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What is a community association?

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From time to time, I hear members of an association referred to as “tenants,” and hear of members’ requests to an association to fix an appliance or clean a carpet in their homes.  Often, such statements are made by owners new to an association—often those coming from apartment-style living.  Those kinds of statements make me wonder whether there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what a homeowners association is – and what it is not.

What an association is—and isn’t—legally speaking and otherwise

From a legal perspective, nearly all homeowners associations are nonprofit corporations created under Minnesota Statutes Chapter 317A (or its predecessor, Chapter 317).  Associations are, therefore, subject to the statute under which they are created.  If an association was created as a common interest community under the Minnesota Common Interest Ownership Act (MCIOA), then that association is governed by both MCIOA and Chapter 317A. 

An association is the governing body that typically has the authority to ensure the community is operated in accordance with the governing documents affecting the homes in the association.  An association is a group of homeowners with common goals, including maintaining the aesthetic uniformity and architectural character of their homes and maintaining the cohesiveness of their community.  At the core, members of a homeowners association are neighbors, pure and simple. 

A homeowners association is not a landlord.  It generally does not own units in the community (with the exception, perhaps, of a caretaker unit or units that the association has foreclosed upon).  Although an association enforces the community’s governing documents, it is not “Big Brother,” and is not tasked with resolving disputes between residents unless there is a violation of the governing documents at issue.  An association is not a policing agent.  While an association would likely cooperate in a police investigation, it would not likely conduct its own investigation of criminal matters or interfere in the police’s investigation of such matters.

What an association’s responsibilities are—and are not

A homeowners association is responsible for maintaining the community in accordance with its governing documents.  Although those responsibilities can and do differ among communities, generally speaking, condominium associations are responsible for maintaining the grounds, the exterior of the building, and the common hallways and shared spaces (lobby, community room, recreational facilities, etc.).  Townhome associations are generally responsible for maintaining common areas (which may or may not include individual yard areas), recreational facilities, lawns and landscaping and some portions of the exterior of each townhome. 

An association is generally not responsible for maintaining the interior of each home.  The homeowner is generally responsible for maintaining plumbing, heating, air conditioning and electrical systems within the home, as well as structural components within the home.  Flooring, cabinetry and wall coverings are generally considered part of a condominium unit (and nearly always part of a traditional townhome), and are the owner’s responsibility to maintain. 

Townhome and condominium associations are usually responsible for insuring some portion of each home in their communities; homeowners also have a responsibility to maintain appropriate insurance coverage.  Bear in mind, however, that maintenance responsibilities are not necessarily the same as insurance responsibilities.  While some condominium associations’ insurance coverage may extend to flooring and cabinetry (even though the association does not maintain those items), some associations’ coverage does not.  Check with your Board or management agent to ensure that your personal coverage and the association’s blanket coverage dovetail to provide full coverage in the event of a loss – no coverage overlaps, but, perhaps more important, no gaps in coverage.

The association is responsible for enforcing the covenants and rules so as to enhance the community living environment for its residents.  Owners are responsible for being aware of those covenants and rules and for abiding by them—and for ensuring that their guests do the same.

“Who you gonna call?”

It is important to understand the roles of the association and the role of an association member so that members know when it’s appropriate to contact the association’s board or management and when it’s appropriate to address the situation themselves.

If the issue involves maintenance of the exterior of the home and it’s unclear who is responsible for that maintenance, contact the board or management for clarification.  If the issue involves maintenance of the interior of the home, it’s likely that such maintenance is the homeowner’s responsibility.

If there is an apparent violation of the governing documents, such as excessive noise, residents are encouraged to first try to resolve the matter directly with their neighbors.  Similarly, if there is a dispute between owners, those owners should attempt resolution of the issue directly; neither owner should expect the association to step in and fix the problem.  Where appropriate, public safety personnel (police) should be involved.  Residents should, however, also let the board or management know of the situation in the event it becomes a chronic problem.  Associations are responsible for enforcing governing documents.  Associations are not responsible for “refereeing” disputes between residents.

Associations often provide information to new members about who manages the community and what utility companies service the community.  Associations may also want to consider offering information about what it means to live in an association and the rights, privileges and expectations of both the association and the resident.  Knowing what an association is – and isn’t – can be of great aid in learning the rights, responsibilities and joys of living in a homeowners association. 

(Originally published in My Community Living magazine)