Controlling the Common areas in a Condo or HOA–How Far is Too Far?

Everyone knows that condominium associations and homeowner’s associations have some control over the use of the common elements–it’s in fact part of the board’s job to make sure that the common areas are properly used and maintained.  But far too often moderating use for the good of the community becomes limiting the use of the few.

Habitat Magazine, one of the premier Condo/Co-Op publications out there, published a fantastic story about a group of Staten Island seniors who were prevented from gathering in their common areas in a bit of a personality-conflict pique with a board member.  However, in this case the owners sued, and they ultimately won a compromise judgement that allowed them to use the lobby and other areas at least twice a week.

One of the retirees, a group of four men who used to enjoy shooting the breeze in the lobby after dinnertime, exchanged words with a board member early 2009, and from that point onward the board began fining the group for gathering in the common areas.  The dispute eventually escalated to include the police, threats and a lawsuit.

In a recent court judgement, the group was given the ability to use the lobby twice a week and to meet outside as often as they like–which we’d all have to agree sounds eminently reasonable.  But why did this problem escalate into a court battle?  Why were the owners and the board not able to solve the problem themselves, as if they were neighbors in any other community?

And it’s not as if this situation is unique.  A few years ago an identical situation happened in Florida, where a group of older men would gather in their condo lobby after dinner, chatting and looking at the ladies.  That group’s activity also turned into a dispute with the board, who tried to prevent the men from gathering in the common area.

The simple fact is, condo and HOA boards DO have the ability to restrict use of the common areas, at least in ways that are consistent with the documents or are reasonably necessary to protect the common elements or prevent a nuisance.  For example, your condo could pass a rule that parties aren’t allowed in the club room after 10:00 PM, and it would be perfectly acceptable.  Or, your community could require that any gathering with more than 20 outside guests be registered with the management office (often necessary to control access and security).

But when a board begins to limit owners from congregating in their own, commonly-owned areas simply because one or more board members doesn’t like them, that clearly crosses the line from reasonable to petty.  And unfortunately, people are sometimes petty.  It’s not as if neighbor disputes are unique to shared-ownership communities–feuds are older than the Capulets and Montegues.  It’s only when neighbors share property, and a board is given control over that property’s use, that these feuds seem to boil over and make headlines.

So what can be done in your own community?  What happens when a board seems like they are pursuing a personal vendetta?  Well, your first course of action should always be to approach the board, preferably at an open meeting, and see if you can resolve your dispute.  Maybe it’s not as personal as you thought–maybe the board is pursuing the same violation against everyone.   Or maybe you just aren’t aware of a particular community rule (and remember, part of living in an SOC is abiding by the rules).  However, it’s also possible that a simple discussion with the board could clear the air and result in a reasonable compromise.  But certainly there are times that legal action is the only remedy.

And if you serve on the board of an SOC, make sure that your vigilant enforcement of common element restrictions doesn’t cross the line into personal attacks against your neighbors.  It’s your responsibility to be, pardon borrowing the phrase, fair and balanced, and to at least consider your neighbor’s needs.

Because, after all, we do still need to live together, and everyone ultimately just wants to get along.

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