While day-to-day life in a suburban homeowners association may seem simpler and less complicated than negotiating the sometimes-turbulent waters of an urban co-op or condo community, association members and directors have plenty of need for a voice, both in dealing with their own boards and management representatives, and in the halls of local and state governance. The Common-Interest Homeowners Coalition (C-IHC) of New Jersey is a not-for-profit group dedicated to gathering strength in numbers and giving voice to the concerns of homeowners in New Jersey's residential associations.
On a Mission, With a Purpose
The mission of the C-IHC is to serve as the independent voice for homeowners in New Jersey residential community associations, to promote and strengthen democratic governance, and to advance the general welfare of homeowners. As an independent organization composed of owners of homes in common-interest residential associations—including but not limited to condominiums, townhouses, planned unit developments, and cooperatives—the C-IHC considers that it is an independent voice for homeowners to legislators and government officials, industry practitioners, association boards, and the general public on matters directly related to residency in homeowner associations.
According to the group's literature, the fundamental governing processes at work in many HOAs and co-ops throughout New Jersey (and the rest of the country as well) are outdated, deeply flawed, and in need of overhauling.
According to Margaret Bar-Akiva, a founding member of C-IHC, as well as the group's legislative committee president, "The laws on condominiums and common interest residential associations were written in the late 1960's by developers, the FHA, and banker-lenders. They treated HOAs as property issues, not as homes that people live in. The old laws gave extensive powers to the boards who would run the associations with their hired surrogates—principally attorneys and management firms. Clearly, we needed new laws to replace the New Jersey Condominium Act, etc."
Swinging Into Action
"In 1997," Bar-Akiva continues, "the New Jersey Legislature wisely established the Assembly Task Force to Study Homeowners Associations, the members of which included three legislators, one developer's attorney, one managing agent, two CAI (Community Associations Institute) attorneys, and two members who were board members of their HOA's. The task force held hearings around the state.
"Unfortunately, the task force was hardly representative of the interests of the individual homeowners. Fortunately, Lois and Sam Pratt, two of C-IHC's founding members, testified and submitted recommendations at these hearings, as did many other homeowners in C-IHC and elsewhere. The exciting thing that happened was that although several of us went to hearings thinking we had uniquely bad situations in our own associations, we learned that there were common threads of problems occurring in homeowner associations throughout the state. Common abuses and injustices included such things as boards conducting all association business behind closed doors, refusing to let homeowners see basic financial records and meeting minutes of the association, making up rules without homeowner input, controlling (rigging) elections, and making large purchases without approval of homeowners," she says. C-IHC, she says, became very concerned that boards had been granted power without oversight, and that can lead to problems.
According to Bar-Akiva, C-IHC works to develop appropriate principles, procedures and practices of democratic association governance in HOAs and remove impediments to such practices. The group also advocates establishing legal and other mechanisms to ensure vigorous enforcement of these democratic procedures. The general aim of the C-IHC is to ensure a democratic experience to homeowners at the most local level of governance as a means of strengthening these processes in the larger community, state, and nation. These purposes are promoted through advocacy, research, education, and communication of information.
Getting in the Door
There are three types of membership in C-IHC, eligibility and dues for which are based on tenure with the group.
The first year—or what the C-IHC calls "Founding Members"—are asked to pay a charter contribution of $25, along with annual dues of $25. "Sustaining Members" pay $25 in annual dues, and "Regular Members" pay $20.
Once dues are received on May 1st of each year, members have all rights and privileges, including holding office within the association. As with most associations, membership is what the individual makes it, and C-IHC members may be as involved as they wish. The coalition is not necessarily about the individual, however; rather what the name infers—the common interests of all the group's individual members.
A Chat with C-IHC
Margaret Bar-Akiva spoke to The New Jersey Cooperator recently about her organization, giving some insight into the workings of the coalition, as well as bill S2016, the Common Interest Community and Homeowners Association Act, which was introduced by Sen. Shirley Turner, D-15, on November 8, 2004.
What kinds of goals does the C-IHC set for itself each year and what is the success rate in carrying them out?
"It's long term when you think about the individuals involved, but not as far when you think of what the C-IHC is trying to do as a social movement. This social movement is trying to change a fundamental problem in homeowner associations. The problem is viewing these associations as private corporations rather than quasi-governmental entities."
Is this issue singular to the C-IHC?
"After I became involved in this issue and through my own experience, I discovered that this is also a statewide issue—and further, a national issue. When the same problem keeps popping up, that's when you start to see a pattern developing and begin to assess what the issues are. You realize that there are common elements to these problems.
"That common problem among [housing development] corporations is that human beings are not meant to live in corporations. They are meant to live in communities. This is where elderly people spend their retirement years and it's not meant to be devoid of a democratic process. At the moment, there is no solution to the problem because every time people try to [introduce more of a community philosophy] on their own, they run into the wall of 'Oh, well this is a private corporation, and if you don't like the rules you can just move.'"
What problems does this more corporate, less community-oriented way of doing things bring up for the homeowners?
"The main issue is that when there is no state oversight over the board members or over what the board actions are, then board members are able to make decisions with impunity and the homeowners suffer as a consequence."
What kind of goals are were set for the coming year for the coalition?
"Well, we have always maintained from the beginning that one of our main missions and ongoing goals is reform of homeowner associations. This has been the thrust of our efforts and we have never had a hidden agenda. We have always tried to ensure that legislators understood what homeowners are up against and reform it."
Does C-IHC consider Sen. Turner's introduction of bill S2016 a win for the organization?
"Well, let's put it this way, we are very happy that the senator has thoroughly understood what her constituents are talking about and what 1.5 million New Jersey residents go through. She has understood the helplessness that homeowners in common-interest developments feel. The work we now have ahead of us is to ensure that legislators understand [the bill] and then pass it into law. After it passes into law we are hopeful that there will be enough monitors to ensure that everything is happening the way the law states."
What do you see as a motivating factor in individuals joining the C-IHC?
"Individuals join for a variety of reasons, but we hope that they will understand that this is no longer about our own individual problems. Nor is this about people not being able to paint their house purple. It is however, about bringing democratic reform into a dictatorial enclave, which has no due process and no means for resolving disputes. We always hope that people who join realize that this is a much loftier issue."
Do similar organizations work in other states?
"There are grassroots organizations all across the country - lack of democratic process in HOAs is a problem that is inherent in each one of them."
What about individuals who may be looking for a group such as the C-IHC to join, but don't know where to turn?
"I would say that if individuals have experienced frustrations and inability to understand why they cannot solve the problems in their communities, or with their boards, then this the right organization for them to become a part of. We are homeowner-based, not meant to bring profit to anyone, but a better life to all homeowners."
To learn more about the C-IHC and bill S2016 visit the group's website at www.c-ihc-org, or go to the New Jersey Legislature's website, at www.njleg. state.nj.us to download a copy of the legislation.
David Garry is a freelance writer living in New York City.