American Idle

After the annual homeowner association meeting in our little gated community of 19 homes in south Orlando, one neighbor declared it “our best meeting ever.”

It must have been the lasagna and salad talking. The meeting was held at the lovely home of a board member who served a buffet dinner and wine. Another neighbor brought pecan pie. By the time the business meeting started everyone was ready to go home.

Aside from rubber-stamping the budget and reappointing the officers by acclamation, nothing was accomplished. Issues were raised—two wild geese terrorizing a lakefront home, a non-resident dog peeing on porches and “stealing” from garages, a sagging tree limb at the entrance, a front yard with chronically dead sod—but no action was taken. Someone said the quickest way to get rid of the geese was to put them on Craigslist, but no one seconded the idea.

I can think of only one other place in America where a meeting that achieved so little would be called the “best ever”: Washington D.C., capital of stasis and inertia, of getting nowhere fast, of kicking the can down the road and expecting to be rewarded for it.

“Washington is broken!” was the universal cry from voters and politicians of all stripes in the last election, even the masters of paralysis themselves shamelessly asking for another term. And in most cases we gave it to them. Maybe because we’re just like them.

Nearly 95 percent of residences in Florida belong to an HOA of some sort—single-family, condo or mobile home, says Kevin Davis, owner of Community Management Specialists in Oviedo, which manages 40 associations.

Since most of us belong to one, maybe the easiest way to understand Washington is to see it as America’s largest homeowner association—and your own HOA as a mini-Washington. Like it or not, we are two sides of the same dysfunctional coin.

If  Washington is “broken,” what do you call an HOA (ours) that took five years to fix a simple dock? We make the Veterans Administration, which is taking forever to build a new hospital in Orlando, look like a model of German efficiency.

The replacement planks sat moldering in a pile by the lake for several  years until the resident who promised to do the work moved away. The rotten wood had to be excavated like dinosaur bones, and we eventually hired a company to build a new dock.

How long does it take an HOA to change a light bulb? From the time a resident proposed switching from old-fashioned sodium bulbs to installation of more attractive, energy-efficient CFLs in our five street lights: three years.

Since even no-brainers take years to get action, it’s no wonder the controversial issues—like animal feces and guests parking in the road—get tabled till the next annual meeting or never come up at all because no one wants to be the skunk at the picnic. We grumble, gossip and whisper all year, then turn into silent wimps at the meeting—unless the homeowner with the dead sod isn’t there.

This is why most associations—70 to 80 percent says the Community Associations Institute—pay management companies thousands of dollars a year to do things they could do themselves, like collect dues and pay bills. Yes, the companies do those mundane chores, but they really earn their money by being the bad cop—the skunk.

I asked Kevin Davis to name the No. 1 day-to-day complaint he gets from homeowners in associations he manages.

“Dogs pooping in other people’s yards without cleaning it up,” he says.

One of the skunk services he provides is sending a polite but firm letter to HOA members found to be negligent scoopers, asking that they “please clean up after your pet.” You can imagine how poop talk would put a damper on cocktail hour at the annual meeting.

Honestly, there are times we could use an enforcer in the neighborhood. One year we flirted with the idea of hiring a management company but, typically, decided to stick with the status quo, which is imperfect but has the advantage of being free.

The result is a modified Rodney King can-we-all-get-along, don’t-ask-don’t-tell laissez-faire governance: Don’t ask who left the poop, don’t tell the board it’s there. The poop eventually will disintegrate in peace, like the doomed planks for the deck.

More lasagna, anyone?

Email Greg at


Categories: Column