The (Condo) Good Life

Posted June 5th, 2009 at 3:53 pm (UTC-4)
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I was going to write about Carol’s and my recent visit to Monument Valley, in sweeping Navajo tribal land on the Arizona-Utah border. But I need to spend a tad more time “studying up” on Navajo history and culture in order to put this awesome terrain in context. Next posting, I’ll show you some of Carol’s stunning images and paint some (less-stunning) word pictures as well. I’m pretty sure that the formations of Monument Valley, 65 million years in the making, won’t have changed much in the next few days.


Do Good HOAs Make Good Neighbors?

Last week, I was reading one of the “news obituaries” in the Washington Post or the New York Times – I can’t recall which. In fact, I don’t remember the name of, or many details about, the man whose life story was recounted. I asked my VOA colleague and cubicle-farm neighbor, Faith Lapidus, if she had perhaps read the same obit and could help. She replied, “No, I’m not old enough to be reading the obituaries.”

There’s some truth in that.

In case you’re wondering, a news obituary differs from the short testimonials to the ordinary dearly departed that are a staple of every local newspaper. News obituaries are short biographies, not a recitation of the deceased’s job résumés, fraternal affiliations, and extended relatives. News obits don’t describe funeral arrangements or the charities to which donations may be sent in lieu of sending flowers to the survivors.

What jumped out at me about this man, whoever he was, was what the obit writer described as “his passion” – directing and enforcing the strict rules of his condominium association.

What an odd thing to be passionate about, I thought.

Guarded gates greet visitors to some luxury communities across America. And many of them are especially fussy about keeping up appearances

Homeowner, condo, subdivision, and other “co-operative” associations that attempt to establish reasonable neighborhood standards (as one viewpoint would have it) or heartlessly trample the right of free expression (as others see it), are examples of, to put it politely, “dynamic tensions” that exist among neighbors in such communities. Tempers flare when neighbors start telling each other what they can and cannot do with their property. That’s why, as a Las Vegas resident told the local newspaper, “HOA” stands for “homeowners’ association” to some and “Home Owners with Attitude” to others.

This is The Villages, a “retirement lifestyle center” in Ocala, Florida

Homeowner associations are legal entities, and some are registered nonprofit corporations as well. States like Florida and California, where millions of retirees own and live in apartments, attached condominiums, and single-family homes in planned or gated clusters with names like “Sunnyside Commons” and “The Estates at Babbling Brook,” give associations all sorts of power. They can write “covenants” regulating design and behavior standards, enforce the rules with fines and even evictions, and charge monetary “assessments” to each household to cover shared maintenance of trees, parks, swimming pools and tennis courts, strips of grass along the street, and walking trails. Up north, some homeowners’ associations even plow the streets in wintertime with the money they collect.

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In co-op apartment buildings, residents pay the doorman and other staff. The doorman usually has the best of it. He gets the most tips

In hotel-sized, owner-occupied apartment towers with swanky monikers like “The Excelsior,” condo associations collect the money that pays the salaries and benefits, if any, of front-desk clerks, doormen, maintenance workers, housekeepers, pool cleaners and the like.

Most residents gladly pay these assessments. Having someone else sweep up fallen palm-tree fronds and negotiate good rates for basic cable service throughout a building or neighborhood is one less hassle that they have to worry about.

But all is not so rosy when it comes to “special” assessments and “architectural control” from the HOA.

Here’s an example of the former:

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Townhouses in a long row can look as different as night and day. But they share some walls and a common roof, which means that tough decisions must be made come repair time

You live in a rowhouse community, side-by-side with your neighbors – in individual units but under a common roof. When the aging roof begins to leak above one unit, your condo board decides that the entire roof needs replacing, and it passes a one-time assessment in the thousands of dollars to pay for it – to be divided among all the households.

This may not sit well with you if the roof has never leaked above your place.

Kaua`i's Pu`u o Kila Lookout
Many HOAs have a tolerance for cuties like this

Disputes over pets and kids also get tempers flaring in cooperative communities. A state like Florida has thousands of “55-plus” condo and neighborhood developments, designed and equipped for retirees.

Kaua`i's Pu`u o Kila Lookout
And not so much for bowsers of this size

The homeowner association may allow lap-sized pets like precious Fritzy or Fifi, but ban bruisers named Bruno and Butch. This does not please those who’d like to bring in a mastiff puppy for companionship. Sad or tragic life experiences sometimes force grandparents to inherit the care of young children, and it’s a tricky and contentious matter for the owner association to tell the old folks that their own flesh and blood is banned by covenant and cannot stay.

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Homeowners’ associations typically take a dim view of yard signage, not to mention the idea of footloose renters moving into the community

Many HOAs forbid members from renting their homes, or even a room or two, in the belief that itinerant renters have no inherent interest in maintaining the property. They’re viewed as undesirables who’ll introduce large families, loud music and late-night carousing, strange cooking odors, suspicious strangers, drugs and crime.

But homeowners who lose a job or a loved one and could use the extra income from a rental have a hard time understanding why they can’t rent out something they own.

Kaua`i's Pu`u o Kila Lookout
“Excuse me, Madam President, but did you say I CAN’Tscreen in my front porch?”

Thus a seat on a condo or subdivision’s board of directors can be the quintessential “thankless job.” To top it off, it’s usually unpaid. Board members call meetings that few attend – until a storm brews over a controversial issue. Then the room can be packed with snarling people who call them liars, thieves, witches, Nazis, incompetent idiots and worse. Even board members can end up at each other’s throats over volatile matters like opening a private beach to outsiders, making a club room smoke-free, or allowing residents to “run a little business” out of their homes. People have even come to blows over issues as minute as the allowable dimensions of hanging birdhouses.

It’s not like having a disagreement at work. HOA matters involve neighbors who see each other all the time and may be stuck with each other for years to come.

As “The Cooperator,” the monthly online co-op and condo newsletter noted, board membership “is not exactly a walk in the park.” It quoted a 1976 Wake Forest [University] Law Review article: “Too often, Board members approach their Association responsibilities as if they were on the committee of a social club, religious group, or other similar organization.”

Instead, they find themselves in charge of thousands of dollars of community members’ money, and if they don’t do well they can face serious legal problems, including lawsuits and criminal charges.

Earlier I mentioned, but did not explain, “architectural control” – “control” being the operative word. Nothing, but nothing, gets people worked up as much as this facet of condominium or subdivision life.

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There’s a certain sameness to many housing tracts – which is just the way some HOAs like it

These communities were often developed by a builder, developer, or apartment-building owner according to a master plan. “Units,” including single-family houses, were designed to project a consistent, predictable “look” based on similar building materials, floor plans, balcony and deck configurations, landscaping features – even exterior paint schemes.

A look that you could accept or walk away from when you considered moving in.

You might, for instance, choose a community because of its Victorian ambience – classic gabled houses painted in a limited variety of pastels and graced with nostalgic wraparound porches. The uniformity of style increases the neighborhood appeal and property values.

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“Uh, interesting color scheme, but we don’t think so. And by the way, you’ve hung the American flag backward.”

And homeowner associations exist to keep it that way. No funky, cubist lawn sculptures, please. No day-glo-orange window trim. No loud music after 10 p.m. No liberation flags in the window. No outrageous additions that turn modest dwellings into elephantine “McMansions.”

Inside, you can go wild if you like. Even tear out some walls. But don’t mess with the exterior without permission of the association board.

And don’t hold your breath waiting to get it.

Kaua`i's Pu`u o Kila Lookout
Cute. Warmhearted. Not allowed. Sorry

The homeowner association can even regulate nuanced decorative touches that one wouldn’t think would offend anyone: Display an American flag in the window? Hang a Jewish mezuzah on the doorjamb or string pretty Christmas lights on the roof? Stick a satellite dish of modest size – “modest” being a relative term – out of sight in the back yard? Put a cute white picket fence around the garden?

Maybe, maybe not. Depends on the association covenants and the imperial rulings of its Architectural Control Committee.

Now, to those who argue “a man’s home is his castle,” to which he can do just about anything he pleases, this all sounds as if self-appointed neighborhood vigilantes are preserving mindless conformity captured in Malvina Reynolds’s song “Little Boxes,” famously performed by Pete Seeger in the 1960s . . .

Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky-tacky,
Little boxes, little boxes,
Little boxes, all the same.

Well, like it or not, the condo or homeowner association has the force of law behind its authority. It can fine you or even kick you out if you don’t go along with its dictates.

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Rules, rules, rules. They’re what make some HOA volunteers’ world go ‘round

A friend of mine, whom I will not name for reasons you’ll understand once I quote him, lives in a lovely high-rise condominium. He’s kept a close eye on relations between the residents and the condo board. He may even be on it, for all I know. And he sent me an entertaining account of, as he puts it, “a few of the inane, ridiculous and sublime things we’ve run into in the years we’ve been here.”

It’s instructive to quote him in full, minus a few of his intemperate interjections:

Kaua`i's Pu`u o Kila Lookout
“Look out below!”

1. We have a balcony that is partially exposed to anything which our fellow residents may discard from their balconies on upper floors. We make great use of this area to relax in the evenings. This became a problem when the lady [on a higher floor] decided she was entitled to wash her windows and balcony floor. That in itself sounds somewhat innocent. However, her drain scuppers deposited literal cascades of dirty water onto our balcony. There is an absolute prohibition in our bylaws against throwing anything, even CLEAN water, off a balcony since those below might be injured or have their right to enjoy their property impaired.

We made a formal complaint to the management. Presently, the neighbor appeared at our door to negotiate. She took the position that we ought to allow her to dump her waste water off her balcony onto ours on a weekly basis. She was willing to settle for every two weeks if we really pressed the point. She was dumbfounded that we would not agree amongst ourselves to violate the building’s bylaws. She lost that argument and to this day will not speak to us, which I regard as a victory in itself.

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“If we let you hang flags, pretty soon you’ll be putting out your wash on the railing.”

2. This one was really dicey. An upper-floor resident began displaying a large American flag on the outer portion of his balcony railing. You could see it for hundreds of yards. Once again, the bylaws are strict and unmistakable. Nothing can be hung from a balcony. No exceptions. The condo Board agonized over how to approach the fellow without seeming to be anti-American or at least anti-flag. One bright fellow, he isn’t even a lawyer, found some obscure (to me) federal statute that specifies exactly how and under what conditions an American flag may be displayed. The resident was in gross violation of this statute, particularly the part which demands that the flag be reverently taken down at sunset. He was horrified to learn of his transgression, and he hasn’t displayed the flag since.

Hawaiian flag
Your HOA is watching you!

3. At virtually every Board meeting I have attended, at least one resident has objected to the presence of security cameras in the building. We have a large number of them strategically placed to record all activity, 24/7, in the COMMON areas of our building. Areas such as the lobby, exercise room, party room, mail room, pool deck and parking garages are all under surveillance. Typically it takes the association President only a minute or two to ascertain that the objecting resident has somehow gotten it into her head that the security cameras are in HER apartment recording every moment of her existence. Even after it is carefully explained that the cameras only monitor activities in the public areas, she usually objects and wants to know if the people who are entitled to review the recordings have had proper background checks. Happily, our President is the proud possessor of federal security clearances that, as he puts it, “I am prohibited by federal statute from describing to you.” That has always ended the discussion.

Kaua`i's Pu`u o Kila Lookout
Has the Architectural Control Committee seen this??

A few people still encourage their precious pets to poop in the terribly expensive landscaping around the building, but we caught a few on camera and they’ve been fined. Some people prop open doors to the outside or garages for their own momentary convenience and then forget to close them. That compromises our security. Similarly, last summer a resident decided to invite a group of friends over for a pool party. Unfortunately, his party took place around midnight after the pool had been closed for hours. The security cameras revealed that it was clearly a “clothing optional” event. I was hoping the videos would be screened publicly with light refreshments served, but legal counsel overruled me.

“I could go on,” my friend’s account wound down, “but you get the picture.”

He noted that in his state, those who enter into a contract to buy a condo are required by law to receive all bylaws and other documents in advance of closing. This allows someone who just can’t live with the regimentation an opportunity to get out of the deal without penalty. “Of course,” my friend noted, “virtually no one actually reads the documents.

“In our case, we did and decided the tradeoffs were ones we could live with.”

Somewhere in this tug-of-war between conformists who like things just so – “condo commandos,” a friend in Miami calls them – and those who think homeowners ought to be able to express their various tastes through the appearance of their property, lies some interesting psychology. It takes a certain kind of person to give up many nights and weekends, drafting homeowner association rules, rewriting charters for obscure committees, calling and faithfully attending board meetings, and keeping a vigil for “architectural” transgressions.

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“You can’t fool me. I know you’re with the HOA violation inspection team!”

A colleague here at VOA who served for several years on such a board told me that some of the board members actually walked the neighborhood in a pack, clipboards in hand, peering into their neighbors’ yards to check for obscure “violations” like unburied television cables and fences that aren’t plumb. She believes that gung-ho immersion in neighborhood affairs can be a power trip for some, or a nearly obsessive-compulsive desire to “keep up community standards” for others.

“But in their hearts, they believe they’re motivated by altruism,” she says – “a desire to serve.”

Some people – perhaps like the fellow profiled in that news obituary – seem to thrive on the challenge of HOA service. But others steer so clear of getting involved that many owner associations have been forced to hire hard-hearted outside management companies to run their affairs.

Such is life for condominium, co-op, and homeowners’ associations.

Or Home Owners With Attitude.


Would You Believe?

If you read a checklist – author or source unidentified – that’s widely circulated on the Web, it’s a miracle that anyone born in America before 1980 is still alive.

Borrowing from and elaborating on it, just think:

When we were in the womb, our mothers ate bleu cheese dressing and tuna from a can, took aspirin, had a drink or two, and smoked.

Kaua`i's Pu`u o Kila Lookout
Look ma, no hands. And no helmet, either

As toddlers, we had no childproof lids or locks on medicine bottles, doors, or cabinets.

We rode our bikes clear across town and back, and the only thing on our heads was a Cleveland Indians baseball cap.

We ate cupcakes and white bread, and we drank sugary soda pop. (I used to spend my paper-route money on cases of returnable bottles of R.C. Cola. If you don’t believe it, ask my dentist today.) Rapture was sinking our teeth into a richly marbled steak, or lobster drenched in melted butter, or – more likely in our modest circumstances – two or three boxes of Good & Plenty licorice candy at the movie show. But we weren’t overweight because we were always outside playing. We even passed around that bottle of pop, and two or three or four friends would put their actual lips on it!

Sometimes we’d go over to a friend’s house – friends were human kids then, not Internet avatars. We’d play football, build treehouses, swing on swings, fall and cut ourselves or break a bone. And – you won’t believe this – no one sued our parents when we did.

We made up games rather than buying them, and some of them involved sharp objects or Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-Shot Air Rifle guns that did not put out an eye.

Not everyone made the Little League baseball team. Those who didn’t got over it. Only winning teams got trophies. There were no “participation” ribbons.

Some students did better than we did in school. And if we caused trouble and were disciplined, our parents sided with . . . the teachers. Imagine!

In college, we hitchhiked.

We rode in cars with no seat belts or air bags. Riding in the back of a pickup truck was a treat.

We drank water straight from the garden hose. (I swear it!)

We had no video games; had only three fuzzy, black-and-white TV channels to watch; owned no cell phones, had no way to “download” music or take and view photographs on the spot.

We had no computers at all. Imagine!

Hawaiian flag
“What did I tell you about the sun?”

The point that some people take from all this is that since millions of people not only survived these harrowing times but even went on to become risk-takers, innovators, leaders, and blog writers, the government and do-gooder activist groups should butt out of everyday life and let people take their lumps.

It’s a facile and tempting conclusion. But surely there’s a reasonable middle ground between slathering our lives with regulations and letting the weak and strong, poor and wealthy, slow and brilliant, unlucky and lucky fend for themselves.

Kaua`i's Pu`u o Kila Lookout
None of these is Mother

I do miss lead-based paint that spread so smoothly and lasted forever. But then, I don’t, any more, have toddlers crawling across the porch and teething on banister rails. My mom smoked like a steam locomotive and drank a Miller High Life now and then, probably even while she was pregnant with me, and I turned out OK in some people’s estimation.

Yet I’m glad that someone warns expectant mothers to knock those things off today. I won’t so much as back out of the driveway without a buckled seat belt, thanks to safety campaigns. And having once seen what happens when a motorcyclist who’s struck by a car is propelled through a windshield, I’m happy that most states require cyclists to put something hard on their heads. I’m pleased that makers of fast and processed food must now tell me what all they put in their products. Because someone just might put an eye out, I don’t mind it a bit that, inside each box that they sell, BB-gun makers must list firearm-safety rules as long as your arm. Even the ugly health-warning label on my box of poker-game cigars makes a lot of sense to me.

To Carol’s consternation, I still drink out of the garden hose, love bleu cheese dressing, drink a beer and smoke those cigars now and then. Regulators or no regulators.


Here’s another list that makes a good lead-in to WILD WORDS. An old radio colleague, Jim Slade, sends around a gentle humor compendium that he calls “Gadfly.” And in a recent edition, contributor John Taylor asked some questions:

Kaua`i's Pu`u o Kila Lookout

If a word is misspelled in the dictionary, how would we know?
If Webster wrote the first dictionary, where did he find the words?
Why do we say that something is “out of whack”? What’s a whack?
Why do “fat chance” and “slim chance” mean the same thing?
Why do “tug” boats push their barges?
Why do Americans sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” when we are already there?
At the game, how is that we “sit” in the “stands”?
Why, at night, is it “after dark” rather than “after light”?
And John’s capper: Doesn’t “expecting the unexpected” make the unexpected expected?

You may have to think about that last one awhile!


(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Avatar. Lots of young people know this word well. Online, it stands for a computer representation of oneself – an alter ego that looks and acts much like a human. The word traces to Hindu mythology, in which a god comes to earth in human form.

BB gun. An air gun, or one that fires small, round, metal projectiles called BBs using a spring. It’s sometimes said that “BB” was taken from industrial “ball bearing” pellets, but it actually originated from the size of lead shot used in some shotguns – BB was in between the B and BBB sizes. A number of companies have developed less-dangerous toy alternatives that employ plastic pellets.

Cubicle farm. A sarcastic reference to an array of small office workspaces, each surrounded by partitions to give their inhabitants the illusion of privacy. At VOA, we call one such arrangement in our large newsroom “Podland.”

Mezuzah. A small scroll containing handwritten passages from Jewish sacred writings that is stored in a protective case and hung on a doorpost. The mezuzah serves as a reminder of God’s presence in the house.

Slather. To spread generously. Mayonnaise on a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich, for instance.

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Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


June 2009
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