ANNAPOLIS – Explosive growth of community associations is adding fuel to the debate over the state’s role in regulating the privately run — some say autocratic — quasi-governments.
The Alexandria-based Community Associations Institute (CAI) recently estimated that the number of homes in homeowners, condominium and cooperative associations nationally has risen to 16.4 million — up from 701,000 in 1970 and 11.6 million in 1990.
CAI also estimated that 42 million Americans now live under the auspices of a community association.
Statistics in Maryland are sketchy but experts say community associations are growing rapidly in the state, especially in suburban areas.
“You almost can’t buy a house that isn’t part of a community or condominium association,” said Craig Wilson of Vanguard Management Association, which runs 50 communities in Frederick and Montgomery counties.
Community associations are residential developments that involve joint ownership of common areas, require adherence to certain rules and the payment of dues. They often provide services such as recreational amenities, trash pick-up and snow removal.
As the number of people living in them has risen, so too have complaints about their management practices and rules, which can dictate such things as what color residents can paint their fences, whether they can have picnic tables in their backyards and, even, which brands of swing sets are acceptable.
“My experience over four years (in the legislature) is that I don’t think I could ever live in a homeowners association community,” said Del. Michael Crumlin, D-Prince George’s, noting the deluge of complaints he has heard.
Crumlin said the House Economic Matters Committee now devotes a full day each year — dubbed “condo day” — to address the growing number of bills on the subject.
“There are some basic rules that should apply everywhere. Democracy is one, and the right to make a living is another,” said Del. Cheryl Kagan, D-Montgomery, sponsor of three bills on community associations.
One, dubbed the “rights and responsibilities bill,” would guarantee property owners’ rights to speak at association board meetings and peaceably assemble in common areas. Another would grant the right to post political signs in windows and the third would let property owners operate “no-impact” businesses in their homes.
The bills would augment laws that require, among other things, that association board meetings be open to the public, that associations make their financial records available to members and that property owners be permitted to operate day care businesses in their homes.
But Del. Tony Fulton, D-Baltimore, said he does not believe the government should interfere in contracts between the associations and homeowners.
“You signed the documents. Now you want to change the rules,” he said of those seeking legislative redress. Fulton, a Realtor, added that many people “buy because of the prohibitions and the privacy” that associations offer.
Those who favor more government oversight dispute the claim that homeowners willingly sign contracts.
“It is not as though people have a lot of choices,” said Suzanne Smith, legislative coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.
Montgomery and Howard counties, for example, require new developments that include open spaces to be part of community associations.
In those counties, community associations are burgeoning.
Montgomery County reports that 99,079, or about one-third, of its housing units are in community associations, although that number does not include the county’s municipalities. Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning director Joe Rutter estimates that two-thirds of his county’s residents live in community associations, including the 85,000 in Columbia.
Advocates for more government oversight also contend that people who buy into community associations are often unaware of the rules.
“They’re handed on settlement day 20 things to sign their name on and a 2-inch thick book of rules and regulations,” said Del. Carolyn Krysiak, D-Baltimore.
But Fulton disputes that reasoning.
“This is one of the biggest purchases you’re making in your life,” he said. “I think it’s irresponsible of anybody buying a home not to read the contract.”
If people don’t like the rules, Fulton contends, they should work through their association to make changes.
“They’re making excuses for something they’re too lazy to do,” he said. “So every time there is a problem they’re going to come to the state legislature.”
But Kagan counters that some community associations make it overly difficult to change by-laws by requiring super-majorities or by requiring prohibitively large quorums to vote on changes.
Backers of tighter government regulation also contend that association boards sometimes use heavy-handed means to stifle change, by not allowing people to speak at meetings or have items placed on the agenda.
“After the developer leaves, all the power is in the board and there are few, if any, checks and balances,” said Pat Wiggington, who heads the Maryland Homeowners Association.
The so-called rights and responsibilities bills aims to address those concerns. CAI, which represents associations across the country, reluctantly endorsed the bill.
“From our perspective, 99 percent of these associations are doing what the legislation proposes,” said Rodney Clark, CAI’s vice president of government and public affairs. “It’s unfortunate that we have to pass a bill to get to the other 1 percent.”
The House and Senate have each passed their own versions of the rights and responsibilities bill, which are now awaiting action in the opposite chamber. The home-based businesses bill has passed the Senate and the political signs bill has cleared the House.
No matter the outcome of this year’s bills, the issues are not likely to fade away.
Crumlin, who generally opposes bills aimed at specific complaints against community associations, said it might be time to completely rewrite the laws that govern them.
“We need to address the tree, not the ornaments,” he said.