MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - I'm a firm believer in neighborhood homeowners associations. I'm a firm believer in covenants and restrictions. I don't want to see someone's Dodge Dart on cinder blocks in the 3-foot high grass of their front yard anymore than the next neighbor.
But let me tell you, when your board or a single board member goes on a big power trip, these associations can be a major pain.
For the longest time, we had a "street Nazi" on the board of my neighborhood association -- the kind who measured every blade of grass, wrote anonymous threats about your kids' basketball goal, but would turn around and let her dog poop in your yard.
That's exactly my point about these associations. When a board or board member adopts a double-standard, they defeat the association's purpose -- just like it appears they have in "Kathy's" neighborhood in Southeast Memphis. She asked me:
"Can a neighborhood association charge maintenance fees to one part of a neighborhood and not the other?"
No, it cannot, Kathy. By law, a neighborhood homeowners association cannot set one standard for some residents and another standard for the rest. A majority of all the association's homeowners must approve any changes to its bylaws.
The bylaws must allow due process for fines or liens. That means there must be a process for homeowners to fight any fines and have their side heard. There must be equal penalties for equal violations. You can't fine one homeowner $50 for something, then fine another $100 for the same violation. In fact, the bylaws should list specific violations and their specific penalties.
But here's the loophole: board members can often make changes to what are called house rules. With some groups, they are as binding as the bylaws, but the homeowners don't know about them.
"Even if you were to be given the rules today, they're probably already out of date because (boards are) constantly making changes to the rules at whim," said Elizabeth McMahon of the American Homeowners Resource Center. "And they couldn't care less if you don't like them."
Years ago, I arranged legal counsel for a woman to sue the Cordova Club homeowners association in Cordova, Tennessee. It put a $150 tax lien on the woman's house because she parked her car in...get this...her own driveway! The group's house rules were if you have two cars, they must be parked in your garage with the garage door down. One of her vehicles was a large SUV, so she could not fit two cars in her garage.
The board told her to sell her SUV and buy something smaller. So she sued. And she lost. Big time. Her case set a precedent for petty homeowners association rules all over Shelby County.
Kathy Trawick, housing attorney and project manager at West Tennessee Legal Services in Jackson, Tennessee, said homeowners associations must comply with the Fair Housing Act and its protections of the disabled. Using the driveway example, if our homeowner's SUV was modified to accommodate a disability, the Cordova Club HOA would have been required to allow the vehicle to be parked in the driveway.
Trawick said the act also applies to associations who may treat homeowners disparately based on other factors.
"If one homeowner is being treated differently, and that difference in treatment can be attributed to membership in a protected class, (race, color, religion, national origin, sex, familial status, or disability), that homeowner may have a cause of action under the Fair Housing Act," she said.
No matter what the circumstance, you should still have your voice heard. Request time for due process or public comment at your association's next meeting. Get your grievances on the record. The association must keep minutes of its meetings and make them available to its members. If necessary, those minutes can be obtained through subpoena if your problem ends up going to court.