April 20, 2002 -- Thinking of putting up pink flamingos in your garden? Or hanging the laundry out to dry?
You might own the house, the garden and the lot, but if you're one of the nearly 50 million Americans living in communities run by homeowners associations, you may find you don't have the freedom to do everything you like on your property.
Homeowners associations are nonprofit organizations that manage the common areas in a housing development. They have rules that can be strict, and critics say that enforcement of those rules is increasingly turning neighborhoods into battle zones.
"The level of frustration in associations is escalating and in some cases, going through the roof," says Evan McKenzie, a political science professor at the University of Illinois who has written a book about homeowners associations, Privatopia: Homeowner Associations and the Rise of Residential Private Government.
"The problem is when they go to ridiculous extremes, when they become neighborhood tyrants." McKenzie adds.
The rules can be very picky. A homeowners association in Mesa, Ariz. said no to a resident's frog planters. An association in Atlanta, Ga. ordered a family to remove their pink flamingos, and a board in Sun City, Calif. put the kibosh on clotheslines. Associations can even dictate where you can park your car, with one in Escondido, Calif. requiring residents to leave their cars in the garage not in the driveway.
At the Briargrove Park development in Houston, resident Bruce Kycklehahn shifted the position of the lamppost in front of his house, because he said he needed more light on the street. The homeowners' association said he was violating the rules, and is suing him for $200 a day in fines. It has been more than a year and a half since Kycklehahn moved the lamppost, so he estimates it could cost him $125,000. But he is determined not to move it, because of the "principle of the thing." An attorney said the association had no comment.
Flying the Flag
In Richmond, Va., Richard Oulton, a Vietnam veteran, is fighting his homeowners association for the right to fly an American flag on a 25-foot pole. The association ordered him to take the flagpole down, calling it a "visual nuisance."
Oulton, who has been raising the flag ever since he was a medic in Vietnam and flew the Stars and Stripes over his bunker, has refused. "To take it down now would be a total dishonor and an insult to everyone that has ever stood for the flag," he says.
Oulton says he checked the association's rules before he moved in, specifically to see whether there were any restrictions on flying the flag. He found no reference to flags or flagpoles, so he put up a large flagpole next to the huge home he built on three lots.
He says his neighbors didn't object, and three neighbors 20/20 talked to agreed. One of them, Frank Taylor, called Oulton's flag "an asset to the community."
But the homeowner's association board said the flagpole was too big. "We had no idea someone would erect a flagpole that large when the guidelines were written," says board member Birdie Nichols. Since their guidelines did not mention flagpoles, the board instead relied on a rule that says "no structure shall be erected? without approval."
The board later adopted rules allowing flagpoles — but restricting them to 6 feet in length and requiring that they be mounted on the house, not standing in the yard.
"All we are asking Mr. Oulton to do is to show his patriotism within the guidelines that everyone else in the community is willing to live by," says Nichols.
Oulton admits he could easily hang his flag from a pole mounted on his house, but says, "It wouldn't be the right thing to do."
Oulton says the board is trampling on his basic freedoms. "I don't understand what the problem is. It's a property right that I have to fly this flag. It's a free speech right that I have to fly this flag."
But people living in planned communities may have fewer rights than they think, says McKenzie. "A homeowners association is essentially a private government. ... They don't have to respect your civil liberties the same way a real local government has to. They don't have to worry about the Constitution or the Bill of Rights."
So far the courts have ruled that Oulton's flagpole does violate association rules. But he vows to appeal, to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.
Evicting an Elderly Widow
In some states, homeowners association can take away residents' houses if they do not abide by the association's rules.
Winona Blevins, an elderly widow who lived in a planned community in Houston called Champions, was astonished when a constable came to her door one morning and told her he had a court order to evict her.
It turned out that the homeowners association had sold the house out from under her — because she owed $876 in dues. Blevins says she didn't even know her home had been sold: "I had no inkling. Absolutely no idea. None."
Blevins had paid cash for her home and had lived there for 15 years. But the homeowners association says she ignored notices they sent telling her she was behind with her dues. But apparently many of the notices had been wrongly addressed to her long deceased husband, who had never even lived in the house.
Blevins says mail did come to her house addressed to her husband, but she threw it away thinking it was junk mail. She says no one from the community association ever called her or came to her home to tell her there was a problem. Instead, the board turned the matter over to their attorneys, who tacked on thousands of dollars in legal fees and recommended foreclosing on the home to collect.
The association sold Blevins' home at public auction without her knowledge, then had constables evict her with no notice. "They took everything. They said I could take one change of clothing, one. And they took everything else. Everything," she remembers.
Her friends and neighbors were outraged and challenged the homeowners association at an angry meeting. Then local newspapers picked up the story, and Blevins got an attorney and brought a lawsuit. In a settlement, the homeowners board and its attorneys agreed to buy back her house and pay her $300,000 after having left her homeless for almost a year.
But not all evicted homeowners are so lucky. McKenzie says foreclosures by homeowners associations are happening all across the country. "What's really driving this is the dynamics of these collection lawyers who are just out to generate fees and to sell these houses off as fast as they can."