What a Year In the United States, we have spent the better part of a year desperately trying to navigate a seeming impossible situation. Each month seems to present us with new and unforeseen challenges, one after another. With news of a few potentially promising vaccines being reported, it seems as though we may have finally spotted some light on the horizon, but immeasurable damage has already been done, and, with the potential of a very difficult winter ahead of us it is safe to say that we are not yet fully in the clear. Unemployment reached an all-time high in April of this year, leaving many without reliable income. Countless Americans have been faced with the difficult decision of which bills to pay, and which can wait. This being the case, and with approximately 70 million Americans living within communities managed by homeowners associations, we need to ask: what, if anything, can be done in regards to HOA fees during this time?
Do we Really Need to Pay the Piper? In the early months of the year, closures swept over small towns and big cities alike, temporality (hopefully) shutting down restaurants, bars, gyms and countless other businesses. HOAs and condo associations found themselves in a similar position. Out of an abundance of caution, and at the behest of local governments, associations shut down operation of many of the perks and amenities that covenant controlled communities tout as the greatest benefits of living there. Community parks, playgrounds, basketball and tennis courts and were made off-limits, sectioned off with “caution” tape. Pools were drained, gates locked. The equipment in on-site gyms sat, unused in the dark. With the threat of similar closures looming, some ask, should residents still have to pay their monthly dues, the money that funds these facilities, if they are closed? The short answer, yes. In an interview with Community Associations Institute (posted on the denverpost.com), Matt D. Ober, a Pasadena based lawyer, thought it important to remind residents that these closures were not simply at the whim of the members of the board, but rather were being closed at the request of local and state government for health and safety reasons. In order to reopen, the HOA would also have to spend considerably more than usual to have these spaces cleaned and (possibly) reconfigured in order to meet new requirements for operation. Essentially, if residents want these amenities to operate again, once deemed acceptable, they will need to keep this in mind, and continue to pay their dues.
Leniency, Compassion and Reason While it is understandable, when presented with solid reasoning, that those who are able should continue to pay their dues during this time, what can be done for residents who have taken a profound financial hit due to the pandemic? In an article published in the Washington Post, Brendan Bunn, a lawyer out of Fairfax, Virginia, suggests that a little compassion can go a long way. While it is not financially sustainable for HOAs to completely forgo collection of assessments, Bunn proposes that associations consider waiving late fees and other penalties for residents who notify the board, preemptively (and preferably in writing), that they have been negatively impacted and agree to catch up as soon as they are able, so long as the time frame seems reasonable. Bunn also suggests creating payment plans before residents fall behind, that would allow them to pay their fees, in full, but over an extended period of time. In working with residents to create solutions before the problem gets out of hand, all parties concerned are far better off.
Hey, Big Spender While much of the current conversation surrounds residents and the responsibility and capability of the individual to pay what is expected of them, during this unprecedented time, the HOA must consider its spending as well. Bunn recommends that associations avoid starting any unnecessary projects during this time. In Bukner Farms, a community in Virginia Beach, Virginia, the 800 homeowners who reside here saw their quarterly fees rise by 122%, from $86.00 to $191.00 dollars. Local news outlet, Wavy.com reported that the steep hike was implemented to cover repairs to concrete retention ponds that sit on either side of the community. It is clear that repairs need to be made, both the association and the residents agree on this fact, the disagreement lies in the timing. One homeowner claimed that she had been making complaints to the board for ten years regarding the concrete aprons. She went on to say that ,while she was mowing her yard, she stepped in one of the cracks in said concrete, fell and her mower subsequently rolled over her. It seems odd to many that these aprons could lay in disrepair for over a decade, but in the midst of a global pandemic, an event that has been financially devastating to so many, this is the time that the association chooses to implement the necessary fixes. From a strictly business standpoint, it seems counterintuitive to begin such a costly project, that would require such a dramatic raise in payment, during a time where many may find themselves unable to pay.
Looking Forward, with Fingers Crossed With just a few weeks left in what has surely been a very remarkable year, to say the least, we have no choice but to look forward. We may not know how 2021 will go, how long COVID-19 will dictate our lives or what, exactly, life will look like when all of this is a distant memory. But with compassion, thoughtful compromise and a realistic plan moving forward, life in the HOA can be what it was always intended to be, a place where we can come together to create a strong, supportive community for all those who we call our neighbors.
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