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In your HOA, what do you value most: security, compliance, or personal privacy?

By Deborah Goonan

Roberts Rules of Order

If you are in a HOA and you need to know more about Robert's Rules of Order, click here. There is a chapter in the book just for HOA's.

In 2009, when my husband and I were house hunting in central Florida, we had a few key criteria. Having renovated two previous homes, we were looking for a newer house in move-in condition. The other requirement was a safe neighborhood with sidewalks and walking trails.

 In Central Florida, that meant every home we were shown was part of a planned community with a Homeowners’ Association. Practically every Florida home built after 1970 is part of some sort of HOA, most of them Mandatory HOAs.

 At the time, having never lived under HOA governance, we had only a vague idea of what we were getting into. After touring several communities with homes in our price range, we settled in on one particular gated community, mainly because we assumed it would be safer and more secure than non-gated communities. I thought the 24/7 guarded security gates would be a great benefit. As it turned out, I was wrong.

 We lived in the HOA community for about 4 years, and then concluded the socio-political structure of a Master Planned HOA didn’t mesh well with our long-term goals and our social values. We have since moved to another residence that is not part of a Homeowners’ Association.

 In this article, I will share my thoughts on how personal freedoms and privacy are often compromised in the HOA environment.

 Privacy in your HOA

When it comes to Privacy for residents of HOAs, the perceived need for security and sometimes extreme expectations of the HOA – represented by its Board of Directors – can trump the rights of individual residents, especially owners, to live in relative peace and dignity.

 Of course, most people are aware of the sometimes unreasonable or crazy Rules that HOA boards enforce. But the list of rules and regulations is just part of the picture.

The underlying issue is how far HOAs will go to ensure absolute security, exclusivity of the community, and compliance with the rules.

 Gated Communities and 24/7 Guards

From personal experience I can tell you that, quite often, no one knows more about your personal business than HOA security guards. Think about it. These “gatekeepers” maintain a log of all your regular contractors, your recurring or occasional visitors. They know who is having an affair or having domestic problems, whose vehicle is being repossessed, whose house is listed for sale, which residents drive under the influence, and more. They know when you have a sewer back up, or a chronically leaky roof. What if you don’t particularly want the guards to know about one of your visitors? For instance, what if you are engaged in a construction defect warranty claim dispute with your developer. Do you really want the guards to know you have hired your own inspector to serve as an expert witness? Of course not, so instead owners have to say the visitor is their friend or relative.

 Yes, we can hope that our security guards exercise professional discretion. But I can tell you that some do not. I once had a security officer volunteer how much a neighbor overpaid for his home!

 Are gated communities safer? Well, not necessarily, because the presence of the gates and guards often evokes a false sense of security and complacency among residents. That means residents may not be paying close attention to their surroundings, and who does and doesn’t belong. It means some foolhardy individuals even leave their doors unlocked. The truth is, gated communities have their fair share of crime, from vandalism and theft to personal assaults. Guards get to know the “regular” contractors and visitors, and wave them right through, or even issue a pass. A few of those turn out to be perpetrators.

 Unguarded, automatic gates are even easier to circumvent, by learning the gate codes or piggy backing a resident’s vehicle.

 Quite a few gated communities have porous borders – areas that are unprotected by a wall or other barrier meant to deter unauthorized entry. Of course, that negates the effects of the gates.

 Code enforcers with digital cameras or Smart Phones

One of the most insidious violations of privacy in HOAs is the “Enforcers.” These are the members of the Compliance Committee or perhaps staff members of the Management Company that drive around the HOA, investigating alleged violations of CC&Rs and related Board-enacted Rules.

 In the previous homes we owned that were not part of a HOA regime, when a problem became apparent with a neighbor, we actually talked to the neighbor in person. Of course, we tried to get acquainted with most of our neighbors from the start. That made it much easier to approach one another if an issue should arise. There were a few issues: one with a neighbor’s pet (the dog attacked another dog down the street), one with the neighbor’s kids tossing fireworks into our yard. Both issues were resolved after some conversation. The dog was constrained in a secure dog run and shelter. The kids were sent over to clean up their mess, and to apologize. All was forgiven, and they never repeated that sort of mischief.

 Of course, we didn’t really care if the lawns were perfectly weed-free, or what kind of whimsical holiday décor was displayed. Everyone had a basketball hoop or kids’ bikes or toys in the driveway, and sometimes garage doors were left up for hours at a time. We all survived, none the worse for the wear.

 One time my neighbors had to call township code enforcement to get his neighbor to remove his gigantic RV from the narrow street. It was causing a safety hazard for kids walking to and from the bus stop. The Township issued a warning letter threatening to fine, and the neighbor promptly moved the RV to avoid the fine.

 But in many HOAs, the “enforcers” embark on a mission, camera in hand, to seek out any and all transgressions, no matter how minor, for the purposes of issuing nasty grams and fines. To be fair, some HOAs merely verify neighbor reports of a problem, at times concluding the report has no merit. It all depends on the quality of the HOA leadership and management team. In one Florida HOA, a Veteran has been fined for displaying a small flag in a flowerpot placed near his front door. The situation has spiraled far out of control, resulting in several legal suits and the threat of foreclosure by the HOA.  A few years ago in Virginia, owners were fined for displaying a Presidential campaign sign that was just a few inches larger than the official restriction. This dispute also spiraled out of control, and the owners eventually prevailed in a legal suit, which led the HOA to file for bankruptcy. There have been fines issued for leaving the garbage cans out too long after trash collection, for walking one’s dog on a leash that is a foot too long, for planting new trees that are 2-ft tall instead of the required 4-ft tall. You get the idea.

 Is it really necessary to have your neighbors or a manager stalking about the neighborhood, taking photos of your private property, on a fishing expedition for violations that disrupt – in their minds – perfection in Utopia? Is it realistic to expect people to maintain their properties in “ready-to-show” condition, as if perpetually listed for sale?

 Security Cameras and Drones

A relatively new trend in HOA-Land and beyond is the use of video cameras and drones for round-the-clock surveillance. Big Brother is watching you at the traffic light, while you shop, at transportation stations and airports, in government buildings, and now – probably in your rental community or HOA.

 Why?

 Does video surveillance actually deter crime, or merely record it, to be used later as legal evidence?

 Recently, at a Chicago-area condominium, a resident was violently assaulted in plain view of the security camera placed at the entrance to the community. No one was watching to video monitors at the time. The woman has sued the security company for not preventing or stopping the assault. The truth is no one is watching each and every second of video being recorded by each and every camera. And, even if someone were watching, and promptly dialed 911, it might not have stopped the attack.

 Yet, if you look around, you may very well notice cameras focused on entry gates, condo lobbies, community pools and playgrounds, the club house, the fitness center, and any other common areas. Take some time to ponder how comfortable you are with being watched and recorded all over the HOA.

 And, if you think HOAs have gone too far with stationary security cameras, then you will be appalled to learn that now some HOAs are experimenting with drone technology, for mobile surveillance, and gaining a bird’s eye view of just about any home, yard, vehicle, or person in the HOA.

 Do we want a paparazzi environment for everyone in HOA Land?

 Not to mention the high potential for abuse - for those HOAs that are prone to enforce rules against unpopular residents, especially the ones who dare to ask to see official records, or who challenge the Board in any way. Instead of driving around the neighborhood, just send up a drone or two!

 A drone flying overhead to spy on residents for the purpose of detecting misconduct or alleged violations amounts to a warrant-less search of private property, in this writer’s opinion.

 In the US, the law says a search warrant is needed, based on probable cause, to invade someone's personal property in search of evidence of wrongdoing. Landlord tenant law is equally clear that the tenant's leased property is private, and that the landlord must provide notice before entering, barring an emergency situation or apparent abandonment. Should HOA residents, owners included, have fewer rights than tenants living outside of HOA Land?

 There is a line that should not be crossed, and we better be clear about where to draw the line.

 While there may be some rare, extenuating circumstances that warrant an invasion of privacy, it will be up to concerned citizens to tell your HOA, or your State Legislators, where we need to draw that line.

 Where does it all end?

So far we have been discussing the use of cameras on drones, but let’s not miss the important point that drones have also been known to carry weapons!

 Who is to say if and when video surveillance turns into an armed aircraft? That is what makes me and others squirm. 

The potential uses of drone video monitoring would have to be very limited at best - as a last ditch effort, if at all. Preferably, in matters of crime detection and prevention, law enforcement would just do their job and make it unnecessary for the HOA to go that far. Ditto for egregious code violations - preferably the city or county would assist the HOA. Every once in a great while, we do see a homeowner that literally turns his or her property into a dump. There was a recent case here in central Florida, not in an HOA, and the County had to finally issue an ultimatum to the owner - 'clean up the trash or we will foreclose on your million dollar lien!' The owner has serious issues that probably involve mental illness. He did clean up the yard - for now.

 But, really, those kinds of extreme code violation cases are so rare. On the other hand, it is far more common to see Board members abusing power over petty rules and trivial violations.

A dilemma results when police and code enforcement avoid getting involved in HOA issues, insisting they are "private" matters. So it is understandable that a well-meaning Board would be frustrated and looking for solutions. The Board will want to "catch 'em in the act" to prove their case. But at what cost? To what lengths should we go?

 Incidentally, it is even MORE difficult for an owner (not on the Board) to obtain evidence of wrongdoing by a Board member or Manager. Police and/or code enforcement and/or local regulatory agencies generally refuse to help owners unless they have some blatant evidence that money is missing, that laws are being violated, or that HOA residents are being harmed by action or inaction of the Board/Manager. It's a Catch 22 situation. Owners cannot get meaningful investigation or assistance without "proof" that there is a good reason for it!

 We can see where an owner might be tempted to consider drone technology to document violations by the Board member or Manager - particularly if that owner has been targeted by the HOA!

 I drone you - you drone me. But where will it end?

 We do not need more HOA conflicts that end in violence.