New Jersey's Common-Interest Homeowners Coalition Grassroots Governance

While day-to-day life in a suburban homeowners association may seem simpler and less complicated than negotiating the sometimes-turbulent waters of an urban co-op or condo community, association members and directors have plenty of need for a voice, both in dealing with their own boards and management representatives, and in the halls of local and state governance. The Common-Interest Homeowners Coalition (C-IHC) of New Jersey is a not-for-profit group dedicated to gathering strength in numbers and giving voice to the concerns of homeowners in New Jersey's residential associations.

On a Mission, With a Purpose

The mission of the C-IHC is to serve as the independent voice for homeowners in New Jersey residential community associations, to promote and strengthen democratic governance, and to advance the general welfare of homeowners. As an independent organization composed of owners of homes in common-interest residential associations—including but not limited to condominiums, townhouses, planned unit developments, and cooperatives—the C-IHC considers that it is an independent voice for homeowners to legislators and government officials, industry practitioners, association boards, and the general public on matters directly related to residency in homeowner associations.

According to the group's literature, the fundamental governing processes at work in many HOAs and co-ops throughout New Jersey (and the rest of the country as well) are outdated, deeply flawed, and in need of overhauling.

According to Margaret Bar-Akiva, a founding member of C-IHC, as well as the group's legislative committee president, "The laws on condominiums and common interest residential associations were written in the late 1960's by developers, the FHA, and banker-lenders. They treated HOAs as property issues, not as homes that people live in. The old laws gave extensive powers to the boards who would run the associations with their hired surrogates—principally attorneys and management firms. Clearly, we needed new laws to replace the New Jersey Condominium Act, etc."

Swinging Into Action

"In 1997," Bar-Akiva continues, "the New Jersey Legislature wisely established the Assembly Task Force to Study Homeowners Associations, the members of which included three legislators, one developer's attorney, one managing agent, two CAI (Community Associations Institute) attorneys, and two members who were board members of their HOA's. The task force held hearings around the state.

"Unfortunately, the task force was hardly representative of the interests of the individual homeowners. Fortunately, Lois and Sam Pratt, two of C-IHC's founding members, testified and submitted recommendations at these hearings, as did many other homeowners in C-IHC and elsewhere. The exciting thing that happened was that although several of us went to hearings thinking we had uniquely bad situations in our own associations, we learned that there were common threads of problems occurring in homeowner associations throughout the state. Common abuses and injustices included such things as boards conducting all association business behind closed doors, refusing to let homeowners see basic financial records and meeting minutes of the association, making up rules without homeowner input, controlling (rigging) elections, and making large purchases without approval of homeowners," she says. C-IHC, she says, became very concerned that boards had been granted power without oversight, and that can lead to problems.

According to Bar-Akiva, C-IHC works to develop appropriate principles, procedures and practices of democratic association governance in HOAs and remove impediments to such practices. The group also advocates establishing legal and other mechanisms to ensure vigorous enforcement of these democratic procedures. The general aim of the C-IHC is to ensure a democratic experience to homeowners at the most local level of governance as a means of strengthening these processes in the larger community, state, and nation. These purposes are promoted through advocacy, research, education, and communication of information.

Getting in the Door

There are three types of membership in C-IHC, eligibility and dues for which are based on tenure with the group.

The first year—or what the C-IHC calls "Founding Members"—are asked to pay a charter contribution of $25, along with annual dues of $25. "Sustaining Members" pay $25 in annual dues, and "Regular Members" pay $20.

Once dues are received on May 1st of each year, members have all rights and privileges, including holding office within the association. As with most associations, membership is what the individual makes it, and C-IHC members may be as involved as they wish. The coalition is not necessarily about the individual, however; rather what the name infers—the common interests of all the group's individual members.

A Chat with C-IHC

Margaret Bar-Akiva spoke to The New Jersey Cooperator recently about her organization, giving some insight into the workings of the coalition, as well as bill S2016, the Common Interest Community and Homeowners Association Act, which was introduced by Sen. Shirley Turner, D-15, on November 8, 2004.

What kinds of goals does the C-IHC set for itself each year and what is the success rate in carrying them out?

"It's long term when you think about the individuals involved, but not as far when you think of what the C-IHC is trying to do as a social movement. This social movement is trying to change a fundamental problem in homeowner associations. The problem is viewing these associations as private corporations rather than quasi-governmental entities."

Is this issue singular to the C-IHC?

"After I became involved in this issue and through my own experience, I discovered that this is also a statewide issue—and further, a national issue. When the same problem keeps popping up, that's when you start to see a pattern developing and begin to assess what the issues are. You realize that there are common elements to these problems.

"That common problem among [housing development] corporations is that human beings are not meant to live in corporations. They are meant to live in communities. This is where elderly people spend their retirement years and it's not meant to be devoid of a democratic process. At the moment, there is no solution to the problem because every time people try to [introduce more of a community philosophy] on their own, they run into the wall of 'Oh, well this is a private corporation, and if you don't like the rules you can just move.'"

What problems does this more corporate, less community-oriented way of doing things bring up for the homeowners?

"The main issue is that when there is no state oversight over the board members or over what the board actions are, then board members are able to make decisions with impunity and the homeowners suffer as a consequence."

What kind of goals are were set for the coming year for the coalition?

"Well, we have always maintained from the beginning that one of our main missions and ongoing goals is reform of homeowner associations. This has been the thrust of our efforts and we have never had a hidden agenda. We have always tried to ensure that legislators understood what homeowners are up against and reform it."

Does C-IHC consider Sen. Turner's introduction of bill S2016 a win for the organization?

"Well, let's put it this way, we are very happy that the senator has thoroughly understood what her constituents are talking about and what 1.5 million New Jersey residents go through. She has understood the helplessness that homeowners in common-interest developments feel. The work we now have ahead of us is to ensure that legislators understand [the bill] and then pass it into law. After it passes into law we are hopeful that there will be enough monitors to ensure that everything is happening the way the law states."

What do you see as a motivating factor in individuals joining the C-IHC?

"Individuals join for a variety of reasons, but we hope that they will understand that this is no longer about our own individual problems. Nor is this about people not being able to paint their house purple. It is however, about bringing democratic reform into a dictatorial enclave, which has no due process and no means for resolving disputes. We always hope that people who join realize that this is a much loftier issue."

Do similar organizations work in other states?

"There are grassroots organizations all across the country - lack of democratic process in HOAs is a problem that is inherent in each one of them."

What about individuals who may be looking for a group such as the C-IHC to join, but don't know where to turn?

"I would say that if individuals have experienced frustrations and inability to understand why they cannot solve the problems in their communities, or with their boards, then this the right organization for them to become a part of. We are homeowner-based, not meant to bring profit to anyone, but a better life to all homeowners."

To learn more about the C-IHC and bill S2016 visit the group's website at www.c-ihc-org, or go to the New Jersey Legislature's website, at www.njleg. state.nj.us to download a copy of the legislation.

David Garry is a freelance writer living in New York City.

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9 Comments

  • isn't there a new sen turner bill (2008) and how does it differ from the bill already passed by the assembly
  • I live in HOAs here in NJ and in Florida. I would rather live in a Corporation than, as you call it, a quasi-governmental community. These are not quasi and not governmental. They take on the form of acting like government, fining owners indiscriminately, and dictating unreasonable rules. They violate constitutional guarantees and rights of property owners. With corporations, it is easier to throw out the directors and demand they conform to the wishes of the owners. Government-like entities, with time, become more complicated, bureaucratic and more influenced by lawyers, politicians and vested interests, such as,community associatio managers. Either one has many faults but I would say that you are on the wrong track promoting government interferences.
  • To the above commenter, take a close look at Radburn in NJ: a "corporate" HOA where membership and nomination is limited by the sitting trustees and the court said that was all fine and dandy. Worse, the rules are hidden from propective homebuyers, unless they know where to ask. Be careful with your wishes.
  • Many Boards have for far too long been able to "govern unilaterally.” Even when by-laws provide due process to its membership, Boards circumvent this write by not writing procedures one can follow to take action. The by-law is meaningless. Our community’s Board Pres. owns a dog despite a by-law clearly saying he cannot own a dog. The NJ Dept. of Community Affairs has the power to address due process issues but ignores people who write to them. What this means is association ownership is outdated and will eventually fall. I am selling before that happens.
  • I loved my community for more than 20 years but now is a nightmare of a board gone wild. The property manager is worse than the board. Uneven enforcement of rules and rules made up out of thin air are part of the fun. Bad, bad, bad place to live.
  • Lost in Long Beach on Monday, March 10, 2014 2:07 PM
    Who protects homeowners against an HOA? My HOA hit us with a $30,000 assessment due in three $10,000 payments. The President of the Boards husband was the only contractor recommended by the Board, and the winning contractor. Apart from having a steel beam replaced, there are many cosmetic , unnecessary work that the President of the Board want done. We are a 14 unit community, and five of the units are family related. We asked the Board for an extension, while we make payments since we do not have the $30K. Their response was a lien, and now we received a $5K legal bill for them to proceed with a foreclosure. My mortgage is up to date, my HOA dues are up to date. I have contracted a lawyer, but this seems so unfair. I am still recovering from rebuilding from Hurricane Sandy. Is there any place I can get help? I have already contacted the State Attorney General's office. They do not help communities that are not sponsor owned. I have contacted every politician in Nassau County, and Long Beach, and no one can help. Are homeowners at the mercy of an HOA gone wild? Any guidance would be greatly appreciated. Thanks
  • I bought my first condo in belleville 4 years ago and the nightmare started. I had water leaks in my 2nd BR whenever it rained or snowed heavily. I contacted my PM but she was not very responsive and kept trying to put the blame on the leak coming from my laundry room. Finally one of the board members who lived in my building made them look into the leak, fix it and fix the inside of my condo. FF 6 mths down the road and the leaks started up again. during the time it stopped leaking, i rented my place out bec. i got married. now for the last 6 months every time it snowed and everytime it rains both bedrooms leak around the window and from the ceiling in the middle of both rooms. my poor tenants have a 8 month old baby and have to come to this nonsense every few days. they are looking to break the lease because of this and my PM keeps sending the roofer to clean the gutters. this is not the issue. there aren't proper weeping holes around the window and the water has nowhere to go but inside (that's what one of the contractors that came in suspected). I don't know what to do as my property is getting damaged and nothing is being done. can someone please help...please point me in the right direction. my husband and i both have lost our jobs and getting an attorney is not affordable at the moment but if i have to i will. thank you!
  • Our Condo was destroyed by water damage from a 2 pipe bursting above us. It has been almost 2 months and we still.not have recieved money from condo asociation who has taken responsibility for all our damages.Farmers who is our insurance company turned our claim down saying they do not cover slow leaks ,but an insurance adjuster firm hired by the condo association said thier was four condos destroyed by water at a high rate of speed pouring into our unite and others.This was not a slow leak as Farmers used to denie our claim
  • Regarding HOA and Board of Trustees elections, the community bylaws do not adhere to the NJ Guidelines for Elections in Common Interest Communities, specifically on who is eligible to vote. The Guidelines state that all owners of record in good standing shall be entitled to vote. The bylaws document, in fact, states the same on multiple occasions but then contradicts itself stating that only one vote is permitted per lot. The bylaws then further state that an owner is entitled one vote for each lot deeded, inferring that the lot owner is entitled to the number of votes equal to the number of lots owned. Since there are obvious conflicts in the Bylaws document would not the Guidelines for Elections in Common Interest Communities determine who is eligible to vote until the conflicts are resolved?