues entitle nobody to more than a reasonable availability of the facilities. “Reasonable” is a judgement call, never more so than when service to members or residents must be balanced against the potential risks to life and health of every member of a community.
There are some straightforward options for members who feel an association is not being run to suit their taste. One is to volunteer or become a candidate for election to the boards and committees that do the heavy lifting. Another is to find a more compatible residence or club, or simply to stick to a single-family home or rented apartment. There, residents are responsible only to themselves, their mortgage lenders or their landlords.
Of course an HOA might overstep its bounds. My Florida beach home has an easement that entitles me to use the association’s streets to access my property. That easement is a property right; the association cannot deny me access to my property if, for example, I refuse to pay a fine. If they tried, they would likely face a lawsuit.
When COVID-19 broke out, some HOAs asked – or perhaps demanded – that residents notify the association if they or a visitor they hosted tested positive. These HOAs probably had no right to make such a demand, although they could ask people to volunteer the information. Some residents pushed back. I expect most of those associations made clear that they understood their limitations under medical privacy laws.
Living in a shared community, whether full or part time, is like other long-term relationships. You aren’t likely to be rapturously happy all the time. You will have to compromise or live with certain things you would rather not. If you want decisions made to your own taste, you will need to step up to take responsibility by offering to serve the community. Otherwise, it’s best to pay your dues, keep things tidy and remember to say thank you once in a while.