The frantic cry still haunts Monica Meeker.
It punctured the darkness as she and her husband lay in bed at the end of a fun-filled day celebrating daughter Camilla’s third birthday last October.
She rushed to her daughter’s bedroom and found her hanging from a window, the cord from the blind wrapped tightly around Camilla’s neck.
“She was gasping for air and crying and coughing,” Meeker said. “She had purple ligature marks on her neck for a week.”
The couple took down the blinds that night, replacing them with curtains.
Within two weeks, a letter arrived from the property manager for their homeowners association. The gray curtains they’d put up violated the association’s standards.
And so began the Meekers’ foray into homes association hell — a drama that has played out in homes across the country. Outlandish rules — from the farcical to the frightening — are being enforced by other homes associations.
Put the horror stories together, add in a mounting number of associations with funding shortages, and you’ve got an undeclared national housing crisis, industry experts say.
Jim Segel, a lawyer who played a major role in crafting the landmark Dodd-Frank financial reform act, has seen the growing number of unhappy residents handcuffed by strange restrictions. He’s also watched the increasing threat of homeowners associations (HOAs) that don’t save enough money to pay for projects and major repairs.
“It’s a serious and growing problem,” Segel said.
“I think it’s going to get a lot more well known as people realize that these are not just individual stories; they’re part of a much wider network of problems. … It should be regulated much more tightly than it is, either on the state or federal level.”
The Kansas City Star has for more than six months examined the homes association explosion and the problems it has generated. Today, one in five people in the U.S. lives in a homeowners or condo association, and 80 percent of new housing starts are in HOAs.
Homes associations wield far more power than homeowners realize. That’s because local governments have saved money by ceding HOAs more and more authority over such responsibilities as streets and sewers. Associations can fine you for leaving a garage door open and seize your home over late dues.
“A lot of people don’t realize, especially first-time homebuyers, that when you purchase into these homeowners associations you are giving up some of your constitutional rights and some of your due process rights,” said Dave Russell, who rescued a troubled Arizona condo association and now runs it to much acclaim.
HOA boards often are run by volunteers with little training, which can lead to neighborhood strife and even violence. Lawsuits are filed over seemingly petty issues such as “unattractive” flowerpots on a front step.
An institution originally created to protect homeowners instead has morphed into one that sometimes torments them.
Advocates for homeowners associations can rattle off plenty of positives.
Lush, manicured lawns. Houses painted in pleasing colors. Neighborhood swimming pools and walking trails. All designed to protect your property values and promote goodwill among neighbors.
The Community Associations Institute (CAI), which represents HOAs in court and in the legislative arena, says homes associations create better communities.
They safeguard the neighborhood from degradation and preserve the nature of the community, said Dawn Bauman, CAI senior vice president of government affairs.
When issues do arise, Bauman said, “the majority are a misunderstanding of what their governing documents say.”
But critics say the system is broken.
Fail to follow the rules — let your grass grow too tall, plant too many flower beds, paint your garage door the wrong shade or paint your swing set purple — and you could end up in court, homeless or even in jail.
Few extensive studies of HOAs have been done, and few lawmakers have taken up the call for reform — although some are learning about the problems.
At a Kansas House committee hearing on an HOA measure this year, Rep. Amanda Grosserode recounted canvassing one precinct when she ran for office in 2010.
“Door after door, complaints about the homeowners association were laid upon me,” the Lenexa Republican said.
And cries for change are growing louder as homeowners realize they aren’t alone.
Protesters are starting blogs, writing books, filing lawsuits and even erecting billboards. Thousands of homeowners have signed petitions to Congress.
“This is an institution that’s desperately in need of reform,” said Ward Lucas, author of “Neighbors at War: The Creepy Case Against Your Homeowners Association.”
“It is destroying people’s lives and their financial well-being.”
Homes associations were nothing new to the Meekers. Monica had grown up in HOA communities, and she and her husband, Giacomo, a surgeon, lived in one in Ohio before moving to Tennessee.
But as she watched Camilla bounce playfully around her pink and purple bedroom during a recent interview, she said she’d have to think long and hard before living in one again.
The couple had put Camilla and big sister Annabelle to bed on the night of the accident, but Camilla was still hyper from all the birthday cake and ice cream.
When Meeker found Camilla, “I could hear her gurgling, then stop breathing.”
Meeker couldn’t see in the darkness that the cord from the window blind was wrapped around Camilla’s neck.
“When I tried to pull her down,” Meeker said, “I literally was strangling her without realizing.”
She screamed for her husband, then pushed Camilla up while he untied the knot.
After putting up curtains, the Meekers received a letter from the HOA for The Enclave at Harpeth Village saying they were required to have 2-inch blinds on all front-facing windows “to provide a uniform appearance throughout the community.”
Monica, who refused to put the blinds back up, was told an inexpensive product could keep the cord out of children’s reach.
“I said, ‘Well, pardon me, but I am not going to have anything in my children’s room that can kill them,’ ” she said.
Indeed, the Consumer Product Safety Commission says hundreds of children have been fatally strangled in the past three decades by cords on window blinds.
The developer of the community, Austin Daniel — who also is the self-appointed HOA president — said the Meekers could install cordless plantation shutters on the front windows. But the Meekers would have needed three sets of shutters, which they said cost more than $500 each.
Daniel did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
In an email sent to the Meekers in November, he said, “I have had to make many, many decisions about the standards for the Enclave” and “not all have been warmly received because people generally think their own opinion is the most important one. Fortunately, the market is telling me that our vision for the Enclave was correct because we are sold out with a waiting list.”
Daniel told the Meekers they had several options: put the old blinds back up with the device designed to keep the cord out of reach, install plantation shutters, get 75 percent of homeowners to agree to change the HOA rules, file a lawsuit or move.
Eventually the Meekers moved out in June instead of continuing the standoff over the curtains. But 7-year-old Annabelle still feels guilty because she didn’t hear her little sister scream, and both girls were in counseling for months.
The CAI strongly disputes that HOAs are a significant problem, pointing to a national survey it commissioned that indicates homeowners love living in them and have good relationships with their boards.
The March 2016 survey of homes association residents by Zogby Analytics found that 87 percent of residents rated their overall community association experience as positive or neutral. Sixty-six percent of residents — down from 78 percent in 2005 — said their association’s rules protect and enhance property values.
But a recent online survey by the Coalition for Community Housing Policy in the Public Interest, formed last year to take on the industry and prevent HOA abuse, found just the opposite: 70 percent said they had been involved in a difficult-to-resolve dispute with a condo or homes association, and 84 percent said a lack of transparency and poor communication was a “very serious problem.”
A petition to Congress to dissolve HOAs includes hundreds of comments, including one from a Medfield, Mass., homeowner who complained of receiving a cease-and-desist letter for cutting the grass before the property manager got around to it.
Such disputes can be intensely personal for homeowners, and the toll can be crushing.
In Ogden, N.C., Peter Carl Darius was involved in a dispute with the Planters Walk Homeowners Association over infractions that included a fluorescent yellow shed with green trim, a 5-foot windmill and a white picket fence. The HOA began fining Darius $100 a day, then put a lien on his home and filed a lawsuit.
The fines continued to mount, and even though he’d paid nearly $50,000, the association eventually foreclosed on his home, saying he still owed more than $24,000. In August 2010, just days before he was to be evicted, Darius doused his house with flammable liquid and set it on fire. He perished in the inferno, and his death was ruled a suicide.
And in 2015, Sergey Peklun took his life during a battle with his condo association in Florida over owning an emotional support dog. Peklun, who suffered from numerous medical problems, had earlier received permission from the association board, but a new president pushed for the dog’s removal.
A mother of three in Tennessee told The Star that she attempted suicide after becoming wrought with stress over dealing with her HOA.
The woman said that although she had a documented medical condition that made it difficult for her to move her trash cans to the back of her house, the association hounded her and repeatedly threatened to sue because she placed them on the side of the building. She said she also was written up for putting two 8-inch birdhouses — made by her children — in front of the garage.
After she criticized some of the board’s actions on the community’s Facebook page, she said, she was blocked.
The woman said she felt ostracized.
“We were excluded socially, but also from community resources,” she said. “I was afraid to even go to the mailbox, worrying about getting another notice of a violation.”
Last year, she took an overdose of pain pills but survived.
Sometimes, distraught homeowners have resorted to violence against others, including HOA board members.
In 2013, Anthony Charles Hardy shot to death two next-door neighbors who were members of his homes association board in a subdivision in Harrisburg, N.C., then killed himself during a standoff with police. Some neighbors said Hardy, a licensed pharmacist, was upset that the board had approved the recent removal of some pine trees from behind his house.
In 2012, a Louisville, Ky., man shot and killed the president and another member of the homes association board during an HOA meeting in a church. Authorities said Jordanian-trained doctor Mahmoud Yousef Hindi had been in a dispute with the Spring Creek Homeowners Association over a fence and his driveway in the upscale neighborhood. Hindi committed suicide in jail in 2013 while awaiting trial.
And according to a lawsuit settled this spring, a former administrative law judge in Wichita repeatedly hit a neighbor with a crowbar during one of many disputes involving their homes association.
A Chicago real estate broker said she saw HOA terror firsthand when she bought a condo and grew concerned about the HOA’s budget. When Sara Benson contacted other homeowners, she quickly found that they were afraid of risking the wrath of the board.
“I had to call a psychologist to come in and meet with these owners,” said Benson, president of Chicago-based Benson Stanley Realty and co-author of “Escaping Condo Jail,” a book warning about HOA problems.
“One was a public school teacher; another was a principal of a public school. And they were so scared of the bully board that it was unbelievable.”
Violence and conflict were never the vision for homeowners associations.
They emerged in the 1800s as the U.S. was shifting from an agricultural to an industrialized nation. Owners were told the HOA was a way to maintain their property values and improve life for those in the community.
By the early 20th century, some subdivisions were restricting certain racial or religious groups from owning property. Prominent Kansas City developer J.C. Nichols was among the first in the United States to promote these restrictive covenants. From the early 1900s through the 1940s, the J.C. Nichols Co. built dozens of subdivisions in the Kansas City area that prohibited ownership by blacks and other minorities.
Courts later banned such covenants, although in many areas they remained a part of the recorded documents. After The Star wrote about the issue in 2005, legislatures in Kansas and Missouri passed laws requiring the restrictive language to be removed from the property records.
Today, the CAI estimates there are at least 342,000 “common-interest communities” nationwide, including homeowners associations, condominium communities and housing cooperatives.
Those associations now account for more than $5 trillion in home values and take in $85 billion a year in dues from homeowners, according to the CAI.
The Kansas City area alone has more than 1,000, although no specific number exists because there is no regulatory agency that keeps an official count.
“Are there any neighborhoods in Johnson County that are NOT in a homeowners association?” asked one prospective buyer on the online forum city-data.com. (The answer: Yes, but finding one takes some effort.)
Indeed, many municipalities now require developers and builders to design the new communities as HOAs, which has played a major role in the enormous growth of homes associations.
The driving force, critics say, is money.
As local governments struggled to keep up with the costs of maintaining their infrastructure, HOAs started taking on some of the burden. They created private streets, private sewer and water systems, their own water detention ponds, lakes and recreational facilities, golf courses and other amenities, said Evan McKenzie, a housing law expert and political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
To do that, an association had to function as a private government. And cities were perfectly happy to let them do it, said McKenzie, who as an attorney used to represent HOAs.
“The local government isn’t responsible for any of it,” he said. “The cities can wash their hands of them, but they still get to collect the same tax bill for everybody. So the HOAs become cash cows for local government.”
Bauman of the CAI agrees that cities have a reason to love homes associations.
“They’re able to save a lot of money by transferring the municipal obligation to the homeowners association,” she said.
Robert McKay, Lee’s Summit director of planning and codes, said handing over some power to HOAs eases the burden on local government.
“We have a lot of code enforcement that we do,” McKay said. “They are kind of our self-policing group, so we like them. We would rather have the subdivisions regulating themselves than the city having to come down on them.”
The city has no problem with an HOA that is more restrictive than the city, he said.
“Of course,” McKay said, “we can’t deal with the resident that says, ‘Well, they’re being overrestrictive,’ because you bought into the situation.”
Left on their own, HOAs have become fiefdoms with little oversight, their own regulations and a lot more power than homeowners may realize.
One measure of their reach:
From 2001 through 2005, homes and condo associations filed an average of 68 lawsuits per year against residents in Johnson County District Court. For the past 10 years, which included the economic downturn, an average of 157 lawsuits per year were filed.
The lawsuits can slog through the courts for years, and in some cases the homeowners have filed countersuits against their HOAs, further delaying a resolution.
Most cases involve attempts to collect on delinquent association dues. Others are over what HOAs deem to be violations of their covenants.
In northern California, one couple learned the hard way how far homes associations can go to collect late dues. The couple failed to pay the $120 they owed but said they had been sick and distracted and never knew about the problem until the association foreclosed on their $300,000 home and they received a notice saying they had three days to move out. The HOA had sold the home at an auction for just $70,000.
Those who try to fight their homes associations in court could have an uphill — and costly — battle on their hands.
“If you have a dispute with your HOA, they’re paying the legal fees to fight you from your money, and then you have to come up with your own legal fees as well,” said Deborah Goonan, an adviser to the Coalition for Community Housing Policy in the Public Interest.
Moreover, critics say, the HOA boards then pit other homeowners against the one filing the lawsuit, telling them the legal fees could result in an increase in their association dues.
Lincoln Cummings, a co-founder and former president of the CAI, defended the tactic of foreclosing when a homeowner becomes delinquent on HOA dues.
Yes, it’s harsh, he said, but that is a way to make an example of the worst offenders.
“Unless you put up on the flagpole once in a while the real violators, you will have more violators,” he said. “And I preach for almost every association. Find the worst. Foreclose. And then for five years you won’t have anybody that misses a payment.”
Many HOAs or their property managers also gouge homeowners with transfer fees, in which buyers are charged for documents when they purchase a home, critics say.
Such fees are “among the biggest scams in the housing business,” said Lucas, a retired television investigative reporter.
Some states have outlawed the transfer fees, and the Colorado HOA Forum, a homeowners advocacy group, calls them “abusive.”
A transfer fee, Lucas said, “means some property manager had to photocopy the HOA covenants, probably a hundred or so pages.”
But fees to obtain them can cost the buyer anywhere from $150 to thousands of dollars, Lucas said.
Bauman said, however, that gathering the documents can be complicated and the process takes time because the information must be up to date and accurate.
Real estate agents contend “there shouldn’t be any fees, it’s easy information, you should just be able to go online and find the information on a website,” she said. “Well, it’s not that easy.”
Considering that HOA board members are usually volunteers, most boards handle their power infusion well, said McKenzie, author of “Privatopia: Homeowner Associations and the Rise of Residential Private Government.”
But the boards, run by neighbors, can also be political battlegrounds.
“Any given association can go haywire at any given time if you have one bad election,” said McKenzie.
“You’re just one board member away from disaster.”
Even when sincere board members want to do a good job, many simply don’t know what they’re doing because they’re amateurs, critics say.
And that lack of experience, coupled with homeowner apathy, makes HOAs ripe for embezzlement and fraud.
In September, a former manager for a condominium association in San Mateo, Calif., was charged with embezzling nearly $2.8 million over 6 1/2 years. Prosecutors said the alleged theft was discovered after the Woodlake Homeowners Association fired her, then found about 150 phony invoices for construction work that was never done.
And in Kansas City, the treasurer of a homes association was charged in January with stealing an undisclosed amount of more than $25,000 from the organization. Loretta Lock, 77, pleaded not guilty to the felony at a hearing in March.
Lock, a real estate agent, served as treasurer of the Charleston Harbor Homes Association. According to a Jan. 12 grand jury indictment, Lock stole money from the HOA between Feb. 6, 2013, and July 2, 2015. She is out on $100,000 bond and awaits an Aug. 25 hearing in Clay County Circuit Court.
Instead of increasing home values, HOAs sometimes undermine them.
Debbie Fletcher of Overland Park, who with her husband “flips” houses — buying two or three a year to renovate and sell — said the first thing she now checks is whether a house is in a homes association.
“For us, an HOA is just a deal breaker,” Fletcher said. “It limits who your potential buyers are.”
Fletcher said she and her husband butted heads with an overly aggressive HOA when they bought a house in west Shawnee about 15 years ago.
She said the board tried to tell her husband, a professional painter, what color he could paint their house — even though he was going with the standard “Johnson County taupe.” She said the board threw a fit when one homeowner painted her house canary yellow but looked the other way when another — the niece of the developer — allowed her house to become an eyesore, making it difficult for the Fletchers to sell theirs.
“It was a few select arrogant people,” Fletcher said. “If you crossed somebody on that board, you could be paying for it dearly.”
Indeed, Shelly Marshall, a leading homeowners advocate from Arizona, said growing concerns about HOAs are lowering home values.
“Battles in HOAs have gotten so heated and ugly that now, one of the most important selling points in property is that it’s not in an HOA,” Marshall said. “So instead of keeping your property values up, they are actually keeping them down.”
One house ad in southern Overland Park in April talked up the 1-acre lot, four-car garage, state-of-the-art security system and complete interior makeover.
“Want a real bonus?” it said. “No HOA!”
Putting up a basketball goal? Careful!
Homes associations are picky about basketball goals. And they don’t all have the same rules. Here are guidelines posted by some Kansas City area associations:
What color? Generally backboards must be transparent or white. But the poles are another matter. Wilshire Place in Leawood allows black poles, but not Nottingham at Heritage Park in Olathe. Neutral only, please.
Where? Not attached to the home, says Wilshire Place. Screened from public view as much as possible, says Stoney Creek Estates in Lee’s Summit. With evergreen screening behind the goal, says Hallbrook Farms in Leawood.
Can they be permanent? Yes, they must be, says Wilshire Place. No, they can’t be, says Woodland Reserve in Lenexa. And if they’re portable, says Nottingham at Heritage Park, be sure to drag them into the garage at night.
Did you know?
▪ A homeowners association can file a lien on your house if you are late paying your dues or fines.
▪ An HOA can foreclose on your home even if you own it free and clear.
▪ You could be assessed hefty fines for things like painting your house the wrong color or building a fence with slats that are too wide. Don’t pay the fine quickly enough and it could end up in the thousands.
▪ Few states have agencies that oversee HOAs.
▪ In most cases, no training or experience is required to sit on an HOA board.
Judy L. Thomas