"Are you familiar with Architectural Record?" Barbara Verchot asks. She opens the cover of her architect-husband Keith Ray's book, Contextual Architecture: Responding to Existing Style, which he authored for that high-end glossy's publishing company. Around Verchot, wind chimes twinkle, water gurgles and koi fish swim in the shallow pond that sits in her impeccably manicured backyard. Her $450,000 Winter Springs estate, located snugly in the gated community of Avery Park, boasts a backyard full of inventive landscaping ripped from the pages of a gardening magazine. Her own work as a landscape architect has landed her designs on the cover of Southern Living; it seems she knows what she's doing.
Some of her neighbors disagree. The Avery Park Homeowners Association — which governs the subdivision's 88 homes, and to which she says she pays $100 a month in fees — has zeroed in on her penchant for aesthetic variation. She says association members have cased her house, trespassed on her property and threatened her with foreclosure unless she abides by the deed restrictions the association forces on its members.
This is the new face of American homeownership. According to the New York Times, 20 million homes and 50 million people lived under HOAs' rule as of 2003, up 21 percent from five years earlier. In Florida (in which at least 5 million people live in deed-restricted communities) and elsewhere, homeowners associations take over where local governments leave off, regulating everything from landscaping to the presence of "for sale" signs to flags, fences and color schemes. The idea is to weed out riffraff that could depreciate property values for the entire neighborhood.
For the most part, the state washes its hands of the 15,000 HOAs that exist within its borders. Laws dictate boundaries — annual meetings, elections, access to records — but don't cover what HOAs can or can't restrict. Until 2004, the state didn't involve itself in homeowners associations at all. Then the Legislature passed a law mandating mediation and arbitration processes to settle disputes over deed-restriction violations and HOA elections, respectively. Since then, state officials say they've logged 2,000 complaints.
Last month, at the John Young Crossings subdivision in Orange County, a man hit an HOA president on the head with a shovel after the HOA president asked the man to move his truck off his grass. In Boca Raton, three residents of the Boca Grove Plantations, who pay $25,000 each annually in association fees, have sued to force the HOA to open up its financial books for inspection. So far they've anted up $100,000 in legal fees. In 2004, a South Florida man accused his HOA of nearly killing his wife, who thought she was having a heart attack, by erecting a gate (to limit traffic and allow residents to ride their horses freely) that cut off rescue workers' quickest route to his house, then giving the authorities the wrong key to the gate. In Boca Raton, a woman fought her HOA for two years over her mailbox. The association eventually gave in, but the battle cost her $5,000.
On the Internet, national groups like the American Homeowners Resource Center (www.ahrc.com) and local groups like Cyber Citizens for Justice (www.ccfj.net) serve as pipelines for the discontented, a place for those who feel that their HOA has been unfair or arbitrary. The natural tension that comes with any organization telling a property owner what to do on his or her land has played out all over the country.
"It almost seems like a jealousy thing," Verchot says of the Avery Park HOA. "These people are rabid with power."
The association has a different take. "Mrs. Verchot made a decision when she bought her house to be bound by the covenants," says Patrick Howell, the association's lawyer. In other words, she knew what she buying into, so she shouldn't complain.
Verchot says her problems started over a year ago when a neighbor expressed distaste for the viburnum trees she uses to block the view of her central air conditioning unit (which the association requires). The rules are different for bushes and trees in Avery Park, and the neighbor insisted that her tall viburnums were actually bushes that were too tall under the HOA's standards. Verchot responded that viburnums exist naturally as trees. She wrote a letter explaining her side and thought it would be let go at that. It wasn't.
More problems lay just around the corner. Verchot and her husband had submitted — and had approved by the association's architectural review board — an expansion on their backyard that would involve a 7-foot wall blocking the view of a proposed koi pond, which is now there. The approved plan included a screen enclosure, but they ended up going with their contractor's idea of a pergola enclosure instead. Meanwhile, the cement had already been poured for the screen enclosure, and construction was running behind. The HOA balked. On Aug. 22, Howell sent Verchot a letter demanding that she either bring her garden into compliance — which it would be if a screen were on top of it — or return her property to its original condition.
Verchot says she's offered other options — a fence, palm trees — but has gotten nowhere. Howell says that whether she has offered alternatives or not, she hasn't filed the proper documents with the review board.
"We consider this to be a ‘bait and switch,'" he says in a follow-up e-mail. Though Howell's firm represents more than 650 homeowners and condo associations, he points out that he doesn't live in one. They're not for everyone. But by buying property in a subdivision ruled by a homeowners association, you agree to play by the association's rules.
Nonetheless, Verchot is seething with frustration. Howell claims that her lawyer has been unresponsive to his requests for mediation; Verchot says that the association is still giving her seven-day ultimatums, and she's suspicious that somebody isn't telling the truth. She says the improvements to her property have done nothing but raise the property value. That her neighbors overlook that is just a sign of pettiness, she believes.
"I think these are people who are at the core insecure with themselves," says Verchot. "They attack people that they think are better than them."
Verchot spends much of her time as a humanitarian aid distributor on the Thai-Burmese border, a fact reflected in a multimedia display inside her art-studio loft. It also serves as a poignant contrast between the real crises she sees in the Third World, and the pretend crises she has to deal with at home.
"I want to go on with my life," she says. "You come back from literally trying to keep people from dying to people that, at their homeowners meeting, think this is a legitimate use of my money. Talking about people that have red gravel instead of mulch or white gravel instead of mulch … they really think this a legitimate use of their time and my money."firstname.lastname@example.org