by Sean Hess (Sean@StAugTeam.com), Broker and Manager for St. Augustine Team Realty (www.StAugustineTeamRealty.com). Join us on Facebook.
Ben Folds Five did this awesome version of “Rockin’ The Suburbs” for the Over the Hedge soundtrack a few years back, and I hum it all the time when I roll into my new, perfectly manicured subdivision (that, and “Subdivisions” by Rush).
So in BFF’s honor, from now on I’ll refer to my neighborhood as “Ben Folds,” and my house will be on “Hedge Street.”
We’re rockin the suburbs / everything we need is here / we’re rockin the suburbs / but it wasn’t here last year / were rockin the suburbs / no one knows when we are gone / the timer lights the lights and turns the cricket noises onnnn at night… yeah yeah -from Rockin’ The Suburbs (Over the Hedge version) by Ben Folds Five
Sprawling on the fringes of Wildwood Drive, in geometric order, an insulated border, my 94 unit subdivision is almost built out. One of the developers still runs the association, so earlier this summer some of the owners got together in order to plan for the eventual takeover. I went to the meeting.
The First Meeting: On Their Own Time and Own Dime
As a real estate Broker I know that most homeowner association boards (called “HOAs” in Realtor jargon) have no idea what they are doing.
To be fair, they shouldn’t know what they are doing. HOA boards are made up of the owners. For the most part they aren’t real estate agents or real estate attorneys or community association managers who deal with this stuff on a day to day basis. In this town they’re more likely to be retirees from Pittsburgh. Even if the younger folks cared, most of them are busy with kids and careers don’t have the time to attend the meetings or serve on the board, even if they wanted to.
So going into the meeting I expected the worst: A bunch of cranks and “keep off the grass” types all jonesing to punish the owners of 413 Hedge Street for having “patchy spots and CINCH BUGS (!) in their St. Augustine grass.”
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
All the other owners were super nice and genuinely, earnestly, trying to wrap their minds around what it takes to run and manage a board in a sparkling new subdivision.
They had a meeting about a month before I moved in and they were talking about what they found out since then. Like about the current budget, insurance for the common areas, the landscaper, the management company, etc. All on their own time and own dime. They discussed the costs of maintaining a separate management company, and people who had lived in other HOAs related the pros and cons that they had with management companies in the past.
Sure, there were a few “keep off the grass” types (more on that later), but they were the extreme minority.
I spoke up once because…
Sometimes HOAs Have No Idea What They Are Doing
Some of my fellow owners are convinced that on January 1st of next year the homeowners will actually take over the homeowner’s association. Someone will wave a magic wand and “poof!” an HOA board will magically appear and start to run Ben Folds.
The argument advanced was that the owners now have more votes than the developer, per the covenants and restrictions (covenants and restrictions are the written rules for the association, how it runs and how it is governed … they are called “C&Rs” in Realtor jargon), and that, again, magically the developer will turn it over to the owners on January 1.
So I very meekly voiced the opinion that the “developer can do whatever they want, including changing the C&Rs.”
I was shouted down. Well, not shouted down, but I was very forcefully told that “no they couldn’t.”
Apparently these folks don’t know developers like I do.
Let me tell you, at 4 p.m. the day before Thanksgiving (when no one is around) the developer could go ahead and have its attorney draft a change in the C&R’s, give everyone three days notice, and then file it with the clerk of courts and the only people who might care won’t be able to react fast enough. That’s the way it works.
Look at it another way. There are 94 units in the division. The developer owns about 8. So that leaves 86 owners.
Only 40 or so people were able or willing to show up for this meeting. That’s husbands and wives in many cases. How many actual households were represented? 20? 30?
That means as many as 2/3rds of the owners in Ben Folds could care less. Sure, there were probably a few owners who had conflicts and couldn’t make it, but even so you’ve got less than half who do care.
I’m not sure that’s enough to mobilize quickly.
Now, the reality is a developer with only 8 units probably has no interest in running the board anymore. It’s probably a paperwork hassle, so I’m sure they can’t wait to turn the association over.
But even though the management company that administers the subdivision (hiring and paying the landscapers and insurance, for example) is talking to the owners, the developer is not. So it makes you wonder…
We're rockin the suburbs / around the block just one more time / we're rockin the suburbs / because I can't tell which house is mine
Keeping Tabs on the Other Owners
I will continue to attend HOA meetings in the future.
For one thing it gets my face out there. People see me and know who I am. They know I’m not the boogeyman if I let my St. Augustine grass grow a bit too long (like it is this morning … sorry folks, it might be a few days before I can edge).
I also know a lot of the other owners by sight now, and I know they are good people.
And from a practical standpoint, going to the meeting allowed me to keep tabs on the people that matter in terms of the HOA. I know what they are thinking, what they are planning, and where they want to go in the future.
In Douglas Adams’ book The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, the planet Earth got destroyed to make way for an interstellar bypass. The moral? “Well how can you complain if you don’t take an interest in your own neighborhood?”
So I’m taking an interest in my own neighborhood.
Heading Down A Slippery Slope
Again, member of a homeowner’s association are owners. They are not real estate agents like I am. They think they can say any old thing.
But you can’t say any old thing.
From my real estate broker’s standpoint there was one dangerous point in the meeting.
A person raised a question about “undesirable types” buying a home just down from the corner of Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson Streets in the Ben Folds Subdivision.
When that phrase came up I had an internal reaction that was the equivalent of the “DIVE!” warning submarines give when under attack. Sailors running around, klaxons and alarms screaming. AH-OOOH-GAH! AH-OOOH-GAH! DIVE! DIVE! DIVE!
Some dude living in one of our lovely and desirable stick-and-stucco McCookie Cutters was concerned about “undesirable types” moving into the Ben Folds Sub. In doing so he was inching perilously close to the boundary of Fair Housing law.
Fair Housing Law
The Feds take fair housing laws very, very seriously. I am a real estate broker and I have to know that.
If they found out an HOA was discussing anything about one of the Fair Housing protected classes in any way that may be construed as negative, either by treating them differently, or by discouraging them from moving into the subdivision, the HOA (unofficial or not) was going to have one hell of a lawsuit on their hands. A lawsuit I would have to at least partly pay for since I was an owner.
Now, everybody has a first amendment right to speak. I think even more so in a situation where there homeowner’s association is official, and you have a clear line between the leadership board and the gallery of owners who are attending the meeting.
But in this case the homeowner’s association isn’t/wasn’t official yet. Technically this was an unofficial meeting of owners to discuss the current official HOA, its management, and a possible turnover. It was a meeting of peers. While there was an active chair for the meetings sake, we all had equal standing.
As such it would be like, say, an unofficial meeting of real estate brokers sitting around and discussing “undesirable types,” which I think would be a Fair Housing violation.
It’s not that any real estate broker, or any individual owner, can discourage someone from moving somewhere, but if you get a group of them (even unofficially) working together, even if it’s just the appearance of them working together, or just discussing working together for that end, in my mind it would form something like a cabal, and might draw the attention of the Feds.
Thankfully, before I had to jump up shout “No!” (or as I’m trained to do as a broker, literally get up and leave the room), someone stepped in and said they thought it was a group home for the ARC of St. Johns, which apparently was not what the original speaker envisioned by “undesirable types.”
This is 2014. I’ve been reading a lot about the civil rights battles that went on in this town during the summer of 1964 and I’m really hoping by now we are passed that. I’m am really and truly hoping the “undesirable types” this fella was referring to meant the people who jack up ’76 Ford Pintos and leave them on blocks in the driveway. I’m hoping…
The real shitty thing about this is that so far, everybody else I’ve met has been welcoming, open, and friendly. It only takes one fool to spoil the party.
The Keep Off The Grass Types, or More Accurately, “You Kids Keep Off The Road!”
Hi sorry to bother you the name is Bill. I live across the street … no not that house, the one next to it with the extra flower bed … oh, and here’s all your papers from the last few days. They were just piling up on the driveway where the whole neighborhood could see them, not that there’s anything wrong with that, that and the grass being a little overgrown … -William Shatner voiceover on Rockin the Suburbs (Over the Hedge version) by Ben Folds Five
One of the cool things they decided to do at the meeting was set up a facebook page for the neighborhood, you know, so people could keep in touch with things going on. The way they had been communicating was by leaving flyers on people’s doors. So definitely a step up.
And again, the person who did this volunteered to do it, on their own time. So really nice and I’m appreciative that someone is doing that.
Anyway this past weekend one of our residents put out a missive on the facebook page about not parking in the street. According to the C&R’s, parking on the street is against the rules (I should read them again and find out if it is).
The person who posted it didn’t mean anything negative by it. Apparently it was someone who walked the neighborhood with a stroller and felt that the cars made it a little more dangerous for they and their kids.
There was some back and forth about parking in the street, with those for and against. Some people thought it was rude when other people parked in front of their house.
It was a good, healthy discussion, I thought, if a bit on the facebook-typical “my way or the highway” side of posting.
The problem, however, is that the HOA doesn’t own the roads. You, dear reader, own the roads, or more specifically, St. Johns County does and the taxes you pay support keeping the road in good condition.
If you’re sitting in your office making up the C&Rs for a new HOA, you can make up all the rules you want, no matter how ridiculous or illegal. The state of Florida had to step in a few years back to afirm that YES, you can put an American flag up and YES, you can plant Florida native plants in your yard even if HOA rules say you can’t. So in other words, in the past certain HOAs banned the American flag.
But this HOA doesn’t own the roads, and when if comes to the public rights of way the only rules that matter are the ones written by the county and the Department of Transportation.
Once again, I spoke up. Not meekly, but with a more apologetic tone:
“Sorry to be a wet blanket here but the roads and right of ways are owned and maintained by the county. The county sets the rules for parking, and an HOA’s covenants can’t trump county regulations or state law, nor can an HOA specifically target owners parking when any non-owner legally has a right to park there. The alternative is for the association to take over maintenance of the roads, but that generally leads to big assessments over time.”
The author of the original post didn’t like that
When those of us in real estate talk about HOAs “not knowing what they are doing,” this is one of those times.
The reason I spoke up is that the people who complain in HOAs have to know the boundaries. I have seen people in HOAs … I kid you not … complain about so-and-so’s cat tearing their pool screen, or so-and-so’s dog pooping on their lawn (and they have digital images with red eye reduction to prove it).
HOA boards just can’t be involved in that stuff, nor with things they have no legal authority over. The complainers in an HOA will bleed you dry if you let them.
So before they get steam up they have to know from the start that the HOA can’t make up or enforce rules for a public road. You can’t put up stop signs, or no parking signs. You can’t change the traffic pattern. You have to go through the county.
Why do I care?
Because HOAs that behave badly get hit with lawsuits. I’m an owner and I don’t want an assessment for a lawsuit because three owners thought it would be a good idea to f*ck with somebody’s right to park on the street.
Associations that own their own roads (typically seen in gated communities) can make up those type of rules. But the negative to that is that when the road needs fixed, the owners have to pay for it (and it can be expensive). Also, after Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne hit back to back in 2004, none of these gated communities could get their roads cleared.
I was telling this to my partner, Ron Barry, after it all went down. Ron has been a member, off and on, of his own board for the last decade.
“Sean,” he said, “you need to stand up and say, ‘My name is Sean Hess and I’ve been in real estate for 14 years. I’ve been a broker for 10 and I own my own company. You need to listen to me.’ That will get their attention. They need someone that knows what they are doing.”
Ahhh, what did I just get myself into?
Go to your HOA meetings so that:
You know your neighbors.
They know you.
You can see where things are going, what they are planning, and possibly if they are heading for trouble.
Hire someone who understands the stress of living in an HOA: Hire St. Augustine Team Realty. Contact me at the email up top or email my partner Kate Stevens, (904) 377-2276. Kate will do her best to keep you out of the HOA. Of course she lives in St. Augustine proper, and that’s it’s own ball of wax.
All images, video, audio (and in this case, song lyrics) not in the public domain are used in accordance with the Fair Use Law (Per Title 17–United States Code–Section 107) and remain the property of the film or photo copyright owners. You can pick up the movie Over the Hedge on Amazon by clicking on the link. You can pick up the Ben Folds Five Over the Hedge version of “Rockin’ the Suburbs” by clicking here, and you can download the original version with different lyrics by clicking here. You can download “Subdivisions” by Rush by clicking here. I am so old I have “Subdivisions” on cassette, and CD.
You’ll be humming too…