Words have meanings and the word community generally imparts a sense of belonging. People in a community tend to have something in common. They come from similar backgrounds, are generally in the same socioeconomic group, perhaps share hobbies and interests. They have something that binds them together. In the good old days, before “communities” were designed and force-fed on Americans, the sense of community evolved naturally. Neighbors were friends who helped and looked out for each other. They took in a child who might have inadvertently been locked out, picked up packages for neighbors or retrieved a trash can that was blown down the street by the wind. In this brave new world of controlled living, the sense of community is no longer communal but rather a gathering of people who delight is spying on their neighbors. Now a child who is locked out might get rescued by the police, mail is left out and the association is called to report a stray trash can.
Ileana Johnson joins us On The Commons this week. Ileana is an American by choice and a Romanian by birth. She is a freelance journalist, an author, a speaker and a radio commentator. She also maintains a blog at www.ileanajohnson.com. Ileana and her husband currently live in a Homeowner Association in Virginia where inspections are conducted regularly to ensure that no blade of grass exceeds the allowable length and that all things visible on the property conform to some rather vague standard. Creativity and individuality are highly frowned upon. Ileana tells us about life in her 300 square foot apartment in Communist Romania and draws some parallels between Communist Romania and HOAs, American Style. Sometimes it is hard to find much difference.
They sounded like such great ideas, so what could possibly go wrong? Instead of keeping residential America under the jurisdiction of local municipal governments, the trend was to put them in private enclaves where covenants ruled and where the notion of a contract was above the law. Add a few frills where everyone shares in the expense of amenities and you have heaven on earth. Right? Now expand the utopian lifestyle to the renters by converting apartments into condos and establishing special financing to help them get their foot on the first rung of prosperity and we are on our way.
As I write this, my mother’s words come back to haunt me; “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true.”
Professor Evan McKenzie joins us On The Commons this week. Evan was on the first radio show I ever did and I am delighted to have him join us as we mark our 15th anniversary of On The Commons.
Evan is a political science professor at the University of Illinois Chicago, he teaches law at the John Marshall School of Law, he is the author of Privatopia: Homeowner Associations and the Rise of Residential Private Government and Beyond Privatopia: Rethinking Residential Private Government. He maintains a blog at The Privatopia Papers where he discusses and follows the news and trends on associations. He is just back from a conference in Israel on private communities where he presented a paper titled: “Rethinking Residential Private Government in the United States: Recent Trends in practices and Policy”. Join us as Evan shares some of the problems and issues other countries are facing with their experiences in private communities, and how at least one country, Spain, deals with the “apathy” problem.
American homeowners once enjoyed complete sovereignty over property they owned. Home truly was their castle where they raised their families, entertained friends, hosted get togethers and surrounded themselves with the things that meant something to them. Sadly that way of life gradually evaporated. Over the last three or four decades that right of ownership has eroded, leaving homeowners confused, shocked, upset and often in unimaginable trouble. Inordinate amounts of money are spent on the most legal ridiculous legal battles with neighbors and local governments.
How did that happen? How did a simple and sane concept devolve into the battlefields that were once our residential neighborhoods? What happened to our “communities” where neighbors not only knew your name but were ready and willing to help.
Tom DeWeese joins us On The Commons this week. Tom is one of the nation’s leading advocates on private property rights. He is the founder and president of The American Policy Center headquartered in Warrenton, Virginia. Tom is a prolific writer, and speaker, he is energetic, outspoken and passionate about educating citizens, politicians and organizations about the many threats to our personal freedoms and our property rights. He warns us that special interests are all too proficient at convincing politicians to enact harmful legislation and to adopt policies designed to alter the way we live. With upcoming elections, candidates will be appearing and speaking at a number of public events. He has devised 3 questions to ask political hopefuls about the environment, education and eminent domain. Tom demonstrates how all these issues are part of the bigger picture, including residential associations.
The legislative process never ceases to amaze me. Every year thousands of bills are introduced by our representatives both at the Federal level and in State Capitols across the country. Some have a list of sponsors while others do not. Every bill goes through a hearing process in subcommittees where they are either passed on to the full committee as presented, amended or killed. The survivors of the first cut then go through the process again in front of the full committee, and if not killed get passed on either intact or amended to one of the two houses, talked about, voted on, amended and if not killed the bill goes to the other house and eventually ends up on the President’s or the Governor’s desk where it is signed into law or vetoed.
With the seemingly endless opportunities to hear and discuss proposed legislation, how on earth do we end up with so many bad laws on the books?
David Kahne and Beanie Adolph join us On The Commons this week. David is among a handful of attorneys who has and will represent homeowners in HOAs. Although she has never lived in an association controlled development, Beanie is a tireless advocate for preserving individual and private property rights. She is the Director of the HOA Reform Coalition of Texas. She also provides a page where homeowners can share their HOA problems because, as she explains, “… there is no state agency where homeowners can register their problems”. David and Beanie give us a rundown of some of the bills the Texas legislature had in front of them. We also learn that the legislators did not want to hear from the homeowners so David went to Austin to represent the Coalition and Texas homeowners. Tune in for a run down on the bills, what they would have done, which ones passed and which ones were killed, at least for this year.
The hunt is on. After scrimping and saving to buy that perfect home housing consumers have been dreaming of, it is time to start looking. How long will it take to find that one perfect house? Will they know it the minute they walk in? Will they fall in love with the view from living room window or will the smell of brownies baking in the oven convince them they have found the home of their dreams?
Wait a minute. Not so fast. Do they have any idea what they are buying? If that dream home is in a mandatory membership residential association, what they see, is not necessarily what they are getting. In fact they are buying a lot more than the eye can see.
Sara Benson joins us On The Commons this week. Sara, a 32 year Real Estate broker in Chicago, knows all the pitfalls of buying a house that is part of a residential association. She is the founder of Association Evaluation, a company that digs beneath the surface of the “unit” that is being bought to uncover not only any structural defects with that dream home, but all the buried problems lurking in the shadows of the association. With a long list of potential problem areas to inspect, questions to ask and documents to read, housing consumers who buy the service will end up with a comprehensive evaluation of the entire neighborhood that will also become their financial responsibility should they choose to seal the deal on that house. Sara opens our eyes to the problems owners have encountered, the staggering additional dues that can be levied and the reasons for these unimagined liabilities that are part and parcel of being a modern day homeowner.
Few of us know what we want to be when we grow up. As we grow and our world opens us up to all sorts of new and exciting possibilities, we start to explore our options and change our minds. But imagine knowing, from a very young age, exactly what you want to do with the rest of your life and still wanting the same thing when you grow up? And imagine working hard to realize that dream?
Martha Boneta joins us On The Commons this week. With a love for the land and a passion for growing plants and animals, Martha always knew she wanted to be a farmer. Her dream came true when she and her family bought Liberty Farms in Paris, Virginia. That is also when her problems began. Liberty Farms came with a conservation easement that was overseen by the Piedmont Environmental Council. The PEC is a tax funded 501C3 organization with the power to enforce the easement but. predictably, with no checks and balances, no oversight and with the ability to operate under cover of darkness. It will come as no surprise then that the PEC went a little over the top by bullying Martha and her family and violating her individual and property rights. Watch a video of one of these inspections.
Despite the abuse and the harassment, Martha was always smiling, upbeat and cheerful. She is the perfect role model for a property rights advocate. She stood her ground and never wavered from what she believed was right and because of the way she presented herself and the problems, Richmond listened to her and enacted legislation to protect family farms. She has stolen the hearts of farmers and rights advocates across the country. Martha has a web page in the making where you will find contact information for her. Tune in, you will be inspired by this amazing lady.
Most people aspire to own they own homes. What homes look like may have changed over the years. They might be a log cabin, a single family detached home with a garden, an attached townhouse or even an apartment in a high rise building, but what remains a constant is the sense of “home”, the pride of having achieved a certain level of success. A sense of having control over your home and being able to make it personal. The knowledge that it will always be there.
Or will it?
As the desire for homeownership increases, the risks also increase. The headlines of late have been screaming about mortgage foreclosures. In some of the smaller text, foreclosures by HOAs to collect past due assessments, fines and the never-ending legal fees that seem to spiral out of control have also made headlines. Scams to defraud homeowners of their property and money abound.
Bill Davis and John Cowherd join us On The Commons this week. My two guests are pioneers in a way. They are among a very small handful of attorneys across the country who focus their respective practices on representing homeowners against their residential associations. Bill is in Texas and John in Northern Virginia. They talk about the many ways property owners lose their homes and explain how “condo terminations” work, what happens to property values and why some owners can force the sale of a condo even when the owner wants to stay and how the process also robs the reluctant sellers much of the equity they have built up.
Gone are the days when being a property owner meant having dominion over your property. With the imposition of mandatory membership residential associations and the restrictive covenants that are attached to the deed, homeowners have lost some of the most basic and fundamental rights of the use and enjoyment of their homes. Those restrictions range from something as basic and mundane as a choice of plants, to the approved shade of white for the interior window blinds to something a little more serious like having a fence to keep children and pets safe and even to having children and pets at all.
Are restrictive covenants and neighborhood Nazis the only threat to a property owner’s right to ownership?
Dr. Bonner Cohen joins us On The Commons this week. Dr. Cohen is a Senior Fellow with the National Center for Public Policy Research, a position he has had since 2002. He is also a Senior Policy Analyst with the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow; and the author of The Green Wave. Dr. Cohen takes us on a trip down memory lane and reminds us of the advantages and opportunities we enjoyed in the past and compares them to the way we live today. He explains how and why, slowly, very slowly, rights, education, health, wealth and the way we live have been adversely affected. He very clearly helps us follow the laws, regulations and policies that have stripped us of things we once enjoyed and took for granted. The changes were gradual, the results were by design and we never noticed them until they were here. Is it too late or can we wrest control of our world back from the special interests?
Residential America has changed dramatically over the last 50 years. Gone are the days when housing consumers bought a house or a plot of land and were lords of their mansions, kings or queens of their castles, where their word was law – within the confines of their property, of course. Increasingly living in residential America is more complicated, more restrictive and more expensive. Do American homeowners know and understand how and why their lives and homes have changed?
Donna Fossum joins us On The Commons this week. Donna is an attorney, a long time resident and condo owner in the City of Alexandria, Virginia. She was a senior policy analyst at the Rand Corporation, a former member of the Alexandria Planning Commission and a one time candidate for City Council. Donna, with her analytical background, has written the most comprehensive and complete report on the changing residential communities. After a lot of research, Donna discovers what is essentially two cities in one, divided more or less equally by the east side and the west side of the City of Alexandria. She explains how this shift resulted in double taxation for approximately half of the homeowners in Alexandria. But probably one of the most eye opening discoveries she made was the differences in the political process and participation by the citizens of the two different halves of the city. Tune in and hear her talk about all the issues that significantly affect the way we live in America today and read her report, Fossum Files . While her research and analysis centered on Alexandria, the same issues and resulting problems exist across the country.