A Flagstaff Community Experience: The Down Housing Market Affects a Small Condo Complex and the Stress of a Self-Managed HOA Makes Matters Worse

For today’s blog, we have something a bit different.  Laura, from Flagstaff, Arizona, wrote a very nice article that I wanted to share with you that details some of her own frustrations in moving into a new home in a shared ownership community (not the one pictured, by the way).

For me, the entire purpose of this blog is to allow people to share ideas and comments that help us navigate the complex, and not always positive, world of shared ownership.  Frustrations and negative experiences are certainly part of that experience, and I’m happy to be able to share the thoughts of one of my readers.  Once you’ve read Laura’s article I encourage you to post your own comments or suggestions to help Laura and her community get back on the right track.  Is Laura’s story just one of a bad SOC with bad neighbors, or is it a failure of the system?  In my next blog I’m going to provide my own thoughts, but first I am interested in seeing what our readership has to say.  Fair warning, though–I’m going to remove any comments that are either ad-hominem attacks on SOC’s or even blind praise.  This isn’t a cheerleading contest for one side or the other in this ever-present debate–it’s an opportunity to constructively help a frustrated owner, using our own experiences as a guide.  So I hope you all enjoy this experiment, and if you would like your own condo or HOA story posted, please email it to me through the website–I’d be happy to consider all articles for future publication.  I don’t make a dime off of this blog–I do it purely for the sake of doing so.  So all thoughts and comments are welcome!

A Flagstaff Community Experience

by Laura

When my husband and I first moved to Flagstaff we were filled with expectations that we would be raising our son in a community environment with lots of safe activities, friends, and great schools. At the time, the housing market was booming and looking for a house that we could afford was difficult. Our choices were an older home in lower Greenlaw that may or may not have turned into a money pit and a brand new condo on the edge of Sunny Side that would have a home warranty.

Having never lived in an apartment or a condominium, the prospect of being so close to our neighbors did not sound appealing; but the community that was being built had promise. All of the people who lived in the complex of only 11 units were professionals, they were around our age, and the ones that had already moved in had formed friendships. We were looking forward to becoming friends with them and becoming a part of the community.

Another thing that made an impact on our decision was the fact that the complex had an owner’s association with a set of Conditions, Covenants, and Restrictions–otherwise known as CC&Rs. Having been a part of an HOA down in Phoenix we thought that having CC&Rs would keep the property looking nice and provide for neighbors who wouldn’t get, in our view, “too crazy”. That’s what we thought, but that is not what happened.

My first encounter with our neighbors was actually an encounter with their dogs. Before we moved in to our new place my husband and I wanted to paint the walls. So every day I would go over to the condo, park in the community parking spot outside our unit, and take my son upstairs to play with his toys while I painted the walls. One day my 2-year-old son was not feeling well so I carried him back down to the car. As I reached the door two small dogs came tearing out into the driveway and jumped up at me and my son. My son started crying as the couple who owned the dogs came out of their unit, called the dogs to them, looked at me like “who the hell is that,” and then turned and walked down the drive to take their dogs on a walk. I put my son in his car seat and picked up his sock that one of the dogs had taken off of his foot. In the commotion I thought that he had started crying because he was startled awake by the dogs but as I put his sock on I discovered that the dog had bitten his foot and left a mark.

Now, the CC&Rs that we all signed when we moved in says that all pets must be on a leash, but I didn’t even know the couple’s names yet and I wanted to fit in and be a part of this community. I didn’t want to start off on the wrong foot by picking a fight over their lack of leashes. Besides, my son was fine, they never broke the skin; they were just over-excited dogs. Right? Yeah, well, that’s what I thought. And I regret my decision to keep my mouth shut every day.

My next encounter with this community was after we had moved in. My husband had painted the garage floor, so we were parking in the parking space by our unit until it dried. One of the neighbors that I had met when we were looking at the place came over and knocked on my door. She asked me if I could move my car because she had company coming and told me that “they,” meaning all the units who moved in before us, had agreed that those spaces were to be for guests only. I politely agreed to move my car and suggested that we clean up the empty garages of the two units still under construction and use those for additional parking. In fact I decided that I could show how I was a good neighbor by cleaning out the garages myself and letting whoever needed them to park there.

When my husband came home and I told him what had transpired that day he was not happy at all. What I didn’t know at the time was that the woman’s husband’s car was parked in the parking spaces for two weeks while we were trying to move in. I had to haul boxes from the street to the condo because our garage was filled with construction stuff, and his car and one of the workers were parked every day in the spaces that they all agreed would be for guest parking. On top of all of this, after I cleaned out both of the garages he pulled his car out of his garage and parked it in the freshly swept garage.

These kinds of situations, though small, have plagued us for the past five years. The owner’s association is run by the homeowners, and so none of the rules are enforced and complaints as to breaking the rules are brought up based on who is liked or disliked. Some people get a free pass because of who they are and some people don’t. It’s the small things that add up, the little indecencies that people do to you that wear you down until you can’t go outside anymore because you don’t want to see or have to interact with your neighbors.

I have two children now and I feel like a prisoner in my own home. I don’t want the kids to play outside because I’m afraid the neighbors will accuse them of breaking something. My husband won’t work on any projects because he is afraid that we will receive complaints about noise or probing questions about what he is working on and people would begin to tell him he can’t work on certain things in his own garage. As I am writing this our neighbor is playing with their dog in the common area that is up against our unit. If I were still asleep I might be annoyed at his yelling and I could mention the infraction if I wanted to. After all quiet time doesn’t end until 8 am, but I have learned that it’s okay for him to do whatever he wants to do and if I say something I will just end up black balling myself even more.

Is there hope for this community? Normally I would say yes, but we are dealing with a community that wants to be isolated from all reasoning and the few who are smart are bailing ship before it sinks. 80% of the condos in our complex have lost value to the point that they are upside-down. Everyone knows it because one of the units that was bought before the market boomed sold for what was owed on it. One person managed to get a loan on another house, moved and is now walking away from their condo. Another person is trying to sell their house as a short sale. Loans are hard to come by for condos. You can’t get an FHA loan on them, which means you have to put a rather large down payment on one and you can’t refinance because you’re upside-down. Foreclosures and short sales are just going to make that worse. The only option for someone who wants to get out of this upside-down community is to rent out their condo but we can’t do that either.

When the period of declarant control was over and the owner’s began to rule themselves in this inconsistent discriminatory manner a motion was made to add an amendment to the CC&Rs to prohibit the renting of units. No one knew if the association could do this but one of the neighbors who was a lawyer insisted that we could. He made a motion to change the CC&Rs and those objecting were outnumbered. The lawyer neighbor was entrusted with drafting the new amendment along with the rest of the board. Instead of the board discussing the language of the amendment and having it approved by the membership, he drafted the document and had the president of the association sign it and filed it with the county. For years, all of us thought that we had done the vote correctly and that the amendment could not be changed unless another vote was taken with 75% of the members in agreement. That is, until one of our neighbors discovered that the Arizona Revised Statutes says that our right to rent could not be taken away without the vote to do so being unanimous. The amendment should have never been filed because a proper vote was never taken, but the lawyer/neighbor went ahead and did so.

Now the already financially broke association is facing the prospect of a lawsuit and it’s not a matter of if a lawsuit will happen, it’s a matter of when. Our neighbor who discovered the error is buying a new place and is going to rent his condo. If the association tries to enforce the amendment he will take them to court. If the association does not enforce the amendment one of the other neighbors that are against renting will take the association to court. We presented this dilemma to the association and asked for the amendment to be repealed since it was done illegally, to save everyone the hassle of a lawsuit. Besides, renting would give those people who are struggling an option other than foreclosure, and that would be beneficial to everyone. The vote was 6 to 5 in favor of repealing the amendment but we need 75% in agreement in order to change the CC&Rs. The kicker is that the neighbor who is short selling their place voted against being able to rent. Apparently they would rather foreclose on their property and turn away potential buyers who want to rent out the condo in order to keep the community that they are leaving rent free.

Now I ask you. How do you reason with a person like that? Someone who is willing to strap a bomb to their chest and blow up their credit? Is it done out of spite? Are they thinking, “If I can’t get a new place no one will without feeling the hurt?” I don’t know and it boggles my mind. My husband and I want to get a house as well. We have two growing boys who need more space and we want neighbors who don’t feel like they are entitled to tell you how to live our lives. But we don’t have money for a lawyer. We barely have enough for a down payment because my husband is a teacher and I am going to school to finish my degree.  This semester I am planning on putting my youngest in daycare so that I can get a part time job to help pay for school. Paying for daycare will take half of my paycheck. So for now we will try to hold up our heads while we walk the green mile down the driveway to the mail box and back wondering if we will ever be able to move on away from this place and come home to a house of peace instead of a condo with eyes and ears that is ready to pounce on every wrong move.

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