If you’re a member of your Homeowners Association board, you probably know it’s not always clear sailing when it comes to dealing with neighbor-on-neighbor complaints. If you’re like every other association, you probably get your fair share of complaints about pets, smoking, parking issues, various odors, and maintenance concerns. When a member is tired of listening to their heavy-footed upstairs neighbor or can’t stand the sight of a poorly constructed fence, they inevitably turn to the HOA to fix the problem.
One of the prime duties of the HOA is to enforce the Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions (CC&Rs) that all members must abide by. There are steps the board can take to ensure compliance, including imposing fines for serious violations. It can be difficult, however, to know when to step in – and when to leave members to resolve a disagreement among themselves.
When to Act
The HOA board is guided by the need to act in the best interests of the association, and that means taking into consideration the needs of all its members. Most, therefore, will be reluctant to get involved in what appears to be a minor dispute between two neighbors who just can’t seem to get along. For instance, an isolated noise complaint that nobody else seems to care about probably doesn’t justify intervention from the HOA.
Courts generally agree that the HOA has a fair amount of discretion and doesn’t have to act on every complaint. Start by determining whether the complaint involves something that is specifically prohibited by the CC&Rs and could lead to fines or other sanctions. If the rules provide for a penalty when they’re broken, it’s a clue that the association should be serious about enforcement. Also, consider whether the matter at hand could impact the well-being of several members of the community. Finally, the association should probably take further action if the claim alleges a breach of any applicable laws like the Fair Housing Act.
Investigate the Facts
It is important that the decision of whether to act on a complaint be fully informed and made in good faith. The complaint should be documented in writing, and someone assigned to gather information in a timely manner. This could be a member of the management team or someone from the board of directors.
The main thing is to ensure that when the board meets to determine whether to get involved, they have all the facts before them. This includes knowing the exact nature of the allegations, whether there are health and safety concerns, whether this is a recurring problem, and how many people are involved. The alleged offender(s) should also be given the opportunity to comment on the complaint and give their side of the story.
Make a Determination
The board has several options about what to do next and, once all the facts have been gathered, they should meet to make a decision. In many cases, it may be enough to call a meeting between those involved and try to find an amicable solution. Alternatively, the matter could be resolved with the help of a mediator. If there has been a clear violation of the CC&Rs, the board may simply decide to impose the appropriate fine or penalty.
Regardless of the board’s decision, its determination should be provided to both the complainant and alleged offender in writing. The report should indicate that the complaint has been considered impartially and give the reasons for which further actions will (or will not) be taken.
All HOAs should have a written policy on how to deal with neighbor-on-neighbor complaints. A policy helps deflect accusations of bias and gives members the comfort of knowing that all complaints are dealt with in the same way. This policy should be drafted by an attorney to ensure that the process is practical, even-handed and complete. Any misgivings about whether to act on a complaint should also be discussed with an attorney. Getting professional advice will help to shield the association from an escalation of the problem, including future litigation by an unhappy homeowner.
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