When neighborhoods become homeowners associations
I don’t blame them.
It would be easy to say they don’t care about their neighbors, but the fact is that I’ve been so busy and overwhelmed, I don’t reach out to them either.
I’m part of the problem, you see. But problem it is.
I don’t even know the names of most of the people who live around me. The only reason I know the names of the people directly across the street is that they saw me out with candy on the front porch last Halloween and came over to introduce themselves.
I certainly see the irony in the fact that I make my living teaching people to communicate more effectively.
How we got here
We’ve lived here for 15 years. I know the neighbors on each side of us, but have hardly talked to either in the last three or four years. It’s hard, because we have a severely disabled daughter requiring 24-hour nursing, and we have a nursing shortage, so I have to cover a lot of open shifts—sometimes as much as 54 hours a week on top of a full-time job. (We’ve actually had 108 hours open some weeks, but my 20-something son splits it with me.) My wife is also disabled, and so cannot help either with our daughter’s care or with basic stuff around the house.
Under such conditions, I go to work, I take care of our daughter, and I squeeze in sleep when I can. Everything else goes by the wayside.
So it is that the neighbors knew nothing of our recent month of hypercrisis. During that month our daughter had two stays in the hospital, the flu ravaged our whole family, and our oldest son died at age 32.
So they weren’t really being cruel when they, the Homeowners Association, had their lawyer send me a notice that I had ten days to move a nonfunctional vehicle or they would take further legal action.
Our daughter’s wheelchair van died suddenly some months back. Through the generosity of a GoFundMe campaign organized by friends and the timely availability of a reasonably-priced replacement, we had the good fortune to replace it within a month. However, we had no funds to pay someone to haul off the old one, and my work-care-sleep cycle left me little time or energy to find someone who would want to buy it for scrap.
I actually found a couple of people who would buy it, but my time challenges prevented us connecting, and so the it sat there for those months.
No doubt it violated Homeowners Association rules. But I served on the board for four or five years until our daughter’s health precluded me spending time on anything but survival. When I received the letter from the HOA’s lawyer, I first thought, “Do none of them have a damned telephone?”
I think I could reasonably expect the courtesy of a phone call before they turned it over to the lawyer, especially since a phone call cost nothing, and the lawyer charged.
This is not unique to my neighborhood
Do you know your neighbors? If so, good. But more and more people do not. According to a report from CityObservatory.org, things have changed greatly since the 1970s.
In the 1970s, nearly 30 percent of Americans reported spending time with their neighbors at least twice weekly; fewer than a quarter reported no interactions with neighbors. Over the past three decades, the number of interactions has trended downward. Today, nearly a third report no interactions with neighbors and only about 20 percent say they spend time regularly with neighbors.
It doesn’t really help, but my neighborhood fits the general pattern.
This contributes to a general worsening of communication and a consequent increase in conflict within our culture. It would have been easier and cheaper for a current HOA board member to call me, but it also would have been more uncomfortable for the caller. It’s just easier to give it to the lawyer. For more and more people, giving it to the lawyer becomes the first rather than the last response.
I talked to an attorney in Maryville, Tennessee, who shared a perspective from 22 years of lawyering. Much of her work involves working with various forms of property owners associations. She wished to remain anonymous because of her work, so let’s call her Ms. O’Connor.
“Many times, when I communicate with someone about a problem with a property owners association, they say it’s the the first time anyone has communicated with them,” she said. “It seems to me there should have been a ‘talking to’ first, a note left on the front door, a letter from a person. It would lead to a more friendly interaction on an inexpensive level. Frequently, the person in question would have complied at that point.”
O’Connor observed that especially over the last 10 to 15 years she has seen an increase in people mainly interacting over social media and other electronic means, so they seem to be losing the skills of interacting face-to-face.
She says she has definitely seen an increase in people turning to a lawyer as a first step.
“Overall people don’t interact with other people, so it spills into dispute resolution,” she said.
When I contacted the HOA’s lawyer and explained the situation, she epitomized humanity and understanding. As I told her, had the HOA bothered to make a phone call, they would have learned about the hospitalizations, our illness, and the death of our son, and that we already had pursued getting rid of the old van. No doubt, they would have waited on us. The lawyer certainly understood the circumstances and waited patiently as we completed finding a buyer, even though three of them fell through first because of the difficulty of our schedule.
That fits the pattern O’Connor described. Though she said it would have been better for property owners associations to “just communicate,” she also said once it reached her office, the same principle comes into play.
“The best thing is to communicate,” O’Connor said. “The ones who find themselves in trouble are the ones who won’t respond…. If they call, stay in communication, it is much more likely we won’t go to court. I feel like they’re trying, and that goes a long way. Being ignored is worse than being yelled at.”
It would have been so much easier if a human from the HOA had called. But it also would have nearly impossible without the context of an existing relationship.
O’Connor described a different situation where a library patron ran a business from the public library. This violated library rules, and library staff didn’t know how to deal with it. They contact O’Connor for advice.
“Have you talked to him? Told him that’s not allowed?” she asked.
“Well… no. We haven’t actually talked to him.”
“Why don’t you try that first?”
So they did. The patron did not know he violated rules, and ceased immediately. Problem solved with a simple conversation, uncomfortable as it was. The difficulty of instigating that conversation, though, exemplifies the challenge we face as a society.
Conflict isn’t easy
Many if not most of us are “conflict averse.” It’s easier when we have a relationship already in place because we know that the relationship can withstand a difficult conversation. Without a relationship, we have no idea how the other person will perceive and react to the difficult conversation, and so it becomes easier to turn it over to a professional.
Even the professionals have difficulty with it. O’Connor remembered her early years as an attorney and said it probably took her four or five years to get used to the inevitable conflicts.
“I live at the center of conflict,” she said. After seeing hundreds or even thousands of them, she has learned not to take it personally, and to deal with conflict on a professional level aimed simply at resolving the conflict.
But it’s hard.
“When conflict starts, look at yourself to see if you really do have a problem,” she said. “Don’t just be defensive.”
I don’t know if we can reverse this
I just know that in the areas where I have some effect, I need to pay a little more attention. I generally don’t have these kind of conflicts at work because I’ve been there for 27 years and have cultivated genuinely close relationships with many people. These are not just my co-workers and supervisors; they are my friends. When our crisis hit us (the double hospitalization, the household pandemic, the death of my son), they immediately rallied in support, even as I have helped others in years past.
Likewise, when the crisis hit us the members of my local Toastmasters club, with whom I have a close connection, banded together in support.
The conflict about the van went straight to a lawyer because I don’t have a connection with my neighbors. I don’t know if it’s possible to form those kind of connections with neighbors anymore. I may have to resign myself to being part of a homeowners group instead of a neighborhood. But at least I have some idea of what it will take to reverse it, both in my neighborhood and nationwide. I just don’t know if I/we have the will or the energy to do so.
But if we do, I think a lot of lawyers will breathe a sigh of relief, because they can go back to advising people about what the law says rather than refereeing for people who just should have picked up the phone.