Good Fences There is a saying, often referenced in today’s suburbs, that, “good fences make good neighbors.” And while Robert Frost, the man who originally penned these famous words, may have written them with an ironic intent, taken at face value, this statement feels very true in our modern society. Living in close proximity, sharing common spaces, and constant interaction can create wonderful bonds and friendships, but can also cause tensions to run high. This seems to be amplified recently with people finding themselves more homebound, forcing them to pay more attention to their immediate surroundings, as well as the people that take up that space. With everyone a bit more on edge, it is no surprise that conflicts between neighbors are on the rise. While we would like to be able to trust adults to take a calm and reasonable approach to their squabbles (wishful thinking, I know), there are times when this is simply not the case. When is the HOA encouraged to step in between feuding neighbors, when are they required, and what is the best way to do this?
Who Wants to Take a Side? Generally speaking, associations would rather stay out of arguments that take place between residents. Really, who can blame them? And, generally speaking, most of these arguments can be resolved on their own, without the association’s aid. Among the most common discords between neighbors are noise complaints, pet issues, objections about the appearance of a home, parking and property boundaries. More often than not, with some time and discussion between parties, these grievances can be amicably resolved without too much pain or trouble. However, there are instances when disputes that require a bit more involvement on the part of the board.
Look and Listen The first steps in dealing with any complaint brought to the association should always be the same, listen and investigate. While it may feel tedious, the HOA must actually look at each complaint that is brought to them. Even if Mrs. Martin is calling for the 100th time to complain about the leaves that blow onto her driveway, or that the trampoline in her neighbor’s yard is causing her emotional distress, it is important that the association listens to her woes. In order for residents to feel confident in their association, members of the community need to feel that their concerns are heard and valued, even if the association chooses not to take any action.
Stay Out? It is important to note that, even if the HOA decides NOT to get involved in a particular neighborly entanglement, they cannot simply wash their hands of the situation and walk away. Clear communication, to all parties involved, is important. Both the person presenting the complaint, as well as the individual the complaint is about, need to understand the association’s stance on whatever the matter might be, as well as its decision to not go further. It is also important that the association keep record of the complaint and their decision.
Step In? If a resident is reporting something that does, in fact, violate the governing documents of the community, the association may need to take an active role in the disagreement. In most cases, the first step of this process would be to send notice to the homeowner in violation. This can be as innocuous as a friendly letter, or a written warning, if the situation warrants it. It may be that the offender was simply unaware of their infraction and the problem can be quickly resolved just by bringing it to their attention. Upon occasion, neighbors will require a bit more encouragement to resolve their differences. Depending upon the specifics of your association’s governing documents, fines may need to be issued. Some situations may even merit a third party to mediate for the differing sides. If there is any doubt as to whether the association should get involved, it would behoove the board to consult their legal council.
When There is no Choice In the majority of cases, the board can use its discretion when contemplating whether or not to become involved. However, there are extreme cases where an association is required to intervene in neighbor disputes. In October of 2016, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), put into place new rules regarding the liability of a third-party (in this case, the HOA) when harassment is reported. Specifically, these rules apply to two forms of harassment.
Quid Pro Quo Harassment- Quid pro quo harassment refers to an unwelcome request or demand to engage in conduct where submission to the request or demand, either explicitly or implicitly, is made a condition related to: The sale, rental or availability of a dwelling; the terms, conditions, or privileges of the sale or rental, or the provision of services or facilities in connection therewith; or the availability, terms, or conditions of a residential real estate-related transaction. An unwelcome request or demand may constitute quid pro quo harassment even if a person acquiesces in the unwelcome request or demand.
Hostile environment harassment- Hostile environment harassment refers to unwelcome conduct that is sufficiently severe or pervasive as to interfere with: The availability, sale, rental, or use or enjoyment of a dwelling; the terms, conditions, or privileges of the sale or rental, or the provision or enjoyment of services or facilities in connection therewith; or the availability, terms, or conditions of a residential real estate-related transaction. Hostile environment harassment does not require a change in the economic benefits, terms, or conditions of the dwelling or housing-related services or facilities, or of the residential real-estate transaction.
These rules state that if harassment that falls into either of these two categories is reported to the HOA, they are required to intervene, or risk legal ramifications. In one instance, a woman in Colorado reported to her HOA that another resident of her condominium building had been constantly harassing her. The woman stated that the harassment had become severe, including racial and sexual insults, and even physical threats against her. The association refused to get involved, prompting the woman to file a lawsuit against the board. In the end, the association was forced to pay the woman 550,000 dollars and purchase her condo. While these situations are (hopefully) rare, it is incredibly important that the members of a HOA board are aware of the laws surrounding these types of situations and have a plan as to how to handle them.
Protecting the Peace It would be lovely to think that we could all just get along and that we could create perfect little communities where everyone was always happy and no conflict ever arose. However, this is far from reality. Arguments are bound to happen, and neighbors and destined to disagree. That being said, there are steps that an HOA can take in order to keep the peace, for the most part, among their residents, and keep life in their community as picture-perfect as is possible. Perhaps, with the aid of some really good fences.
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