Why a Homeowner Disassociates Herself From Her Bed

If I told you that a woman who owns an $82,000 condominium sleeps in her car, you might reply: "Huh?"

Yes, 44-year-old Evie Santiago has a roof over her head, but it belongs to her Toyota Tercel and not to the condo she bought two years ago just before her husband died of cancer.

It's not that she prefers the accommodations of her car to her South Coast Villas condo in Santa Ana. She's doing it, she says, because the homeowners association will have her car towed the first time it's left overnight. Santiago said she has discovered that it's illegal to tow a car if someone is inhabiting it.

So, every night around 9 for the past two weeks, Santiago has showered, changed her clothes and hauled her blanket and pillow out to the car. Most nights, she says, she turns on the inside car light and reads until she gets sleepy. Whether symbolically or not, she's currently reading "Great Expectations."

"I figured I have no other choice," she said Friday. "They've backed me into a corner. I have to sleep in my car to protect my property and defend my home."

Santiago's Last Stand is the culmination of a problem that arose immediately after she and her children, now 19 and 23, moved into the condo in October of 1993. Because she works and the children attend separate local colleges, each has a car.

Accordingly, Santiago went to the property manager and asked for three parking tags. Only then, she says, was she informed of a two-per-unit limit. Santiago said she was told the limit was explained in the CC&Rs; that govern California residential complexes. When she challenged them to find it in the CC&Rs;, she says, the association board said the limitation was in a separate book of rules and regulations.

Santiago concedes that, but says, "I feel that my rights were violated, in that I was not informed totally of the limitations. Once they get your money, you're stuck. Had I known I could only have two cars, I would never have spent the money to buy here."

Santiago said her son originally agreed to park off-site--several blocks away being the closest spot--but that his car was vandalized. As a result, she has decided to stand her ground.

It's too complicated to explain how she and her children have juggled their cars for two years, but suffice it to say the association got wise to them using the visitor parking space when all three cars were home at the same time.

Thus, the standoff.

I asked Santiago if she's not being extreme with her sleep-in. "Would you do less for your family?" she asks. "Why should we park six blocks away? This is our home. When I purchased the place, I assumed the three of us would be able to park inside. This is our home. Why should we have to park outside?"

I know Santiago wants me to blast the homeowners association, and normally I couldn't think of a better way to spend a Sunday morning. However, association president Bill Whicker has a rather unassailable argument.

"We're in a community that was built in the 1970s, and there are approximately 1.5 spaces per unit," he says. "She wants the right to bring three cars in there. If we accommodate her, I have 303 other units that I'm legally required to give rights to. Clearly, I can't do that. There aren't enough spaces to accommodate her request without exacerbating an already difficult situation."

Whicker said the complex has 450 spaces and more than 700 registered cars. Residents often make numerous circuits of the complex looking for nighttime parking, he says, and many park off-site.

This is where the rub comes. Santiago thinks the parking problem should be solved by the association; the association says it's her problem.

Whicker says Santiago should have discovered before buying, either by asking or from being informed by the seller, that there was a parking limitation. In any event, he says, it wasn't the association's responsibility to seek her out and explain the parking situation. Santiago counters that she had no reason to assume parking would be a problem.

Whicker suggests that Santiago negotiate with another homeowner for that person's allotted space, if available. "I think she wants us to do that for her, and we won't," Whicker says. "We won't get involved in homeowner-to-homeowner negotiations. We're not her parking space broker."

I asked Whicker what he thought of Santiago's camp-out. "I think she's very sincere. She believes in her cause and is standing her ground, and she has a right to do so. The problem is that I don't think she is taking into account the larger view the board must take. I don't think she's grandstanding or making a play for attention. I think she wants a solution, as do we. We just can't seem to find any common ground."

Ah, California communal living.

"This is what I consider Jeffersonian democracy at its best," Whicker says sighing. "We have to do the most good for the most people most of the time. I have 304 homeowners to accommodate the best I can. So we get beat up, harassed, yelled at and blamed for everything in the world, and we're trying to do the best we can to maintain community values and keep the place up and make most people happy most of the time. And we can't run the place on individual demands of one homeowner."

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

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