You’re the head of a homeowners association. You have not just one title, but three: president, treasurer and legal agent. Your job is to keep peace and harmony in your 320-home middle-class kingdom, collect the dues, and make sure cars are neatly tucked into their driveways and off the streets.
You love the “quiet and quaint” atmosphere you bought into nine years ago. You boasted then to a local board that you loved living “away from the chaos of the city” among ducks and geese.
Your story, however, goes south in a hurry. In an astonishing twist, the local paper posts on its website a tape of you threatening one of its reporters with a lawsuit. You even made the tape yourself. It became the talk of the town last week in Evansville, Indiana.
Meet Stephen Hess, the (insert three titles here) of the Stonecreek Arbors Homeowners Association. Many of its residents believe that Hess himself is the opposite of quiet and quaint. One resident even said he ordered her to implant a chip in her dog, although association documents don’t mention such a procedure.
Sound familiar? It could, particularly in Aspen and Snowmass Village, littered with condominiums and subdivisions where membership in a homeowners association is mandatory. If “HOA” was not in your lingo before you got here, it is now. You might even have been born into one if you’re a native Aspenite.
Life in an HOA can become a trainwreck if its other residents take up control of your finances through a dues hike you can’t control. At Stonecreek, Stephen Hess, who threatened to sue a newspaper for even mentioning his name, has instead made quite a name for himself.
One week ago, reporter Thomas Langhorne of the Evansville Courier & Press ran a story about Stonecreek. It was really a tutorial for those who know little about homeowners associations but are looking to buy a home. He mentioned the chip implant suggestion from Hess. His report also carried a bit of sage advice almost impossible to practice: Before buying, meet the head of the HOA and its board. Track down the figures you’ll be dealing with.
Everyone knows the personality of a dominating association and its leadership. Nominate otherwise peace-loving folks to a homeowners board, and the darkest parts of their personalities, unknown even to their shrinks, emerge. Egos clash, and legal skirmishes ensue followed by threats of foreclosure.
Langhorne, the Evansville reporter, consulted Evan McKenzie, a political science professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago, and author of “Privatopia: Homeowner Associations and the Rise of Residential Private Government.”
McKenzie suggested a “control thy neighbor” urge arises in an HOA honcho.
“Maybe they’ve never had power in their lives or maybe they just have a grudge against certain types of people,” he said.
Langhorne’s story noted that over half of the 94 liens filed last year in Vanderburgh County, Indiana came on a single day in February. They came from (three titles) Stephen Hess against allegedly delinquent homeowners of Stonecreek Arbors, where home prices top out at $155,000.
At the root of Langhorne’s report was the legal basis for HOAs, which incur all sorts of common expenses passed on to homeowners. The deadbeats foul the financial nest because neighbors may be forced to split the deadbeat dues. Such activity can result in a lien or even a small claims lawsuit. The homeowner rules are contained in its covenants, to which buyers must agree.
The Courier & Press report noted the perils facing a buyer to whom an HOA is an unfamiliar animal. Real estate agents and prior owners, it noted, can hesitate to disclose messy details about a homeowners association for fear of scaring off buyers. Worse, such controversies may emerge after a buyer has already fallen for his or her chosen home, secured financing, and even signed commitments. An unsavory clause could allow a buyer to cancel his contract and get his deposit back.
The Stonecreek story quotes a neighbor, Lois Peyton, who said of Hess, “He just wants to tell you what to do all the time.” But it makes no mention of how Hess came to power. It can matter if a homeowners association has any say over its president or whether a chummy board picks the chief.
Hess does not help himself on his way to an ungracious phone call posted where anyone in the world can hear it. He apparently didn’t consider evidence, on tape and in emails.
But Hess wrote that he felt his powers covered what a newspaper can and can’t publish. “Further, this notice also requires you not to at any measure mention anything regarding my name, (or) any resident of Stonecreek,” he emailed Langhorne.
His phone conversation with the reporter warns, “you stop this article immediately, because I will sue you just like I sue the people who don’t pay their dues.”
The Evansville story carries lessons for anyone who heads an HOA while requiring anger management help. Hess didn’t consider what could become of the evidence of his conduct. He didn’t consider what might become of his emails. And he even recorded the conversations that he now can’t deny.
A president named Richard Nixon could have warned him about that.
The writer (email@example.com ) is a founder of the Aspen Daily News and appears here Sundays.