November 6, 2023
Tomorrow, November 7, 2023, Virginians go to the polls to vote for all seats in the House and Senate. The 2024 session is expected to include legislative deliberation regarding the safety and affordability of aging housing stock, including condominiums. Developers and policymakers view condominiums as growing the tax base of the community while allowing for affordable housing. However, realities of condominiums present threats to unit owners, such as surprise assessments of $10,000-$45,0000, stalking neighbors, constricting rental policies, damage from leaking pipes, or even loss of one’s investment in deconversion. For owners of older condominium units with inadequate reserves and dysfunctional polity, sometimes it is best to sell the unit before the burdens become too great. However, for many unit owners, there are few housing options in their metropolitan region that they can afford. Many homeowners simply must find a way to make their current housing investment work for them.
On November 23, 2022, I posted an article to this blog, “Virginia Structural Integrity and Reserves Work Group,” concerning efforts to reform community association laws in Virginia. The 2022 General Assembly directed the Department of Professional and Occupational Regulation (DPOR) to appoint a panel of industry experts to develop recommendations for how state laws may be strengthened so that community associations can adequately fund projects necessary to renovate structural components and critical building systems. I was not a member of this work group, but I did attend one of their meetings as a public citizen. The legislature and the work group both understand that many, if not most, community associations do not have sufficient reserves to fund renovations essential to intended use, health, and safety. In April 2023, this work group published a lengthy report. I expect we will see a flurry of bills in the legislative session that convenes on January 10, 2024. For condominium unit owners, this two-month legislative session may result in a sea change that splashes waves throughout urban habitats in the Commonwealth. Failure to address such matters can lead to buildings losing insurance coverage, the inability of purchasers to obtain conventional financing, or even condemnation. If mishandled, unit owners can experience tremendous financial hardship with little guarantee that the renovation will succeed.
The industry of property managers, board attorneys, accountants, contractors, landscapers, and other businesses exert more influence over HOA policymaking than the homeowners do. Advisors and vendors to condominiums do not want boards to continue to defer maintenance until something catastrophic happens. If the advisors must tell the boards to do something difficult, they want to present it as necessary and feasible. Boards can replace the professionals with others if they do not like the service they receive. When a structural collapse or personal injury happens, the victims and unit owners often point fingers at the board and their advisors. The work group wants to facilitate reserve studies, collect assessments faster, and make contracts to replace critical components. The governing documents of common interest communities contemplate homeowners electing worthy candidates to the board to wisely fulfill legal responsibilities for the whole community. However, directors tend to make collective decisions according to their personal views, with a bias towards short-term solutions, or without doing their homework. If all the policies the work group wants are implemented, unit owners will have less control over the governance of their communities, while shouldering onerous financial obligations. Let us take a closer look at a few of the work group’s recommendations.
Use of Reserve Study Professionals: Virginia law requires associations to renew their reserve studies every five years. The work group wants to strengthen this with amendments requiring the study to be done by qualified professionals. Reserve studies evaluate the remaining life of various aspects of the common elements, and how much money ought to be set aside. This is not an easy task, because we are talking about millions of dollars. Reserve studies do not include a business plan for fundraising or bid-solicitation. The work group wants to prevent boards from doing the studies themselves, asking a committee of homeowners to do it, or relying on an estimator who is working for a contractor who wants the work. The firms that specialize in reserve studies often have professional relationships with the managers and attorneys who work closely with the boards. Even if the association purchases a professional reserve study, it may not provide all answers that are needed for the board to make decisions. With a statutory mandate to raise assessments and spend on critical components, according to the reserve study, the work group wants to keep the boards listening to the industry experts. However, boards can replace professionals with those willing to see things their way. Community associations are supposed to make important decisions in duly noticed, open meetings where owners can review the materials and speak if they so desire. An eight-figure commitment to be imposed upon the unit owners by an assessment ought to be managed in an “open” way. The board is forcing people to purchase something expensive together that they will be living with for as long as they own their homes. Such business meetings can get wild. Many unit owners are disengaged. Those who are engaged have strong opinions. There is a tendency to shift the discussion of the details out of the open and into an executive session, an informal committee, or to assign a director or manager to confer with the reserve specialist, contractor or engineer to discuss details and report back. Community associations are organized by recorded instruments that vest power in the board of directors, where the duties and prerogatives are defined. The members have the right to remove or replace the directors. Directors can change the direction things are going by replacing the professionals hired by the previous board. I agree that reserve studies ought to be done by qualified individuals. However, the problems are complex enough that regulating the professional field is not necessarily going to solve the problem. But the reserve studies will cost more because there will be fewer companies authorized to do the work.
Unit Owner Rescission of Additional Assessments: In community associations, there are situations where the members can override a board decision by a vote at a special meeting. The right of rescission may be set out in a statute or recorded instrument. I summarized statutory rescission rights in my post, “Can HOA Boards be Overridden through Group Action by Owners?” The Virginia Condominium Act allows unit owners to rescind board approved additional assessments:
All unit owners shall be obligated to pay the additional assessment unless the unit owners by a majority of votes cast, in person or by proxy, at a meeting of the unit owners’ association convened in accordance with the provisions of the condominium instruments within 60 days of the delivery or mailing of the notice required by this subsection, rescind or reduce the additional assessment.
Va. Code § 55.1-1964(E). This is a powerful tool which, if used wisely, allows unit owners to exercise oversight over board decisions. This cancels or reduces an imposed assessment without undoing related board decisions such as loans or contracts.
The work group takes aim at this procedure. Some view the provision as allowing the wrong kind of interference. The work group cites conflicts between several types of owners. For example, investors favor cosmetic improvements. Older owners tend to view reserve funding as a subsidy to future owners. The work group views boards of directors as more responsible and wiser and the unit owners as a majority as self-interested. All directors and members of condominium associations are under some sort of conflict of interest by the fact that they are investors and residents in the property subject to group decision-making. I touched upon these issues in my post, “Condominium Director Conflict of Interests and the Business Judgment Rule.” This reality is inherent, but the community still must govern itself through business decisions. Some business is to be conducted by the board, other business by the unit owners acting as a group. The owners individually retain certain rights which cannot be voted away even by 99% of the other members. Who is to say that the board or owners are more trustworthy when it comes to a huge decision? Many condominium bylaws were made when the statutory right of rescission was on the lawbooks. To take that procedure away now would in a sense rewrite the “contact.” The work group’s report fails to mention that even where the statutes do not provide an owner rescission procedure, homeowners may be able to block or undo board decisions by filing a lawsuit. In my opinion, the right of rescission ought to be retained, and broadened to include related subject-matter, because the unit owners need the ability to hit the “pause” button without necessarily having to file a lawsuit.
Use of Loans to Finance Major Renovations: The work group’s report recommends that the statutes be amended to authorize borrowing by associations for repair of capital components. A loan might make sense as a last resort for an urgent, essential project for which there are insufficient reserves in the bank but the unit owners are capable of repaying. Many people assume that HOAs and condominiums have the power to borrow money because they are businesses. The POAA and Condo Act do not authorize borrowing. The Virginia Nonstock Corporation Act lists borrowing as a corporate power. Unincorporated associations do not have an inherent ability to borrow money. However, declarations and bylaws may authorize borrowing, even for unincorporated entities. The issue of borrowing is tied to assessments. It is usually the unit owners who push for a loan option. However, bylaws typically do not have provisions that provide a framework for pass-through financing. If the board borrows money, typically the whole community becomes responsible in the event of a default. This can create controversy because responsible owners who pay off their portion initially upon demand do not want to later have to bail out their impecunious neighbors. From the lender’s perspective, the association’s cashflow is collateral, not the property itself. If poorly considered, legal reforms that loosen restrictions on condominiums borrowing money may result in unit owners becoming trapped in their investment. The condominium model was not designed around borrowing. Unit owners do not want the critical components of their building to fail. They also do not want the burdens of ownership to become like those seen in housing cooperatives or timeshares. I am concerned that the legislative proposals may address short term funding needs but change the nature of condominium investments into something more like cooperatives.
Aggressive Collection Tactics: Any attempts to fund reserves will require associations to intensify their debt collection with more liens, lawsuits, garnishments, and foreclosures. The work group recommends that the laws mandate that boards assess and collect sufficient funds to fully fund reserves. The general assembly already provided community association boards with powerful tools for debt collection. I discuss this in my article, “Memorandum of Association Assessment Lien.” The few consumer protection guardrails in the statutes for assessment liens and foreclosures are frequently ignored by HOA debt collectors. When they find themselves trapped in a cycle of community association debt collection, there are steps that a homeowner can take to protect themselves from later discovering that their HOA sold their home to an investor in foreclosure without their knowledge. For example, it is important for the homeowner to keep their association up to date with any changes to their snail mail address, and to confirm that the association acknowledged such updates.
Termination and Deconversion of Condominium: The work group’s report includes some vague statements about promoting redevelopment of condominium property. Usually, condominium termination results in substantial investment losses for those unit owners who are not in league with the developer acquiring the property. My analysis of the most recent amendments to the termination statutes are summarized in my previous post, “Proposed Virginia Legislation Would Empower Developers to Oppress Rights of Unit Owners in Sale of Terminated Condominium Developments.” Sometimes these terminations seem like legalized theft.
So where do things go from here for condominium unit owners? The work group mentions in its report that this mess arose because of the economic bias of current owners against future owners. While there is a natural human tendency to kick the can down the road, the solution for a particular community is going to be unique. Factories do not construct tailored suits. It is understandable that the industry that currently serves condominiums and HOA corporations, when their leaders are organized into such a work group would look for opportunities to present themselves and their friends as solutions. I suspect that the industry lobbyists will propose bills they will argue reflect the recommendations. However, I suspect that the language of the bills may go in a variety of directions. I hope that the General Assembly uses this as an opportunity to protect consumers. One can step back and observe that the condominium concept was flawed from the beginning and should not have spawned so many homes. However, even if legal reforms forbade new condominiums, the plight of current unit owners would remain. Reform of state laws could be of some help to condominiums struggling to address the cash crunch that plagues their efforts to renovate the critical structural components or major building systems. Despite whatever the legislature does, condominiums will still have to devise their own solutions. For many unit owners, the best means of self-protection is to sell their units while they still can. For those from whom that is not an option, they will need to plan to invest their own time and money in a group activity to resolve these problems.
Selected Legal Authority: