Question: I live in an 18-unit townhouse community; unfortunately the homeowners are unaware of applicable laws and requirements. Our complex is "U-shaped," units to the left, right and across the back. There's only one driveway entrance into the complex, which is also the only way out. There is no elevator, pool, spa or recreational area. There's a small patch of grass at the public street. Our units are directly behind the garages, which line the inside of the driveway, and because of this cement-oriented construction, our association has turned into a massive echo chamber that is also very hot and uncomfortable.
Recently we've experienced problems regarding three owners and a tenant. They are drinking in the driveway areas. They drink and loiter in back and outside their own units during the weekends. They block the main driveway entrance with tables and chairs. All four individuals drink with their wives and friends during weekends and all of them are very aggressive.
We sought help from a local off-site management company, but they keep saying that "it's the association and owner's responsibility." The management company owner said he is "not interested in our problems" and he didn't know what we were talking about.
Making things worse, we have two persons selected as the homeowner association board directors, but they don't know how to run the association and they are very intimidated by these problem individuals. We tried local police but they also told us the association has to intervene and solve our problems. Nobody here knows who the association is or who has the authority to do anything. Please, I need help to fix this problem; what can we do about all this?
Answer: Based on the size and contained nature of your development, there is no reason that your association cannot manage itself. There should be no need to incur expenses for an outside management company, in particular an off-site company that offers little assistance, let alone guidance, for your most pressing problems. Management companies are typically not law firms representing your association, so they will be unable to give you legal advice.
Board directors are not the police, nor should they pretend to be. If aggressiveness and drinking on or outside the property violates criminal laws or statutes, take those complaints to the local police department. Ask for a senior lead officer for your area or the sergeant or watch commander. Explain that the situation at your association is escalating and request that law enforcement perhaps speak to the residents there about recent activities. Also, ask law enforcement to provide extra patrol for your area. Don't wait until incidents occur to ask for law enforcement intervention. Do so immediately when an unsafe situation arises.
While not all tenant activity can be controlled, in general, the titleholder is responsible for his or her tenant. The board needs to write letters to titleholders with tenants reminding them that violations of covenants, conditions and restrictions, nuisance laws and the right of all residents to quiet enjoyment of their properties are prosecutable.
Many associations have an overabundance of cement in their developments, such as excessive block walls, swimming pool demolition and cementing over common areas. Some use the excuse of eliminating water usage for pouring more cement. But cement also retains heat and has the unintended consequence of making areas throughout the community extremely hot. Too much cement makes communities undesirable to a host of potential buyers and has the effect of substantially altering quality living environments. Sometimes these situations are easily remedied by large planters where trees and other dense shrubbery are utilized as sound absorbers. Other associations are removing excess cement.
Boards and owners need to familiarize themselves with common interest development laws located throughout Civil Code sections 4000 to 6150. While knowing that these laws exist and apply is essential, you are not expected to understand their legal implications or application. An attorney fluent with this area of law can assist your board with legal compliance issues and recommend methods of communication with your owners.
Your association needs an attorney to get the board back on track and deal with the miscreants effectively. As a small association, you should be extremely careful that your expenditure on attorney services doesn't get out of hand. Don't tie up association funds in large retainer deposits of thousands of dollars at a time. Your attorney needs to agree to work for a set fee on a "transactional" basis. The attorney will give your board the guidance it needs as to what laws apply and the documents and disclosures that must be prepared and produced.
The California Bureau of Real Estate (www.dre.ca.gov) is also a good general resource for homeowner association information.
Zachary Levine, partner at Wolk & Levine, a business and intellectual property law firm, co-wrote this column. Vanitzian is an arbitrator and mediator. Send questions to Donie Vanitzian JD, P.O. Box 10490, Marina del Rey, CA 90295 or firstname.lastname@example.org.