Homeowners in the Moonridge Falls subdivision in Grand Junction woke up last December 21 to find their homeowners association (HOA) had suddenly locked them out of their own common space park.
Residents couldn’t remember a time when the gates to the park had ever been locked. No one had been hurt in the park. No accidents had occurred in the park recently, not even a close call, but for some reason the HOA suddenly decided to lock the park and keep everyone out, even homeowners, as though it was a crime scene or a grave emergency had just occurred. The HOA put up a sign saying the park would stay locked as long as there was ice on the pond. Yet long after the ice had melted, the locks remained, leading residents o wonder what was really up, and what they could do about it.
Locked out of their own property
When they bought their homes, Moonridge homeowners paid extra for the right to access the subdivision’s heavily landscaped private park. They pay all of the park’s substantial maintenance costs through their annual dues, and the cost to maintain the park takes over 90% of their dues. And as legal owners of the common space, all homeowners all have an equal right to access it 24/7. The HOA had no more right to lock all homeowners out of their own park than they have to lock them out of their own homes.
But instead of balancing what might have been a legitimate safety concern with preserving homeowners’ rights to enjoy their own property — for example by offering all homeowners keys to the locks like other subdivisions do, the HOA took an action that treated all of its own homeowners like criminals.
Residents who had been using the park for breaks from endless Zoom meetings in the pandemic, or for outdoor respite nearby were now flat out of luck. They would now have to get in their cars and drive to a public park, even though they were paying for a very nice park right next their own homes.
Ignoring laws, infringing on homeowner rights
It turned out that the Moonridge Falls HOA was also ignoring laws and compromising homeowners’ rights in a lot more ways than just this, though.
- The HOA cancelled its only homeowner meeting last year “because of covid,” refusing to even put on a virtual meeting, and depriving owners of their only chance to discuss the plan to deprive them of their common space for the entire winter, before it ever happened. State law requires HOAs hold at least one meeting a year.
- The HOA had never registered with the State HOA office as has been required since 1992.
- The HOA had never adopted policies for dealing with homeowner grievances, or for fining homeowners, even thought the law requires HOAs have such policies in place.
- The HOA had no separate reserve fund.
- The HOA had never given homeowners information about the state laws regulating HOAs, or about homeowner duties in regard to HOAs, as the law required.
- The HOA held board meetings without making agendas available to homeowners. (The law says HOA boards must make agendas available to homeowners so people are aware of what their HOAs are up to.)
- And the HOA had never adopted a policy regulating conflicts of interest by its board members. (The longtime board president, owner of a landscape maintenance company, had long given his own family’s company the contract for maintaining all of Moonridge Falls’ landscaping.)
Most homeowners never knew or paid attention to all the ways their HOA was violating their rights and ignoring state laws. But when the HOA suddenly locked off the park to everyone and blocked every attempt homeowners tried to address the move, the HOA crossed the line into being a dictator, and became worthy of more scrutiny.
Abusive HOAs have total control. Homeowners have little to no recourse.
So what can homeowners do with an HOA that abuses its decision-making power and infringes on their property rights?
Turns out, not much.
They can file a complaint against their HOA with Colorado’s HOA Information and Resources Center. But the Resource Center can only collect complaints and compile them into an annual report. That’s it. The agency tells consumers up front on its website that it “does not have any investigative or enforcement capabilities to address your HOA complaint.”
While the Colorado Common Interest Ownership Act (CCIOA, pdf) regulates HOAs and was created to protect consumers from abusive HOAs, it contains no mechanism for enforcement — zero — effectively leaving it without any “teeth.” So Colorado homeowners who belong to HOAs are at the mercy of abusive boards, whose members often are poorly qualified, in experience, knowledge or temperament, to hold positions of power over their neighbors.
The sad reality is that Colorado law leaves HOA Boards free to grab homeowners’ land, violate their rights, break state and federal laws, impose petty rules on a whim and make people’s lives miserable without ever having to worry about any corrective or punitive action being taken.
The only recourse homeowners have to fight a bad HOA is to file a lawsuit — and that is time consuming, costs lots of money and may not even solve the problem.
HOA horror stories abound
Complaints about abusive HOAs abound in Colorado, and everywhere across the country. Petty, poorly thought-out and even cruel decisions by HOA boards are common:
- A handicapped veteran in the Jewell Lake Condominium Association west of Denver discovered that his HOA had intentionally painted over his handicapped parking space and turned it into a fire lane.
- Another Denver-area HOA made a rule against children drawing on the sidewalk with chalk.
- Yet another HOA harassed a homeowner over a clothesline in her back yard.
- Another HOA fined a homeowner for having plastic flamingos in her front yard.
- Another HOA shut down a kid’s lemonade stand, saying businesses weren’t allowed in the subdivision.
- Another ordered homeowners to get rid of their pet potbellied pig because it violated the rule against having farm animals. (The pig’s owners sued their HOA and won, since potbellied pigs are not commercially raised in agriculture.)
- HOAs have hounded homeowners to the point of foreclosure over ridiculous rules like the placement of trash cans, picking fights that escalate into major battles. This may happen in large part because HOA boards have no training in conflict resolution.
Power-hungry HOA boards that escalate conflicts instead of working to resolve them can bankrupt entire subdivisions by insisting on facing down homeowners who fight back by suing.
So, what’s the answer?
There is no real good answer right now. But there are things you can try:
Some say the answer is to vote out your HOA board, but because of the ways abusive boards operate, that can be difficult.
As private governments, HOA boards have no oversight and can easily engage in election fraud, for example by having existing board members “count” the ballots, and proclaiming who the winners are without providing homeowners with vote tallies. Boards can effectively appoint the same people — or their family members — to positions of power over and over again for years, assuring the same people get to lord over subdivisions for years, or decades, where they can continue using their position to benefit themselves financially and make life hard for homeowners they don’t like.
How else can homeowners fight back?
- Pay attention to what your HOA board is doing. Too many people ignore this until it is too late, because they don’t want to get involved.
- Get familiar with the CCIOA, and insist that your HOA follow the law.
- Insist that your HOA board be transparent in scheduling and holding all its meetings, and they make agendas for all of their meetings available to homeowners, so homeowners can see if their Board is doing — or planning on doing things — may infringe on their property rights or make life difficult.
- Insist your HOA board members end contracts that have even the appearance of a conflict of interest.
- Insist your HOA board adhere to state law how it conducts its elections, so everyone has a, equal chance to get a say on the board. The CCIOA requires ballots be counted by neutral third parties who have no interest in the outcome. It doesn’t allow existing board members or candidates to count ballots. Don’t be fooled by things like offers to “notarize” the results of an illegitimately-held election as a way to legitimize it. Notarizing is not required by state law, and has no effect on whether the election was legally held. Adhering to the law that details how to hold a fair election is required by the law.
- Lobby your elected state legislators to put much-needed teeth into the CCIOA.
HOAs with bad reputations can drag down property values and make things harder for homeowners and realtor strying to sell homes in subdivisions with bad reputations.
Millions of people in Colorado live in over 8,000 homeowner associations. It’s time for Colorado’s legislators fix the mess they created for all these people by failing to include any enforcement in the Colorado Common Interest Ownership Act.
The HOA Resource Office must get the funding it needs to investigate and pursue complaints against HOAs and and issue corrective actions.