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In Huntington Village, the Community Association Has All The Power
By Dianna Wray
15 December 2015
Most of the time Ebony Washington is able to pretend everything is
fine. She even waves when Huntington Village Community Association deed
restriction inspectors pause near her house to record another
infraction. Washington puts up a good front throughout the day. She’s
in the middle of a divorce, struggling to pay her bills and keep things
on an even keel for her three daughters — Aisa, three, Asia, eight, and
Angelica, 13 — so she gets up at 5:30 a.m. on weekdays and does her
hair and makeup, checks to see that her daughters have everything they
need and then rushes to her job as a dropout prevention counselor at
George H. Bush High School in Fort Bend Independent School District.
After school she gets the girls to band practices and theater
There’s no time to notice the gutter that was damaged in the Memorial
Day Flood, or to consider the faded black address numbers that she
needs to replace. She never lets herself think about the money she owes
the Huntington Village Community Association — $791 in delinquent
association dues plus more than $3,000 in legal fees — or the
possibility that any day now, she could find a foreclosure notice on
Washington has lived in Huntington Village, a modest suburb located on
the edge of west Houston, since 2005. After spending most of her life
in rented apartments, Washington had promised herself she would get a
real house when she had her own family. “I was driving around in the
middle of the night and I saw it, and I had a feeling it was the right
place,” she says now. “I liked the curved drive and how the house
didn’t look like every other house on the block. When I saw the inside,
it was beat up but I could tell it had potential.”
She got the house in a foreclosure sale for about $80,000, renovated it
— the previous owner used to have a bonfire on the bare cement floor in
the living room and the house, built in 1974, hadn’t really been
updated since then — and moved in with Angelica. They spent the first
Christmas decorating a Christmas tree. “It felt so good to be home, to
be in our own actual home,” Washington says now.
At that point, Washington was working as a special education employment
counselor in HISD, and was sure she could manage the house note and
Huntington Village Community Association’s dues of $144 a year. But
then Washington’s hours were reduced and she fought to keep up with her
bills. She quickly fell behind on the dues.
First there were politely worded letters from Marshall Management
Group, the management company then in charge of collecting fees and
enforcing deed restrictions for the homeowners’ association. Then there
were letters from Lewis “Chip” Smith IV, the lawyer who represents
Huntington Village Community Association. The first letters stated
there would be legal action if she didn’t pay the late dues plus the
attorney fee of $150, but they also mentioned that she might have to
pay her debt and about $3,000 in legal fees if the case went to trial.
Smith filed a lawsuit against Washington on behalf of Huntington
Village Community Association in 2013. Since Washington still didn’t
have the money to pay, let alone the funds to hire a lawyer, she
settled with the attorney, agreeing to pay $487.15 per month until the
debt, $4,871.45, including his legal fees, had been paid. “The thing
is, by paying two payments, I’ve already paid more than I actually owed
the association. But it’s that or lose the house,” she says.
Washington isn’t alone. Across the country, homeowners’ associations
like Huntington Village Community Association run neighborhoods,
governing everything from deed restrictions to the collection of
association dues. Some of these private organizations have been filing
lawsuits against homeowners for years for everything from deed
restriction violations, like the length of a homeowner’s grass, to
using the power of foreclosure to collect delinquent homeowners’
association dues. HOAs are almost completely unregulated and the law is
heavily weighted on the side of the homeowners’ associations — they
almost always win. As Smith puts it: “End of the day, you’ve either
paid your bill or you haven’t. “It’s not like there’s much of a defense
or a debate on that.”
"most of the lawyers representing homeowners swear they’ll never do it again
In Texas there is no regulatory agency overseeing homeowners’
associations. Most county attorneys and district attorneys won’t get
involved with an HOA unless there’s evidence of criminal wrongdoing,
and the website of the Texas Attorney General’s Office explicitly
states that the office does not investigate homeowners’ associations
and advises homeowners to get a private attorney. Most private
attorneys conclude that the business just isn’t worth it. “Typically by
the end of the lawsuit, it’s been such a hassle, most of the lawyers
representing homeowners swear they’ll never do it again,” David Kahne,
a Houston lawyer who has been representing homeowners against HOAs for
more than a decade, says.
Each HOA is governed by bylaws and deed restrictions created by the
neighborhood developers when the subdivisions were first built. From
there board members are allowed to interpret those rules as they see
fit, without any kind of government oversight. Texas has even expanded
the authority of HOA boards with extra powers enumerated in the Texas
property code that allow boards to more easily change their bylaws.
These associations have also spawned a mini-industry with lawyers who
specialize in representing HOAs against homeowners and charge legal
fees running from about $150 to $200 for the demand letters attorneys
send out to residents and between $1,500 and $3,000 for any case that
leads to a lawsuit. Contracts vary, so some lawyers get monthly
payments but many collect their legal fees from the homeowners.
“It would be one thing if homeowners’ associations were suing over
hundreds of dollars in late association dues or if they were trying to
get someone to stop walking a pet tiger through the subdivision,” Kahne
says. “That’s not what happens, though. It’s lawsuits over grass
growing in the driveway cracks and people who have fallen behind on
their dues because of real problems in their lives and then they end up
with thousands of dollars of debt, most of it owed to the attorneys.”
Smith, the lawyer who represents Huntington Village Community
Association and other homeowners’ associations in the area, contends
that he performs a necessary service for homeowners.
“It’s kind of like I’m maintaining civilization. Believe me, a lot of
people complain about HOAs, but the alternative is chaos,” Smith says.
“It seems like I have a really mean, nasty job, but if somebody doesn’t
do it, suburbia would collapse. Maybe not in one year, but in a few
years it would all come down.”
Stephanie Ferrante, the executive director of the Greater Houston
chapter of the Community Associations Institute, a national homeowners’
association and the industry’s chief lobbying group, says homeowners’
associations protect individual homeowner rights by ensuring everyone
pays up and follows the rules. Without HOAs, common areas wouldn’t be
kept up and people could paint their front doors scarlet, park boats on
their lawns, put up countless yard signs, keep any number of pets and
have six-foot-tall topiary rabbits in their front yards, destroying the
look and value of neighborhoods.
the HOA is never held accountable for its actions
But Evan McKenzie, a University of Illinois political science professor
who specializes in homeowners’ association issues, argues that HOAs
erode homeowner rights because they create a system in which the HOA is
never held accountable for its actions. “Why do people think you can
live in an urbanized area without any form of government except for
these privatized entities that are under no legal obligation to uphold
your rights?” McKenzie says. Since the 1980s, lawyers representing the
Huntington Village Community Association have filed more than 300
lawsuits in Harris County District Court and a handful of lawsuits in
Fort Bend County District Court against homeowners in the 1,621 homes
that make up the neighborhood.
They would sue everybody
Current board president Johnny Johnson, who once sued the board over
homeowners’ association dues, acknowledges that there have been
problems in the past. “It was the same old dictatorship setup the board
had years before. If you know you have a half million dollars in the
bank and an attorney on the payroll, you can scare the hell out of
people and do what you want, and that’s what the board was doing. They
would sue everybody, and there was no use talking to the board about it
because their minds were already made up,” he says. But Johnson
contends the board is changing under his guidance. “I’m doing what I
can to right the wrongs of the past.”
Despite the fact that HOA cases that lead to actual foreclosures are
very rare, according to Smith — he says only one in 50 actually makes
it to auction and most of the homes are bought back during the
six-month reclaiming period — Huntington Village Community Association
has foreclosed on at least eight homeowners in the past decade alone.
One home that was foreclosed on ended up being auctioned off for just
$285.70. The house is now owned by a former board member’s son.
The Huntington Village Community Association has run the 1,621-home neighborhood since the neighborhood was built in 1971.
Homeowners’ associations first showed up in the United States in the
1840s when suburbs sprang up around the country. The trick was in
keeping nonresidents out, and so the associations started using
restrictive covenants, an old legal concept that allows a seller to
exact a promise that runs with the land even after it has been sold.
Restrictive covenants were also used to keep certain types of people
from moving into neighborhoods (Jews and African Americans, for
By the 1960s, people wanted planned communities, and that was a concept
the Federal Housing Administration embraced as well. The FHA started
offering insurance to communities that set up homeowners’ associations,
and the government even sent out a handbook with instructions on how to
Starting in the 1980s, city officials began pushing for the creation of
homeowners’ associations after a massive property tax revolt started in
California and spread across the country. City officials realized that
establishing HOAs was in their own best interest: Neither cities nor
counties would be responsible for the upkeep of common areas, and the
cost of infrastructure and neighborhood amenities would be included in
the price of houses and supported through HOA dues. Meanwhile, cities
got the benefit of increased property tax values.
In 1964, McKenzie says, the government estimated there were about 500
HOAs, and that number mushroomed over the following decades, especially
in the South and on the West Coast, where there were building booms.
According to a 2015 study by the Community Associations Institute,
there are more than 333,000 HOAs in the United States and about 20
percent of people in this country live in homeowners’ association
neighborhoods. “This is a form of privatization that has never been
seen in history,” McKenzie says.
In Texas, HOAs have even more freedom than in most other places,
McKenzie says. “All of the antigovernment sentiment has led Texas to
lean on these private semi-government organizations that are not in any
way governed by the state or by the Constitution. And Houston, the only
major city without any zoning, is the center of it all because this is
where HOAs have the least constraint.”
Naturally, not everyone has accepted the HOAs’ power without a fight.
In 2001, 82-year-old widow Wenonah Blevins was evicted from her home
because she hadn’t paid $814.50 in late homeowners’ association dues
and $3,700 in legal fees. Even though she’d paid cash for her home,
located just off FM 1960 in north Houston, the Champions Community
Improvement Association seized the $150,000 house and auctioned it off
for $5,000 at the Harris County Courthouse.
Blevins sued the HOA, settled for $300,000 and got her home back, but
the story sparked an outcry for reform. The resulting legislation,
penned by then-state senator John Carona, head of Associa, the largest
property management company in the country, ended up making HOAs
stronger, longtime Houston homeowner rights advocate Beanie Adolph
says. “That legislation was a joke,” she says now.
Then Geneva Kirk Brooks, the famed anti-pornography activist, made
homeowner rights her last stand after a Houston HOA sued her in 1998.
She met with the HOA lawyer who told her that he could make the suit go
away for $39,000 in cash, Kahne says now. Brooks marched out, hired
Kahne as her lawyer and got together a group of homeowners to sue the
HOA. The case went all the way to the Texas Supreme Court, where the
justices sided with Brooks in 2004. Brooks died of cancer before the
decision was announced.
There was another big push to reform HOAs after a soldier en route to
Iraq in 2010 got a frantic call from his wife in Frisco, a Dallas
suburb, telling him that their $300,000 home, which they owned free and
clear, was being foreclosed on for about $800 in HOA dues. The house
was auctioned off, despite laws that prevent such a thing from
happening to any member of the U.S. military, before the soldier could
Once again, the scandal incited calls for reform from the Texas
Legislature. In 2011, the legislature responded by passing its most
comprehensive legislation on HOAs. Some of the changes were fairly
minor, allowing people to fly flags, have rain barrels and install
solar panels if they choose.
Others were designed to give homeowners more power. The 2011
legislation allowed homeowners to vote on board elections even if they
were behind on their HOA dues. The HOA boards were required to offer
payment plans for association dues. The legislation also required HOAs
to provide financial records to homeowners upon request. (However, the
only way to get an HOA to comply is to hire a lawyer and go to court.)
Instead of being able to use nonjudicial foreclosures, HOAs were
required to go before a judge to foreclose on a house. Despite all the
changes, one crucial HOA tool remained intact: HOAs still had the power
to foreclose on a home over unpaid homeowners’ association dues.
A Texas Supreme Court decision for Inwood North Homeowners’ Association
v. Harris in 1987 found that HOAs could foreclose to collect
assessments despite constitutional homestead protections, stacking the
rights of the HOA firmly above the rights of the homeowner. Until that
point, Texas law had always held that only a bank or a taxing authority
could take your home.
In 1995, HOA powers in Harris County were further expanded after the
state legislature passed Texas Property Code Chapter 204, a piece of
legislation crafted by a Houston HOA attorney that really applied only
to Harris County. Chapter 204 allowed HOAs in Harris County to adopt
and enforce new deed restrictions and allowed new HOAs to be created in
existing subdivisions without the full consent of all property owners.
A massive increase in lawsuits filed against homeowners in Harris
County followed. Chris Adolph, a professor of statistics and political
science at the University of Washington, found that while in 1985 only
449 homeowners faced foreclosure by their HOAs, that number had swelled
to 1,280 by 2001.
Overall, there were more than 12,000 foreclosure filings from 670
Harris County HOAs over the 17-year period Adolph examined, and there
have been more than 25,000 foreclosure filings by homeowners’
associations in Harris County from 1985 to 2007, according to
HOAdata.org, a nonprofit research site run by homeowner rights activist
Beanie Adolph. (Chris Adolph notes that it’s unclear how many of these
foreclosure filings ended with sales because the final disposition of
the home isn’t always apparent in the court records.)
attorneys stand to make a lot of money from these tactics
The statistics also indicate that foreclosures happened more often in
low-income neighborhoods, despite the fact that the delinquent fines
were likely only a few hundred dollars. “The HOA ostensibly represents
the neighborhood itself. Thus, poorer neighborhoods — or their agents,
the HOAs — seem to have chosen to impose higher rates of foreclosure on
themselves,” Chris Adolph writes, adding that HOAs and their attorneys
stand to make a lot of money from these tactics.
Despite the fact that board members manage thousands of dollars and are
charged with longterm planning to make sure the HOA won’t end up
bankrupt in the decades to come, there are no qualifications required
to be an HOA board member. (In 2011 the state legislature passed a law
that anyone convicted of a felony or a crime of moral turpitude can’t
serve on a board.) Once a person is elected to the board, there isn’t
any required education, although the Community Associations Institute
runs daylong seminars. The thing is, if the boards aren’t run properly
— with a large percentage of dues collected and a savings account for
unexpected large expenses — it’s easy for them to end up in a financial
quagmire. (In South Carolina, homeowners are on the hook for thousands
of dollars in repairs after private dams across the state collapsed in
Attorneys can also drive HOAs to get more litigious since that’s how they make their livelihood.
There’s also vulnerability in the way the HOA businesses are
structured. Most HOAs have property management companies running the
day-to-day operations. These are companies intent on making money, so
they can become aggressive, Beanie Adolph says. Attorneys can also
drive HOAs to get more litigious since that’s how they make their
“Most cities and counties can’t even tell you how many homeowners’
associations are in their community. They don’t even know,” McKenzie
says. “There’s nobody watching the finances, nobody watching how this
is done, and most of the people on these boards are volunteers working
without background checks or any accountability. It’s convenient for
developers and municipal governments, but it’s really questionable for
homeowners. If the board isn’t running the HOA correctly, homeowners
can be left holding the bag.”
and Earnest Hall clashed with Huntington Village Community Association
after the couple failed to get architectural approval to remodel their
When Huntington Village first opened in 1971, the suburban enclave
attracted energy executives and company presidents to live in its
spacious, high-ceilinged ranch-style houses.
Frank Velasquez, then a corporate accountant, bought his home in 1974
because he liked the feel of the neigborhood, the treelined streets and
the carefully manicured lawns and the way everyone watched out for
their neighbors. “There was a good feeling here. Everyone knew
everybody and we looked out for each other. It was a neighborly place,”
standards began to slip
But then the 1980s oil bust hit, followed by a recession, and standards
began to slip. Lawns started to look unkempt and houses started looking
shabby. Some people hung on and struggled to put up a good front, many
lost their homes to foreclosure and roughly half of the people in the
neighborhood had stopped paying their annual association dues by 1984,
according to longtime board member Charles Norvell. “I was elected in
1984 and when I got on the board and looked at the financials, I
couldn’t believe it. We were in the hole for thousands of dollars,” he
Huntington Village Community Association was aggressive about keeping
up appearances. The association took homeowner Richard McGaughy to
court in 1981 in a lawsuit that complained about everything from the
state of his yard to oil stains on the driveway and a bird’s nest in
the eaves of the roof.
The judge sided with the association and issued an injunction against
McGaughy telling him to clean up his act, but it didn’t end there. In
the following decade, the HOA pulled McGaughy into court every time
anyone concluded he was violating court orders to keep the property
orderly. By 1991, when McGaughy was once again in a hearing over the
state of his lawn, even the judge sounded exasperated, according to the
“I don’t like sitting up here sending somebody to jail,” the judge
said. “The jails are full and heaven knows your offense is
embarrassingly negligible compared to some of the things that put
people across the street. But you’ve put me in a position of giving me
no choice. I don’t have any other option. If you can think of one, give
it to me.”
McGaughy agreed to clean up his property, but asked if he could leave
the bird’s nest up until the birds left for the season, telling the
judge how he has removed the nest every year and then the birds come
back and rebuild each spring. The judge said McGaughy could keep the
nest, but urged him to take care of the other issues raised by the HOA.
“As I said, it is just harassment, sir. There’s no difference,” McGaughy said.
“Then let’s bring it to an end,” the judge said. “No harm will come to
you for complying with these matters. Do them and bring this to an end.
Save yourself a lot of money and grief.”
That was the first case the Huntington Village Community Association filed in district court, but it wouldn’t be the last.
Despite the fact that the association rules laid out by the
neighborhood developers in 1971 expressly stated that the board
couldn’t permanently raise dues above $96, when Norvell became
president, the board voted to raise the dues for a one-time increase to
$144. The problem was the board failed to lower the dues back to $96,
an oversight that some homeowners, including current board president
Johnson, noticed and started asking about.
At the same time, the board hired a property management company to
handle deed restriction violations and assessments and contracted a
lawyer to collect unpaid association dues. “We went after people for
not paying maintenance fees pretty strong, but we would only take them
right up to foreclosure in court and everything. After all, these are
neighbors,” Norvell says now.
suddenly the board didn’t like me anymore
But even though the association was in better financial shape, the way
the board increased the assessment drew the ire of a couple of
homeowners, Johnson and Palma Sales, a single mom who had moved into
the neighborhood in 1988. Sales went to every meeting and was friends
with all the board members until she read the association bylaws, which
stated the association could charge only $96 for fees. “I asked why we
were all still being charged $144, and suddenly the board didn’t like
me anymore,” she says now. She and Johnson refused to pay anything but
the $96 assessment, and the HOA sued both.
Johnson and Palma hired lawyers and fought the lawsuit, filing
countersuits and ignoring foreclosure threats. Finally, the day before
the trial date, the association’s lawyers offered a settlement. Johnson
and Sales agreed, stipulating both would pay only the $96 dues mandated.
Sometimes it just goes to your head, being in control
For a while things calmed down, but Sales and Johnson became concerned
when C. Louis Noack, a local CPA, was elected president. “He wouldn’t
let anyone but himself talk. I think it was an ego trip, to be honest
with you. Sometimes it just goes to your head, being in control,”
Norvell says. “He told people to shut up and he ran things the way he
wanted.” (The Houston Press repeatedly requested comment from Noack and
received no response.)
The dust was still settling over the Johnson and Sales lawsuits — the
HOA’s insurance went up to $30,000 a year immediately after the
settlement, Norvell says — when Angela and Earnest Hall bought a home
in Huntington Village. The two-story brick house was nestled behind a
pair of solid oak trees on a quiet cul-de-sac, and it was the kind of
place the couple had imagined raising their kids in. Earnest Hall grew
up in Homestead, which he calls “the hood.”
Shortly after they moved in, Earnest noticed a woman walking the
street, peering at his house and picking up any trash she found.
Earnest’s extended family was always around and whenever there was
something to celebrate, the party was at the Halls’ house. “Everybody
was so proud of me because this house meant I’d made it,” he says. “We
celebrate that still and we celebrate a lot.”
He’d installed a basketball hoop in the cul-de-sac, and one evening the
woman, Sharon Swanson, who was then a board member, came down and took
the ball away, telling Earnest he was violating deed restrictions by
putting up a basketball hoop that wasn’t strictly on his property.
Things got tense and Earnest, frustrated, called the police, who sided
Swanson kept complaining about the parties and the noise. Then one day
a police officer showed up. He told Earnest that Swanson had found
unused bullets in her front yard and believed Earnest was threatening
her. “I laughed it off, but it was crazy. I mean, I grew up poor and I
wasn’t raised to waste anything, not even bullets,” he says now,
shaking his head. He avoided Swanson and the HOA after that. But the
issues with the HOA didn’t end there.
After Hurricane Ike whipped through and damaged the house in 2008, the
Halls decided to remodel. Earnest knew the HOA required any changes to
the outside of a house to be approved by the architectural committee,
but he put that off and had the contractors work on the inside. “I was
nervous about approaching them. I’d already heard rumors that I was
supposedly dealing drugs from the house and been asked if I was running
a boarding house by these people, and I didn’t think they’d even listen
to my plans before they said no.”
Once Earnest began work on the outside of the house, he immediately
received a deed restriction violation notice and was told he needed to
see the architectural committee. He talked with a lawyer before the
meeting, and she advised him to bring a tape recorder with him so he’d
have a record of the proceedings.
He introduced himself to the board, his voice coming out high-pitched
and determinedly cheerful, and was immediately peppered with questions
from board members about the project, the height of the roof, the way
the walls would be constructed. Norvell tore apart Earnest’s plans,
asking Earnest what he needed a home movie theater for.
Earnest, an electrician by trade, had a nascent production company that had produced one film, Thug Life.
“We’ll have a home theater so we can preview movies when guys come in
from L.A. And, you know, so we can watch movies,” Earnest said.
“I think there’s more to this than is actually here,” Norvell replied.
(“He was putting in nine bedrooms and there were rumors going around
that he was running a whorehouse and that he was going to shoot
pornographic movies,” Norvell says now.)
Earnest tried to walk the board through his plans, talking about how he
was adding five bedrooms to his four-bedroom house. This grabbed
another board member’s attention.
“All of the house is bedrooms? There’s no kitchen or nothing?”
The board refused to approve the project and sued the Halls for
infringing on deed restrictions. The Halls got a lawyer. When the two
sides appeared before Judge James Shoemake in Fort Bend District Court,
he scolded both sides and ordered them to go out in the hall and work
out a deal because they wouldn’t like how he would handle things if
they moved forward with the case, Earnest says.
In the Fort Bend County Courthouse hall, the board members said they
just wanted a tour of the house once the remodeling was done. The Halls
agreed. It cost them $10,000 in legal fees, and even though Earnest
sent certified letters to the board asking the board members to come
look at the house, nobody ever showed up.
In January 2012, Beatrice John, a Nigerian immigrant, sent in her $144
check for dues, but months later she received notice of a lawsuit
telling her she still owed $94 in dues and $3,000 in legal fees. “I
decided to go to court. I couldn’t go along with paying $3,000 when I
only owed $94 more,” she says.
She spoke to the HOA before the court date to see if the association
could settle the matter, but the board told her it was up to Smith. On
the first court date, Smith didn’t show up. The second time, he did. “I
couldn’t afford a lawyer, so God was my lawyer,” she says now. The
judge sided with the association, and John was ordered to pay what she
owed plus $3,000 in attorneys fees.
Some homeowners don’t respond at all. Patsy Richmond bought her home 13
years ago after her four-year-old grandson spotted the place and
declared that this was going to be their home. During the Great
Recession, Richmond was laid off and didn’t pay the association dues.
By the time she was again employed and felt able to take care of the
$582 in delinquent fees, she could either settle with Smith or lose her
In 2014 Richmond agreed to pay Smith $262 per month until the debt for
$2,622.69 — $582 in fees plus Smith’s legal fees — was cleared. She
fell behind on the payments earlier this year when her contract work
with a hotel chain tapered off. “It’s such a small amount of money and
they want to take my house for it? I don’t know. I may just let them.
I’m tired of this,” she says.
Originally the board was involved when there was a question of a
lawsuit, Norvell says. The board would review a list of those who
hadn’t paid, file liens against their homes and then it was up to the
lawyer to pursue the cases and collect the fees. However, former board
member Don Cooper served on the board starting in 2009, and he says
board members never discussed lawsuits at the meetings run by Noack.
“He didn’t talk to us. He talked to Chip [Smith] and that was it,”
Norvell says he doesn’t believe the association has ever actually taken
a house over maintenance fees. However, at least one house, belonging
to Cheryl Maier, sold for $285.70 to the HOA — no one else put in a bid
— in April 2011. Smith says he always advises his HOA clients not to
file deeds of ownership on the properties that HOAs do foreclose on, so
it’s unclear in the records what happend after the Huntington Village
Community Association sold the house to itself at auction. After the
sale, Maier’s house was deeded to the U.S. Bank National Association,
which was listed as the trustee of the property. Then in 2012, Jason
Swanson, the son of longtime resident and former board member Sharon
Swanson, according to Velasquez, bought the house using a special
warranty deed. It’s unknown how much he paid for the home. (The Press
has attempted to contact Sharon Swanson for weeks without any response.)
Smith says these are the worst-case scenarios and usually involve
irresponsible people. “HOA attorneys only started to exist when people
stopped paying their bills,” Smith says. “HOAs don’t exist to hassle
people. A lot of people don’t pay their bills and some of them
shouldn’t be homeowners.”
Meanwhile, the neighborhood hasn’t been kept up the way some, including
Velasquez, Johnson and Cooper, say it should be. Noack filled in one of
the two swimming pools in the neighborhood against strong objections
from some board members and homeowners, and tried to sell off the
fencing, saying the association needed the money, according to Cooper.
The records show the association had more than $400,000 in the bank
that year, but Norvell says the HOA hasn’t been able to put money in
its reserve fund for years.
he was carrying a holstered gun
In September 2014, Johnson ran for the board and became the board
president. The Halls hoped things would be different once Johnson took
charge, but Johnson also had an issue with a Hall party that he says
was too loud. Johnson showed up asking the family to quiet down, but he
was carrying a holstered gun. “The way we grew up, if you see someone
coming up slowly in a car with the lights off and they’ve got a gun,
that’s a drive-by about to happen. It got tense real quick,” Earnest
Johnson pointed out he has a concealed-carry license and he was trying
to keep things calm in the neigborhood. “I was afraid, too. I was
surrounded by these guys and they were angry. It was a tricky
situation,” Johnson says.
Even though he’d run for the board intent on changing things, Johnson
kept Smith as the association’s lawyer. He says Smith’s contract with
the HOA gives the board leverage to make Smith renegotiate some cases.
“Had we eliminated him, we would have had no control over what was
already done. It’s helped us because there have been cases where we
called Chip and asked him to change something and he’s done it,”
Johnson says. “It was tactical, because I knew he could be a lot more
help as a friend than as an enemy.”
Once he was elected president, Johnson set up a new website, started
posting the board meeting minutes, got to work on a newsletter and made
it clear that anyone could talk during a board meeting. He also
instituted a yearlong moratorium on lawsuits. When it ended in
November, Smith promptly filed seven lawsuits against Huntington
Washington, a Huntington Village homeowner facing foreclosure over
delinquent homeowner association dues, says she could have paid off the
$791 in association fees, but she can’t afford the attorney fees.
Photos by Marco Torres
One night in November, Ebony Washington pulled into the crescent-shaped
drive and saw her salmon-colored brick house illuminated in the
headlights. “I could lose the house,” the thought skittered through her
mind. Washington stared at the house for a beat and then told her three
daughters to go inside and start their homework.
The second the front door slammed shut, Washington crumpled over the
steering wheel, letting the tears out while she gasped for breath. Then
she swiped at her eyes and arranged her hair, scanning her face for any
telltale signs of distress. She slammed the car door shut and leaned
against it heavily. “I never let them see me cry,” she explains. “I
don’t know if I’m going to be able to fix this, but I don’t want my
girls to worry.”
Washington has tried to make the repairs requested by the association
so she’ll be back in line with the deed restrictions. Her neighbor,
Earnest Hall, fixed her address numbers and the gutter that had gotten
the deed restriction violations. A few weeks later, another notice
arrived informing her the faded burnt-orange trim on the house needs to
Washington sat at her kitchen table, wiping away tears and laughing at
the same time. “I barely have enough money to cover the house note and
day care,” Washington says. “There are nights I’ve gone to bed not full
to make sure the girls got enough to eat. I can’t afford to paint.”
Besides, she notes, she may not be in the house much longer. Washington
hasn’t been able to meet Smith’s payments in months. The letters arrive
once a month, each stating that if she doesn’t send in a check bringing
her account up to date, Smith will recommend foreclosure.
Johnson says the board doesn’t have many options once homeowners like
Washington have settled with Smith and signed a contract. “There’s very
little we can do, other than ask the attorney to go back and negotiate
the issue. We certainly don’t want someone losing their home over
something as stupid as this.”
Washington doesn’t have the money for a lawyer but hopes to qualify for legal aid. She might just give up the house.
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