A group of Briar Chapel residents is fighting higher homeowners association fees and demanding answers about where their money is going.
The fee increase has left residents paying their homeowners association (HOA) 128 percent more this year – from $130 to $297 a month – for landscaping and exterior maintenance for 12 Great Ridge Parkway townhouses.
The townhouse residents also pay $5 a month for alley maintenance and a communitywide fee of $125 a month for landscaping and upkeep.
HOA officials said the increase will be used to paint the townhouses, built in 2010. The residents say their homes don’t need it – a 2016 HOA-commissioned study backs them up – and the company selected to do the work wants $12,000 more than two competing bids.
Meanwhile, the service fund for painting, roofing and other big projects is empty, despite what residents said have been only minor repairs to the townhouses over several years. Their petitions to the HOA for more financial information recently got them a copy of a bare-bones budget.
The entire process has been frustrating, resident Jessica Walden-Gray said. She and others have thought about selling, but the high service fee makes it difficult to get a good return on their investment. The townhouses, among Briar Chapel’s most affordable, sell in the $200s and $300s.
They’re also thinking about a legal challenge, the residents said.
“It’s an enormous financial burden. It’s also extremely stressful,” said Walden-Gray, a science teacher at Woods Charter School. “This is all we think about when we have spare time, how can we get out, and right now, we’re stuck and we have no power, because anytime you try to deal with the HOA, you’re blindsided and told different reasons you can’t (do anything).”
‘At a real disadvantage’
HOAs, once rare in North Carolina, numbered almost 14,000 by 2016 and served roughly 2.8 million residents, according to the Foundation for Community Association Research.
They have far-reaching power to maintain community standards, from lifestyle rules to keeping up common areas and sometimes the exteriors of homes. The only limits on HOAs in North Carolina fall under the Planned Community Act, but there is no state or federal oversight to enforce the law.
Each HOA is governed by its own bylaws and declarations, with a homeowner-elected board to manage community business – sometimes by hiring a property management company. HOAs can fine homeowners who violate the rules, forcing them to pay, in extreme cases, by putting a lien or foreclosure on their home. The only recourse for homeowners who can’t settle HOA disputes is mediation or a civil lawsuit.
Al Ripley, director of consumer and housing projects with the N.C. Justice Center, said HOA-related complaints are common, especially when residents aren’t prepared to face special fee assessments. Other complaints include general governance problems, harassment, embezzlement and fiscal mismanagement, he said.
Although the Justice Center and others have pushed for better state laws, including a bill proposed in the legislature last year, Ripley said he doesn’t expect to see progress because of lobbying by homebuilders, home sellers, and HOA attorneys and managers.
“It’s very hard to do that, in part because there are various industries that like the way that HOAs are administered now and don’t want to see changes that give more power to homeowners,” he said. “Generally speaking, homeowners are at a real disadvantage in dealing with problems that they have in their HOA community.”
Walden-Gray, her neighbor Patti Boll and others have shared their concerns with the Briar Chapel HOA board for over a year. Their latest petition on Jan. 24 was met with silence, but new board President Garretson Browne sent them a letter the next day.
In the letter, Browne noted developer Newland Communities is subsidizing the service fee, which he said never was enough to build a reserve. Something needs to be done before the developer stops the subsidies, he said.
However, an HOA document shows the Great Ridge neighborhood’s income grew to $17,000 by 2015 – enough to cover this year’s service area expenses and leave a small reserve. Residents want to know why those small reserves didn’t add up over the last seven years and why some maintenance expenses, like the $6,800 annual fee to landscape their roughly quarter-acre lawn, cost so much.
The board hasn’t addressed yet the $52,416 charge to paint the Great Ridge Parkway buildings or set a day to meet with them, the residents said Thursday. HOA board member and Newland Communities customer service manager Selina Day said last month they are planning to meet.
The fight to get someone to listen makes them feel like second-class citizens, said Boll, a retired trauma specialist. Like others, she wonders if she can afford the fees.
“I get angry at times about this, because I don’t want to feel victimized,” she said. “They are bullying us. It’s passive-aggressive behavior because they get their way by doing nothing – they don’t respond to us, they don’t sit down with us.”
Property management has been an issue for several years at Briar Chapel, although HOA officials wouldn’t say why they’ve cycled through four management companies. The last one – United Community Management – gave residents a small refund last year even though the maintenance reserves were low. First Service Management took over in August.
There’s been a lack of communication with previous management companies, who “had different philosophies on accounting,” Day said, but there’s no financial mismanagement. They will “absolutely” look again at the paint job bids, she said, but they need residents to be patient.
“Going through 2018, that is our biggest initiative is to start getting them collectively coming together and work together. I’m excited about that; it’s a new year, and we’ll get above it,” Day said.
Al Ripley, director of consumer and housing projects with the N.C. Justice Center, said his best advice is to avoid neighborhoods controlled by a homeowners association. If you do buy a home with an HOA, the N.C. Department of Justice offers these tips:
▪ Ask up front about the HOA, and read the bylaws and covenants carefully to understand the HOA’s and your rights, powers and responsibilities
▪ Talk to neighbors about the HOA, its board and the property management company
▪ Make sure you understand which fees you’ll have to pay and how those might change
▪ Have a clear understanding of the HOA’s oversight powers, including any architectural or landscaping requirements
▪ Understand the law, including the state’s Planned Community Act, and your rights in HOA disputes
“In other words, you hire a home inspector before you buy a home to make sure that it’s a quality home,” Ripley said. “Do your due diligence about the HOA and determine whether it’s well-run, well-managed and so forth, because these problems are frequent.”