Tipping Point: In Huntington Village, the Community Association has All the Power

Tipping Point: In Huntington Village, the Community Association has All the Power

Most of the time Ebony Washington is able to pretend everything is fine. She even waves when Huntington Village Community Association deed restriction inspectors pause near her house to record another infraction. Washington puts up a good front throughout the day. She’s in the middle of a divorce, struggling to pay her bills and keep things on an even keel for her three daughters — Aisa, three, Asia, eight, and Angelica, 13 — so she gets up at 5:30 a.m. on weekdays and does her hair and makeup, checks to see that her daughters have everything they need and then rushes to her job as a dropout prevention counselor at George H. Bush High School in Fort Bend Independent School District. After school she gets the girls to band practices and theater rehearsals.

There’s no time to notice the gutter that was damaged in the Memorial Day Flood, or to consider the faded black address numbers that she needs to replace. She never lets herself think about the money she owes the Huntington Village Community Association — $791 in delinquent association dues plus more than $3,000 in legal fees — or the possibility that any day now, she could find a foreclosure notice on her door.

Washington has lived in Huntington Village, a modest suburb located on the edge of west Houston, since 2005. After spending most of her life in rented apartments, Washington had promised herself she would get a real house when she had her own family. “I was driving around in the middle of the night and I saw it, and I had a feeling it was the right place,” she says now. “I liked the curved drive and how the house didn’t look like every other house on the block. When I saw the inside, it was beat up but I could tell it had potential.”

She got the house in a foreclosure sale for about $80,000, renovated it — the previous owner used to have a bonfire on the bare cement floor in the living room and the house, built in 1974, hadn’t really been updated since then — and moved in with Angelica. They spent the first Christmas decorating a Christmas tree. “It felt so good to be home, to be in our own actual home,” Washington says now.

At that point, Washington was working as a special education employment counselor in HISD, and was sure she could manage the house note and Huntington Village Community Association’s dues of $144 a year. But then Washington’s hours were reduced and she fought to keep up with her bills. She quickly fell behind on the dues.

First there were politely worded letters from Marshall Management Group, the management company then in charge of collecting fees and enforcing deed restrictions for the homeowners’ association. Then there were letters from Lewis “Chip” Smith IV, the lawyer who represents Huntington Village Community Association. The first letters stated there would be legal action if she didn’t pay the late dues plus the attorney fee of $150, but they also mentioned that she might have to pay her debt and about $3,000 in legal fees if the case went to trial.

Smith filed a lawsuit against Washington on behalf of Huntington Village Community Association in 2013. Since Washington still didn’t have the money to pay, let alone the funds to hire a lawyer, she settled with the attorney, agreeing to pay $487.15 per month until the debt, $4,871.45, including his legal fees, had been paid. “The thing is, by paying two payments, I’ve already paid more than I actually owed the association. But it’s that or lose the house,” she says.

Washington isn’t alone. Across the country, homeowners’ associations like Huntington Village Community Association run neighborhoods, governing everything from deed restrictions to the collection of association dues. Some of these private organizations have been filing lawsuits against homeowners for years for everything from deed restriction violations, like the length of a homeowner’s grass, to using the power of foreclosure to collect delinquent homeowners’ association dues. HOAs are almost completely unregulated and the law is heavily weighted on the side of the homeowners’ associations — they almost always win. As Smith puts it: “End of the day, you’ve either paid your bill or you haven’t. “It’s not like there’s much of a defense or a debate on that.”

In Texas there is no regulatory agency overseeing homeowners’ associations. Most county attorneys and district attorneys won’t get involved with an HOA unless there’s evidence of criminal wrongdoing, and the website of the Texas Attorney General’s Office explicitly states that the office does not investigate homeowners’ associations and advises homeowners to get a private attorney. Most private attorneys conclude that the business just isn’t worth it. “Typically by the end of the lawsuit, it’s been such a hassle, most of the lawyers representing homeowners swear they’ll never do it again,” David Kahne, a Houston lawyer who has been representing homeowners against HOAs for more than a decade, says.

Each HOA is governed by bylaws and deed restrictions created by the neighborhood developers when the subdivisions were first built. From there board members are allowed to interpret those rules as they see fit, without any kind of government oversight. Texas has even expanded the authority of HOA boards with extra powers enumerated in the Texas property code that allow boards to more easily change their bylaws.

These associations have also spawned a mini-industry with lawyers who specialize in representing HOAs against homeowners and charge legal fees running from about $150 to $200 for the demand letters attorneys send out to residents and between $1,500 and $3,000 for any case that leads to a lawsuit. Contracts vary, so some lawyers get monthly payments but many collect their legal fees from the homeowners.

“It would be one thing if homeowners’ associations were suing over hundreds of dollars in late association dues or if they were trying to get someone to stop walking a pet tiger through the subdivision,” Kahne says. “That’s not what happens, though. It’s lawsuits over grass growing in the driveway cracks and people who have fallen behind on their dues because of real problems in their lives and then they end up with thousands of dollars of debt, most of it owed to the attorneys.”

Smith, the lawyer who represents Huntington Village Community Association and other homeowners’ associations in the area, contends that he performs a necessary service for homeowners.

“It’s kind of like I’m maintaining civilization. Believe me, a lot of people complain about HOAs, but the alternative is chaos,” Smith says. “It seems like I have a really mean, nasty job, but if somebody doesn’t do it, suburbia would collapse. Maybe not in one year, but in a few years it would all come down.”

Stephanie Ferrante, the executive director of the Greater Houston chapter of the Community Associations Institute, a national homeowners’ association and the industry’s chief lobbying group, says homeowners’ associations protect individual homeowner rights by ensuring everyone pays up and follows the rules. Without HOAs, common areas wouldn’t be kept up and people could paint their front doors scarlet, park boats on their lawns, put up countless yard signs, keep any number of pets and have six-foot-tall topiary rabbits in their front yards, destroying the look and value of neighborhoods.

But Evan McKenzie, a University of Illinois political science professor who specializes in homeowners’ association issues, argues that HOAs erode homeowner rights because they create a system in which the HOA is never held accountable for its actions. “Why do people think you can live in an urbanized area without any form of government except for these privatized entities that are under no legal obligation to uphold your rights?” McKenzie says.?Since the 1980s, lawyers representing the Huntington Village Community Association have filed more than 300 lawsuits in Harris County District Court and a handful of lawsuits in Fort Bend County District Court against homeowners in the 1,621 homes that make up the neighborhood.

Current board president Johnny Johnson, who once sued the board over homeowners’ association dues, acknowledges that there have been problems in the past. “It was the same old dictatorship setup the board had years before. If you know you have a half million dollars in the bank and an attorney on the payroll, you can scare the hell out of people and do what you want, and that’s what the board was doing. They would sue everybody, and there was no use talking to the board about it because their minds were already made up,” he says. But Johnson contends the board is changing under his guidance. “I’m doing what I can to right the wrongs of the past.”

Despite the fact that HOA cases that lead to actual foreclosures are very rare, according to Smith — he says only one in 50 actually makes it to auction and most of the homes are bought back during the six-month reclaiming period — Huntington Village Community Association has foreclosed on at least eight homeowners in the past decade alone. One home that was foreclosed on ended up being auctioned off for just $285.70. The house is now owned by a former board member’s son.

The Huntington Village Community Association has run the 1,621-home neighborhood since the neighborhood was built in 1971.
The Huntington Village Community Association has run the 1,621-home neighborhood since the neighborhood was built in 1971.

Homeowners’ associations first showed up in the United States in the 1840s when suburbs sprang up around the country. The trick was in keeping nonresidents out, and so the associations started using restrictive covenants, an old legal concept that allows a seller to exact a promise that runs with the land even after it has been sold. Restrictive covenants were also used to keep certain types of people from moving into neighborhoods (Jews and African Americans, for example).

By the 1960s, people wanted planned communities, and that was a concept the Federal Housing Administration embraced as well. The FHA started offering insurance to communities that set up homeowners’ associations, and the government even sent out a handbook with instructions on how to do it.

Starting in the 1980s, city officials began pushing for the creation of homeowners’ associations after a massive property tax revolt started in California and spread across the country. City officials realized that establishing HOAs was in their own best interest: Neither cities nor counties would be responsible for the upkeep of common areas, and the cost of infrastructure and neighborhood amenities would be included in the price of houses and supported through HOA dues. Meanwhile, cities got the benefit of increased property tax values.

In 1964, McKenzie says, the government estimated there were about 500 HOAs, and that number mushroomed over the following decades, especially in the South and on the West Coast, where there were building booms. According to a 2015 study by the Community Associations Institute, there are more than 333,000 HOAs in the United States and about 20 percent of people in this country live in homeowners’ association neighborhoods. “This is a form of privatization that has never been seen in history,” McKenzie says.

In Texas, HOAs have even more freedom than in most other places, McKenzie says. “All of the antigovernment sentiment has led Texas to lean on these private semi-government organizations that are not in any way governed by the state or by the Constitution. And Houston, the only major city without any zoning, is the center of it all because this is where HOAs have the least constraint.”

Naturally, not everyone has accepted the HOAs’ power without a fight.

In 2001, 82-year-old widow Wenonah Blevins was evicted from her home because she hadn’t paid $814.50 in late homeowners’ association dues and $3,700 in legal fees. Even though she’d paid cash for her home, located just off FM 1960 in north Houston, the Champions Community Improvement Association seized the $150,000 house and auctioned it off for $5,000 at the Harris County Courthouse.

Blevins sued the HOA, settled for $300,000 and got her home back, but the story sparked an outcry for reform. The resulting legislation, penned by then-state senator John Carona, head of Associa, the largest property management company in the country, ended up making HOAs stronger, longtime Houston homeowner rights advocate Beanie Adolph says. “That legislation was a joke,” she says now.

Then Geneva Kirk Brooks, the famed anti-pornography activist, made homeowner rights her last stand after a Houston HOA sued her in 1998. She met with the HOA lawyer who told her that he could make the suit go away for $39,000 in cash, Kahne says now. Brooks marched out, hired Kahne as her lawyer and got together a group of homeowners to sue the HOA. The case went all the way to the Texas Supreme Court, where the justices sided with Brooks in 2004. Brooks died of cancer before the decision was announced.

There was another big push to reform HOAs after a soldier en route to Iraq in 2010 got a frantic call from his wife in Frisco, a Dallas suburb, telling him that their $300,000 home, which they owned free and clear, was being foreclosed on for about $800 in HOA dues. The house was auctioned off, despite laws that prevent such a thing from happening to any member of the U.S. military, before the soldier could intervene.

Once again, the scandal incited calls for reform from the Texas Legislature. In 2011, the legislature responded by passing its most comprehensive legislation on HOAs. Some of the changes were fairly minor, allowing people to fly flags, have rain barrels and install solar panels if they choose.

Others were designed to give homeowners more power. The 2011 legislation allowed homeowners to vote on board elections even if they were behind on their HOA dues. The HOA boards were required to offer payment plans for association dues. The legislation also required HOAs to provide financial records to homeowners upon request. (However, the only way to get an HOA to comply is to hire a lawyer and go to court.) Instead of being able to use nonjudicial foreclosures, HOAs were required to go before a judge to foreclose on a house. Despite all the changes, one crucial HOA tool remained intact: HOAs still had the power to foreclose on a home over unpaid homeowners’ association dues.

A Texas Supreme Court decision for Inwood North Homeowners’ Association v. Harris in 1987 found that HOAs could foreclose to collect assessments despite constitutional homestead protections, stacking the rights of the HOA firmly above the rights of the homeowner. Until that point, Texas law had always held that only a bank or a taxing authority could take your home.

In 1995, HOA powers in Harris County were further expanded after the state legislature passed Texas Property Code Chapter 204, a piece of legislation crafted by a Houston HOA attorney that really applied only to Harris County. Chapter 204 allowed HOAs in Harris County to adopt and enforce new deed restrictions and allowed new HOAs to be created in existing subdivisions without the full consent of all property owners.

A massive increase in lawsuits filed against homeowners in Harris County followed. Chris Adolph, a professor of statistics and political science at the University of Washington, found that while in 1985 only 449 homeowners faced foreclosure by their HOAs, that number had swelled to 1,280 by 2001.

Overall, there were more than 12,000 foreclosure filings from 670 Harris County HOAs over the 17-year period Adolph examined, and there have been more than 25,000 foreclosure filings by homeowners’ associations in Harris County from 1985 to 2007, according to HOAdata.org, a nonprofit research site run by homeowner rights activist Beanie Adolph. (Chris Adolph notes that it’s unclear how many of these foreclosure filings ended with sales because the final disposition of the home isn’t always apparent in the court records.)

The statistics also indicate that foreclosures happened more often in low-income neighborhoods, despite the fact that the delinquent fines were likely only a few hundred dollars. “The HOA ostensibly represents the neighborhood itself. Thus, poorer neighborhoods — or their agents, the HOAs — seem to have chosen to impose higher rates of foreclosure on themselves,” Chris Adolph writes, adding that HOAs and their attorneys stand to make a lot of money from these tactics.

Despite the fact that board members manage thousands of dollars and are charged with longterm planning to make sure the HOA won’t end up bankrupt in the decades to come, there are no qualifications required to be an HOA board member. (In 2011 the state legislature passed a law that anyone convicted of a felony or a crime of moral turpitude can’t serve on a board.) Once a person is elected to the board, there isn’t any required education, although the Community Associations Institute runs daylong seminars. The thing is, if the boards aren’t run properly — with a large percentage of dues collected and a savings account for unexpected large expenses — it’s easy for them to end up in a financial quagmire. (In South Carolina, homeowners are on the hook for thousands of dollars in repairs after private dams across the state collapsed in October floods.)

There’s also vulnerability in the way the HOA businesses are structured. Most HOAs have property management companies running the day-to-day operations. These are companies intent on making money, so they can become aggressive, Beanie Adolph says. Attorneys can also drive HOAs to get more litigious since that’s how they make their livelihood.

“Most cities and counties can’t even tell you how many homeowners’ associations are in their community. They don’t even know,” McKenzie says. “There’s nobody watching the finances, nobody watching how this is done, and most of the people on these boards are volunteers working without background checks or any accountability. It’s convenient for developers and municipal governments, but it’s really questionable for homeowners. If the board isn’t running the HOA correctly, homeowners can be left holding the bag.”

Angela and Earnest Hall clashed with Huntington Village Community Association after the couple failed to get architectural approval to remodel their house.
Angela and Earnest Hall clashed with Huntington Village Community Association after the couple failed to get architectural approval to remodel their house.

When Huntington Village first opened in 1971, the suburban enclave attracted energy executives and company presidents to live in its spacious, high-ceilinged ranch-style houses.

Frank Velasquez, then a corporate accountant, bought his home in 1974 because he liked the feel of the neigborhood, the treelined streets and the carefully manicured lawns and the way everyone watched out for their neighbors. “There was a good feeling here. Everyone knew everybody and we looked out for each other. It was a neighborly place,” he says.

But then the 1980s oil bust hit, followed by a recession, and standards began to slip. Lawns started to look unkempt and houses started looking shabby. Some people hung on and struggled to put up a good front, many lost their homes to foreclosure and roughly half of the people in the neighborhood had stopped paying their annual association dues by 1984, according to longtime board member Charles Norvell. “I was elected in 1984 and when I got on the board and looked at the financials, I couldn’t believe it. We were in the hole for thousands of dollars,” he says.

Huntington Village Community Association was aggressive about keeping up appearances. The association took homeowner Richard McGaughy to court in 1981 in a lawsuit that complained about everything from the state of his yard to oil stains on the driveway and a bird’s nest in the eaves of the roof.

The judge sided with the association and issued an injunction against McGaughy telling him to clean up his act, but it didn’t end there. In the following decade, the HOA pulled McGaughy into court every time anyone concluded he was violating court orders to keep the property orderly. By 1991, when McGaughy was once again in a hearing over the state of his lawn, even the judge sounded exasperated, according to the court transcript.

“I don’t like sitting up here sending somebody to jail,” the judge said. “The jails are full and heaven knows your offense is embarrassingly negligible compared to some of the things that put people across the street. But you’ve put me in a position of giving me no choice. I don’t have any other option. If you can think of one, give it to me.”

McGaughy agreed to clean up his property, but asked if he could leave the bird’s nest up until the birds left for the season, telling the judge how he has removed the nest every year and then the birds come back and rebuild each spring. The judge said McGaughy could keep the nest, but urged him to take care of the other issues raised by the HOA.

“As I said, it is just harassment, sir. There’s no difference,” McGaughy said.

“Then let’s bring it to an end,” the judge said. “No harm will come to you for complying with these matters. Do them and bring this to an end. Save yourself a lot of money and grief.”

That was the first case the Huntington Village Community Association filed in district court, but it wouldn’t be the last.

Despite the fact that the association rules laid out by the neighborhood developers in 1971 expressly stated that the board couldn’t permanently raise dues above $96, when Norvell became president, the board voted to raise the dues for a one-time increase to $144. The problem was the board failed to lower the dues back to $96, an oversight that some homeowners, including current board president Johnson, noticed and started asking about.

At the same time, the board hired a property management company to handle deed restriction violations and assessments and contracted a lawyer to collect unpaid association dues. “We went after people for not paying maintenance fees pretty strong, but we would only take them right up to foreclosure in court and everything. After all, these are neighbors,” Norvell says now.

But even though the association was in better financial shape, the way the board increased the assessment drew the ire of a couple of homeowners, Johnson and Palma Sales, a single mom who had moved into the neighborhood in 1988. Sales went to every meeting and was friends with all the board members until she read the association bylaws, which stated the association could charge only $96 for fees. “I asked why we were all still being charged $144, and suddenly the board didn’t like me anymore,” she says now. She and Johnson refused to pay anything but the $96 assessment, and the HOA sued both.

Johnson and Palma hired lawyers and fought the lawsuit, filing countersuits and ignoring foreclosure threats. Finally, the day before the trial date, the association’s lawyers offered a settlement. Johnson and Sales agreed, stipulating both would pay only the $96 dues mandated.

For a while things calmed down, but Sales and Johnson became concerned when C. Louis Noack, a local CPA, was elected president. “He wouldn’t let anyone but himself talk. I think it was an ego trip, to be honest with you. Sometimes it just goes to your head, being in control,” Norvell says. “He told people to shut up and he ran things the way he wanted.” (The Houston Press repeatedly requested comment from Noack and received no response.)

The dust was still settling over the Johnson and Sales lawsuits — the HOA’s insurance went up to $30,000 a year immediately after the settlement, Norvell says — when Angela and Earnest Hall bought a home in Huntington Village. The two-story brick house was nestled behind a pair of solid oak trees on a quiet cul-de-sac, and it was the kind of place the couple had imagined raising their kids in. Earnest Hall grew up in Homestead, which he calls “the hood.”

Shortly after they moved in, Earnest noticed a woman walking the street, peering at his house and picking up any trash she found. Earnest’s extended family was always around and whenever there was something to celebrate, the party was at the Halls’ house. “Everybody was so proud of me because this house meant I’d made it,” he says. “We celebrate that still and we celebrate a lot.”

He’d installed a basketball hoop in the cul-de-sac, and one evening the woman, Sharon Swanson, who was then a board member, came down and took the ball away, telling Earnest he was violating deed restrictions by putting up a basketball hoop that wasn’t strictly on his property. Things got tense and Earnest, frustrated, called the police, who sided with Swanson.

Swanson kept complaining about the parties and the noise. Then one day a police officer showed up. He told Earnest that Swanson had found unused bullets in her front yard and believed Earnest was threatening her. “I laughed it off, but it was crazy. I mean, I grew up poor and I wasn’t raised to waste anything, not even bullets,” he says now, shaking his head. He avoided Swanson and the HOA after that. But the issues with the HOA didn’t end there.

After Hurricane Ike whipped through and damaged the house in 2008, the Halls decided to remodel. Earnest knew the HOA required any changes to the outside of a house to be approved by the architectural committee, but he put that off and had the contractors work on the inside. “I was nervous about approaching them. I’d already heard rumors that I was supposedly dealing drugs from the house and been asked if I was running a boarding house by these people, and I didn’t think they’d even listen to my plans before they said no.”

Once Earnest began work on the outside of the house, he immediately received a deed restriction violation notice and was told he needed to see the architectural committee. He talked with a lawyer before the meeting, and she advised him to bring a tape recorder with him so he’d have a record of the proceedings.

He introduced himself to the board, his voice coming out high-pitched and determinedly cheerful, and was immediately peppered with questions from board members about the project, the height of the roof, the way the walls would be constructed. Norvell tore apart Earnest’s plans, asking Earnest what he needed a home movie theater for.

Earnest, an electrician by trade, had a nascent production company that had produced one film, Thug Life.

“We’ll have a home theater so we can preview movies when guys come in from L.A. And, you know, so we can watch movies,” Earnest said.

“I think there’s more to this than is actually here,” Norvell replied.

(“He was putting in nine bedrooms and there were rumors going around that he was running a whorehouse and that he was going to shoot pornographic movies,” Norvell says now.)

Earnest tried to walk the board through his plans, talking about how he was adding five bedrooms to his four-bedroom house. This grabbed another board member’s attention.

“All of the house is bedrooms? There’s no kitchen or nothing?”

The board refused to approve the project and sued the Halls for infringing on deed restrictions. The Halls got a lawyer. When the two sides appeared before Judge James Shoemake in Fort Bend District Court, he scolded both sides and ordered them to go out in the hall and work out a deal because they wouldn’t like how he would handle things if they moved forward with the case, Earnest says.

In the Fort Bend County Courthouse hall, the board members said they just wanted a tour of the house once the remodeling was done. The Halls agreed. It cost them $10,000 in legal fees, and even though Earnest sent certified letters to the board asking the board members to come look at the house, nobody ever showed up.

In January 2012, Beatrice John, a Nigerian immigrant, sent in her $144 check for dues, but months later she received notice of a lawsuit telling her she still owed $94 in dues and $3,000 in legal fees. “I decided to go to court. I couldn’t go along with paying $3,000 when I only owed $94 more,” she says.

She spoke to the HOA before the court date to see if the association could settle the matter, but the board told her it was up to Smith. On the first court date, Smith didn’t show up. The second time, he did. “I couldn’t afford a lawyer, so God was my lawyer,” she says now. The judge sided with the association, and John was ordered to pay what she owed plus $3,000 in attorneys fees.

Some homeowners don’t respond at all. Patsy Richmond bought her home 13 years ago after her four-year-old grandson spotted the place and declared that this was going to be their home. During the Great Recession, Richmond was laid off and didn’t pay the association dues. By the time she was again employed and felt able to take care of the $582 in delinquent fees, she could either settle with Smith or lose her house.

In 2014 Richmond agreed to pay Smith $262 per month until the debt for $2,622.69 — $582 in fees plus Smith’s legal fees — was cleared. She fell behind on the payments earlier this year when her contract work with a hotel chain tapered off. “It’s such a small amount of money and they want to take my house for it? I don’t know. I may just let them. I’m tired of this,” she says.

Originally the board was involved when there was a question of a lawsuit, Norvell says. The board would review a list of those who hadn’t paid, file liens against their homes and then it was up to the lawyer to pursue the cases and collect the fees. However, former board member Don Cooper served on the board starting in 2009, and he says board members never discussed lawsuits at the meetings run by Noack. “He didn’t talk to us. He talked to Chip [Smith] and that was it,” Cooper says.

Norvell says he doesn’t believe the association has ever actually taken a house over maintenance fees. However, at least one house, belonging to Cheryl Maier, sold for $285.70 to the HOA — no one else put in a bid — in April 2011. Smith says he always advises his HOA clients not to file deeds of ownership on the properties that HOAs do foreclose on, so it’s unclear in the records what happend after the Huntington Village Community Association sold the house to itself at auction. After the sale, Maier’s house was deeded to the U.S. Bank National Association, which was listed as the trustee of the property. Then in 2012, Jason Swanson, the son of longtime resident and former board member Sharon Swanson, according to Velasquez, bought the house using a special warranty deed. It’s unknown how much he paid for the home. (The Press has attempted to contact Sharon Swanson for weeks without any response.)

Smith says these are the worst-case scenarios and usually involve irresponsible people. “HOA attorneys only started to exist when people stopped paying their bills,” Smith says. “HOAs don’t exist to hassle people. A lot of people don’t pay their bills and some of them shouldn’t be homeowners.”

Meanwhile, the neighborhood hasn’t been kept up the way some, including Velasquez, Johnson and Cooper, say it should be. Noack filled in one of the two swimming pools in the neighborhood against strong objections from some board members and homeowners, and tried to sell off the fencing, saying the association needed the money, according to Cooper. The records show the association had more than $400,000 in the bank that year, but Norvell says the HOA hasn’t been able to put money in its reserve fund for years.

In September 2014, Johnson ran for the board and became the board president. The Halls hoped things would be different once Johnson took charge, but Johnson also had an issue with a Hall party that he says was too loud. Johnson showed up asking the family to quiet down, but he was carrying a holstered gun. “The way we grew up, if you see someone coming up slowly in a car with the lights off and they’ve got a gun, that’s a drive-by about to happen. It got tense real quick,” Earnest says.

Johnson pointed out he has a concealed-carry license and he was trying to keep things calm in the neigborhood. “I was afraid, too. I was surrounded by these guys and they were angry. It was a tricky situation,” Johnson says.

Even though he’d run for the board intent on changing things, Johnson kept Smith as the association’s lawyer. He says Smith’s contract with the HOA gives the board leverage to make Smith renegotiate some cases. “Had we eliminated him, we would have had no control over what was already done. It’s helped us because there have been cases where we called Chip and asked him to change something and he’s done it,” Johnson says. “It was tactical, because I knew he could be a lot more help as a friend than as an enemy.”

Once he was elected president, Johnson set up a new website, started posting the board meeting minutes, got to work on a newsletter and made it clear that anyone could talk during a board meeting. He also instituted a yearlong moratorium on lawsuits. When it ended in November, Smith promptly filed seven lawsuits against Huntington Village homeowners.

Ebony Washington, a Huntington Village homeowner facing foreclosure over delinquent homeowner association dues, says she could have paid off the $791 in association fees, but she can’t afford the attorney fees.
Ebony Washington, a Huntington Village homeowner facing foreclosure over delinquent homeowner association dues, says she could have paid off the $791 in association fees, but she can’t afford the attorney fees.
Photos by Marco Torres

One night in November, Ebony Washington pulled into the crescent-shaped drive and saw her salmon-colored brick house illuminated in the headlights. “I could lose the house,” the thought skittered through her mind. Washington stared at the house for a beat and then told her three daughters to go inside and start their homework.

The second the front door slammed shut, Washington crumpled over the steering wheel, letting the tears out while she gasped for breath. Then she swiped at her eyes and arranged her hair, scanning her face for any telltale signs of distress. She slammed the car door shut and leaned against it heavily. “I never let them see me cry,” she explains. “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to fix this, but I don’t want my girls to worry.”

Washington has tried to make the repairs requested by the association so she’ll be back in line with the deed restrictions. Her neighbor, Earnest Hall, fixed her address numbers and the gutter that had gotten the deed restriction violations. A few weeks later, another notice arrived informing her the faded burnt-orange trim on the house needs to be repainted.

Washington sat at her kitchen table, wiping away tears and laughing at the same time. “I barely have enough money to cover the house note and day care,” Washington says. “There are nights I’ve gone to bed not full to make sure the girls got enough to eat. I can’t afford to paint.”

Besides, she notes, she may not be in the house much longer. Washington hasn’t been able to meet Smith’s payments in months. The letters arrive once a month, each stating that if she doesn’t send in a check bringing her account up to date, Smith will recommend foreclosure.

Johnson says the board doesn’t have many options once homeowners like Washington have settled with Smith and signed a contract. “There’s very little we can do, other than ask the attorney to go back and negotiate the issue. We certainly don’t want someone losing their home over something as stupid as this.”

Washington doesn’t have the money for a lawyer but hopes to qualify for legal aid. She might just give up the house. 

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