Can’t read, get out

Two proposed laws making their way to floor votes in the Legislature may help redefine how the bulk of California’s suburbs are run, but they will have come too late for one Magalia resident.

Willard Harrington, a Magalia man, had his $68,000 home auctioned off and sold late last year for $3,134 after he neglected to pay a $123 annual assessment to his homeowners association.

“He can’t read,” said Satsie Veith, an attorney with Legal Services of Northern California, which sued the Paradise Pines homeowners association and a collection agency on Harrington’s behalf. “If he had simply received personal notice, he would have paid it.”

Harrington didn’t realize what had happened until he was served with an eviction notice, which, as required by law, was delivered to him by a live person. He only discovered he was being evicted when he took the notice to friends who could read it for him.

Joe Earley, another attorney assisting Harrington, said he has worked on several cases of Paradise Pines homeowners losing their homes.

“And it will probably happen again because they’re not changing the way they do things,” he said.

Earley said another flaw in the foreclosure law is that it allows collection agencies to charge huge fees for their services.

“Then, if the homeowner couldn’t pay 100 bucks or 200 bucks, they certainly can’t afford the $1,500 or $1,700 or $2,000 fees charged by the agencies,” he said.

Legislators say they hope to force more openness and communication between homeowners and the quasi-governmental bodies that run common-interest residential developments. An assembly bill, sponsored by Dave Jones, D-Sacramento, outlines more clearly what kinds of financial documents homeowners associations would be required to cough up if a member requests them, and also specifies that a homeowner can take an association to small claims court, rather than more costly Superior Court. A second effort, by Sen. Denise Ducheny, D-San Diego, seeks to restrict how homeowners associations are able to foreclose on a home.

Edgar Zazueta, an aide to Ducheny, said the senator expects the foreclosure bill to pass. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar bill last year, calling it “overly broad,” but acknowledged that existing laws on common-interest development foreclosures need clarification.

Jones’ bill received overwhelming support in the Assembly, passing a floor vote 70 to 3.

But proponents fear that if Schwarzenegger signs the Ducheny bill, he will more easily be able to justify vetoing the Jones bill, especially when its opponents are arguing that its language is flawed.

Jones’ bill, AB 1098, is currently parked on the Senate floor while Jones amends it and tries to gather support.

The proposed changes to state law, which would affect the one in four Californians who live within homeowners associations, were spearheaded by retirees.

“It’s seniors who are making all the racket … because they have so much to lose,” said Majorie Murray, a lobbyist for the California Alliance of Retired Americans. “Seniors and the disabled. … If they lose their home, they can’t go back into the workforce and get a job and buy another home.”

Also, seniors have the time to pay attention to their community boards.

An estimated nine million Californians live in communities in which homeowners govern themselves, writing rules about everything from the color of exterior house paint to the level of noise allowed at a given hour, to the way trash is collected.

Association boards tread the line between operating like local governments or like corporations. They perform many functions similar to a city council, but they operate, financially, more like private companies—in secret.

“The question is whether we treat them like little governments or we treat them like private clubs,” said Chris Shultz, a spokesman for Assemblyman Jones.