Fines and Evictions During a Pandemic: The Unruly Power of the Homeowner Association

Posted: Apr 01, 2020 6:30 PM

Under the guise of creating uniform communities and encouraging thoughtful neighborhood behavior, some homeowners' associations in America have been enforcing rules that make life even harder during a national crisis.

The notoriety of HOAs is familiar to many and generally associated with frivolous rules about what colors a house can be painted, shrubbery upkeep, and, of course, paying a sizable fee to the association itself. But the fine print so many Americans sign as almost an afterthought to their mortgage is typically far more sinister and gives these small neighborhood authorities a shocking amount of power.

In Florida, a nurse's story received significant attention early this week after her HOA left a stealth note on an auxiliary mobile home she parked in her driveway. Sarah Lynch, who had been working via telemedicine from home, predicted that she would soon be called to the frontlines and brought the family's RV to the house thinking she may need to quarantine in order to keep her family safe. Lynch, who is the mother of a special needs child, knew that having the large vehicle in her driveway was not permitted by the HOA but assumed normal rules would be relaxed in the face of the pandemic. She was wrong.

Just days after retrieving her RV from an off-site storage facility, Lynch found a note affixed to the vehicle from the HOA which said to either remove the large vehicle immediately or pay $100 per day in fines for keeping it there. Both Lynch and her husband, a Department of Defense employee, are considered essential workers and she felt the RV could be needed in the interest of public safety. Lynch said there was no attempt from the HOA to contact her or to discuss the need for the vehicle.

"They had a big argument, discussion via the board without speaking to us and decided that we needed to remove our RV or we would be charged $100 a day, up to $1,000, if we left it here," Lynch said to a local television station.

Beyond extraordinary, however common, threats such as implementing large fines and even seizing family dogs for defecating where they shouldn't, HOAs actually have the authority to foreclose on residents' homes. Most HOA laws, which operate completely independently from the federal and local government, give the tiny authoritarian organizations the power to deal directly with mortgage lenders to force residents out of their homes. Unbound by homestead and private property laws, threats of eviction from the HOA are anything but idle; they can take your home from you for any reason you agreed to in the fine print.

Another HOA in Tennessee issued a 30-day "notice to vacate" to all tenants and owners in a building of condominiums who they "observed" to be working from home, a violation of their rules. 

"Commercial business may not be maintained or transacted on any Lot or in any residential unit," the notice stated. "We have determined that this includes any work-from-home activities, and have determined through observing your activities that you are engaged in such activities." With no warning, the HOA then said flatly that the tenant, whether an owner or lessee, must leave the building by the end of April for such a grievous infraction as working from home.

"We will be invoking Section II, Article 4 of the Bylaws, which allows the Board to foreclose on any property that is in violation." The notice, signed by the HOA president read, "You must vacate the premises by April 30, 2020." With all non-essential business shuttered and 80% of the country under mandatory stay-at-home orders, it was not clear where the soon-to-be homeless residents would go.

While some credit the associations for keeping the real estate value of homes high by stopping neighbors from painting their houses odd colors or keeping junky cars on their lawn, most have come to consider them an expensive nuisance. The ugly history behind the HOA is also steeped in racism; many post-WWII neighborhood associations began with strict rules about not allowing Jewish, African American, or Asian residents.

"No part of said property hereby conveyed shall ever be used or occupied by any Hebrew or by any person of the Ethiopian, Malay or any Asiatic Race, and the party of the second part his heirs, personal representatives or assigns, shall never place any such person in the possession or occupancy of said property or any part thereof," said one Seattle neighborhood association covenant. This practice was common across the country until the Fair Housing Act of 1968 forbid racial discrimination by HOAs.

Beyond the speckled past of HOAs and putting aside their rulebooks full of invasive and restricting "laws," the lack of empathy expressed by these two examples shows what a menace they have become in the freest country in the world. In a time in which so many selfless American businesses and citizens have stepped up to help their neighbors, these associations are maintaining the status quo by not letting "member" homeowners forget who's really in charge.