July 13, 2021
According to trade association data, approximately 1,980,000 Virginians live in 778,000 homes in more than 8,7000 community associations (HOAs, condominiums, etc.). In the District of Columbia, approximately 111,000 residents live in 48,000 homes located in more than 1,300, community associations. The “common interest” community model of land development is particularly prevalent in the national capital region (a.k.a., Washington metropolitan area), where condominiums, cooperatives and townhome developments provide housing to many, particularly in the urban core. Many people rely on an association to maintain infrastructure necessary to use their homes. This imposes significant fees and dues on their members while enforcing rules governing the improvement or use of the property. Condominiums, HOAs and cooperatives have strong impacts on the way of life, financial burden, and investment outlook of many people who may be unaware of such effects before purchasing HOA homes. Volunteer directors drawn from the lot owners govern such communities. By law, the recorded declaration and bylaws function as a “contract” defining the rights and obligations among owners and boards. Many boards and committees include individuals lacking the knowledge and skills necessary to fulfill the duties laid out in the covenants and bylaws. Many directors, even the well-meaning ones, do not understand their duties or the scope of their discretion. Many are civic-minded people engaged in helping others, others are motivated by self-interest or dislike of certain neighbors. Mandatory associations use professional managers and specialized law firms to practically implement the collecting and spending of money and the enforcement of rules in the community. While the managers and attorneys are paid out of the general funds for the benefit of the community, they work at the pleasure of, and direction by the board majority. Because every property is unique, and the needs and desires of the owners are different, actions taken by the associations agents are often contrary to the best interests of an owner. Sometimes a problem isn’t instigated by the HOA itself – there may be neighbors who don’t look at something the same way, and the associations meetings are the “venue” for the parties dispute. Unfortunately, even where the recorded instruments enshrine an owner’s rights or limit the association’s authority, frequently a community association’s actions (or inactions) prejudice individual property rights. It’s not enough for families to have legal rights that exist on paper. People need help exercising rights protecting their personal safety, health, liberty, investments and financial security. Because state laws provide ways to help HOAs and condominiums to collect money from the owners, the associations have financial resources to work with experienced managers, accountants, lawyers and even lobbyists to organize and advance their interests. Of course, if the board majority supports an owner in a particular situation, it’s easier to get things done to resolve problems. However, many good citizens often find themselves at odds with a property management system that does not respect their rights.
After years of working in other law firms, I became convinced that individual landowners in community associations needed a law practice that they could turn to that wasn’t focused on representing HOA boards, and wasn’t a general law practice lacking a focus on this area. I became interested in this area of law after several years working on civil litigation, real estate, business law, and construction matters. Many reoccurring questions in community associations law have answers that can help individuals and families, but aren’t neatly organized in a code book or published treatise. Many applicable doctrines are buried in obscure reported case opinions or require interpretation of seemingly conflicting statutes or documents. When the use and enjoyment of one’s property is at stake, its not fair to expect an attorney who does not practice this area of law to spot the essential issues or navigate unfamiliar territory. The HOAs and condominiums have experienced community association attorneys helping them. In 2015, I decided to start building a law practice that, among other things, provide this service to lot and unit owners. I work with individuals, families and small businesses who are serious about protecting their own rights by solving specific property problems related to HOAs and condominiums. Over time this grew into a law practice focus that helps a growing number of people. Many people who can hire an attorney to help them with their HOA problem are not aware that there are provisions in the governing instruments, statutory protections, English common law doctrines, or judicial procedures that can be marshalled to their aid. One cannot count on one’s adversary to tell you how you can protect yourself. Also, community associations disputes frequently require the assistance of more than one expert to solve the problem. Cowherd PLC works with a variety of surveyors, building code experts, engineers, title researchers, real estate agents and other professionals who are in a position to work with individuals, families or small business so that as things progress the client has the peace of mind that there is a “team” working for them. When owners finds themselves in a seemingly intractable dispute with a neighbor, manager, board or committee where a significant property right, investment, or financial obligation are at stake, their initial focus in talking with people is to find out if they have a meritorious case, or what legal options and alternatives may exist that have not yet been fully considered. In other instances, the dispute has developed momentum such that a hearing, lawsuit or arbitration is imminent or actually pending, requiring a response or further action. These are situations where the experience, education and skills that Cowherd PLC has to offer can provide great value to a landowner who needs the right attorney for them at that moment. Many lot or unit owners have worked hard their whole life, making careful decisions regarding the making the property purchase, managing finances, and trying to maintain the property and maximize its use, while showing respect towards other members of their community. In such instances, its important to know if one is actually being treated fairly by their neighbors or boards and what next steps may be available to protect and advance one’s own rights. This is what the Cowherd PLC niche of representing landowners in disputes with neighbors or association has grown to take on.