In this week’s edition of The Leader, we’ve reported on a neighborhood squabble that never should have happened. And for most who read the story, it’s going to seem very clear (because it is) which side of the issue was right all along.
Except it’s not that easy. It never is.
About three weeks ago, Oak Forest resident Jason Spencer received a notice from the Oak Forest Homeowners Association that the carport in front of his home on Lamonte was out of code with the neighborhood’s deed restrictions.
Ever driven down a street of original homes in Oak Forest? There are as many squirrel nests as there are carports.
While you can read our news coverage of the squabble in detail, I’ll repeat the most important part of the letter Spencer received from OFHA. After telling him that they’d received “notice of a deed restriction violation” at his home, the letter said that Spencer’s carport was built forward of the front building line. The letter then cited Section 13 of the deed restrictions:
“The building lines of any residence to be erected in Oak Forest Addition, Section 13, shall be as follows: Not less than twenty-five (25) feet from the front property line and not less than five (5) feet from the side property lines…”
That’s all fine and good. That’s what the deed restrictions of Oak Forest, regardless of the neighborhood’s history (or lack thereof) for enforcing the restrictions, say. Here’s what likely made Spencer blow a gasket:
“Please correct the deed restriction violation within 15 days to avoid referral to the City of Houston Legal Department deed restriction enforcement division. Thank you in advance for your assistance on behalf of the OFHA Board of Directors and your neighbors.”
Never mind that this carport was on Spencer’s house long before he thought about living there. Heck, Spencer was likely a wee tot when the first carport was erected in any section of Oak Forest.
And never mind that the Oak Forest deed restrictions also clearly say that the only person or entity responsible for correcting a violation is the person who actually breaches the deed restrictions. In other words, only if Spencer had personally constructed or paid for the construction of his carport would he then be liable for bringing the building back to “code,” if you can even call it that.
And never mind that the entire premise of enforcing any sort of deed restriction is that it’s done equitably across an entire neighborhood, which this one clearly is not. Don’t take my word for it, though. Just ask the folks over in Garden Oaks, who have spent the past five years rescuing their own neighborhood organization, largely because they arbitrarily chose to enforce restrictions. (Might be a good idea to ask how much they’ve spent in legal fees.)
And never mind that Spencer was made aware of this issue after he had listed his home for sale, and then being nearly threatened to make sure any potential buyer knows their new home will be in violation of the, until recently, unenforced deed restrictions. Talk about a cloud over closing.
Yes, all of this seems fairly simple. I’m no attorney, though I am the husband, son, brother and nephew of lawyers. No matter how far the OFHA presses, and no matter how much money they decide to dip into the coffers of their own lawyer, I’d make a large wager that Spencer will come out vindicated in this hubbub.
Here’s the other side of the story, and one that, largely, will be missed by the people who take notice.
Serving on the board of a homeowners’ association is about as thankless as it gets. During my two decades of running newspapers all across the South, I’ve spent a lot of time sitting in HOA meetings and talking with people who serve on them.
Here’s what you need to know about an HOA: These boards are vital to keeping some semblance of order in a neighborhood; without them, we’d have no formal way of protesting real problems.
Unfortunately, the people best suited to serve on HOAs are those who have absolutely no time to do so. These folks have jobs, they have children, and especially in neighborhoods like ours, they have activities and more activities and then another few activities for their children. Taking time, even once a month, to sit in a cold room and discuss neighborhood issues is not at the top of the list for most families in places like Oak Forest.
What happens next just causes more problems. First, the one or two people who remain stewards over the HOA go out and recruit people to serve – elections are a mere formality. Half the time, the people “elected” can’t show up (see “activities”) and, in many cases, the same four or five people are all running the eight different committees, all the neighborhood functions, and trying to raise money to mow the esplanade or hire private security firms.
Besides the thankless part of serving on an HOA, the reality is most of the volunteers don’t spend a lot of time reading bylaws and deed restrictions. And when they get a complaint like the one they got for Spencer’s atrocity of a carport (wink), they think they’re required to act in the best interest of the neighborhood.
It’s legitimate for folks like Spencer to be angry for being singled out, especially when he’s trying to sell his home – they gave him 15 days, for goodness sakes. But it’s also important for us to remember that, once this settles, the folks who volunteer to serve our neighborhoods didn’t spend millions campaigning for the position, many of them are only serving because they care about the neighborhood, and, more than anything, they’ll probably make a few mistakes.
That was the case here. Maybe those involved can move along and the squirrels can keep roosting on the carports.