Curbing the Karens: Florida reins in over-mighty homeowners’ groups

<span>Homes in Miami, Florida, on 15 March 2024.</span><span>Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images</span>
Homes in Miami, Florida, on 15 March 2024.Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

If you had to name the state where a Vietnam war veteran almost lost his apartment for owning the wrong kind of dog; in which a ring of thieves made off with millions of dollars of residents’ money they were obligated to look after; and where a family was threatened with legal action over decorative garage door hinges, intuition would lead you to Florida.

Such absurdities from homeowners’ associations (HOAs) abound where the nation’s highest concentration of condominium developments, gated communities and upmarket resorts blend seamlessly with an abundance of petty bureaucracy and outright crookedness.

But now, thanks to a bill promoted by a Republican state congresswoman and signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis last week, things are about to change.

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On 1 July, there will be unprecedented new curbs on the power and excesses of HOAs, the ultra-local panels of government that decide what color your front door should be, and how clean you need to keep your mailbox, in pursuit of high standards of maintenance and aesthetics.

No more can residents be cited or fined for trivial transgressions, like leaving their trash cans out beyond collection day, or having holiday lights and decorations still hanging long after the last visitors have returned home – at least without 14 days’ written notice, a hearing and appeals.

Anyone seeking to become an HOA board member will be required to be trained and regulated, a blow to Florida’s army of overzealous and autocratic apparatchiks who revel in controlling even the smallest details of residents’ existence.

“These associations tend to be full of Karens who don’t just want to speak to the manager, they want to be the manager,” said Craig Pittman, a veteran journalist and popular culture expert whose book Oh, Florida! chronicles the extremes of the nation’s quirkiest state.

“They want to micromanage what everybody does and dictate who can park where, and what kind of Christmas lights you can put up. Basically anything that is different from what anybody else does, you’re not allowed to do it. It’s all about uniformity.

“Now they’re either going to have to find another outlet, like joining their local Moms for Liberty chapter, or they’ll be in there fighting to change things back to the way it was.”

Pittman, and experts grounded in real estate law, acknowledge the need for a change in HOA regulation in Florida, which will now include criminal penalties for blocking access to official records.

They cite the example of The Hammocks, a 5,500-home residential community in West Kendall, near Miami, where at least six HOA members or their relatives were arrested following a years-long investigation into an alleged $2m theft and a 400% hike in HOA fees.

“There’s always a lot of grousing and griping about how HOAs run things, how much they charge, and in the case of some of them, how they won’t let people in to inspect their records,” Pittman said.

“That caused a huge uproar. And of course, in the end, the reason they didn’t want anybody to see their records is because it showed they were stealing a lot of money.”

Michael Allan Wolf, eminent scholar chair in local government at University of Florida’s Levin college of law, believes the Hammocks scandal probably provided the impetus for the reforms, but framers quickly identified other issues.

“Usually you get legislation like this because constituents are concerned about an issue which can be traced to a scandal or a lawsuit of this kind,” he said.

“And perhaps, if that was the spark, once they got into it, they started considering other problems with HOAs, because most of these have nothing to do with fraud, or even money. Is it a question of the government, or is it a question of nosy neighbors?

“In American society, sometimes your complaint is about the government, for example zoning regulations, and other times your complaint is about your neighbors that are just intruding into your life. They’re just being nosy and basically they’re not respecting your privacy.”

The bill was sponsored by Tiffany Esposito, a Republican state representative from south-west Florida, whose district includes a proliferation of gated residential developments controlled by HOAs.

She did not respond to a request for an interview, but said in a statement that the law “empowered homeowners and increased transparency and accountability across homeowners’ associations in our state”.

Wolf said it could prompt a sea change in how Florida’s 50,000 HOAs are run.

“It will have a chilling effect on people who are thinking of being active in their homeowners’ association now they’re going to be subjected to misdemeanors and all the other new regulations from [the state capital] Tallahassee,” he said.

“There are professional firms that have taken over the governance of HOAs, lawyers, and others, and I think this will basically speed up that process and make it more likely you’ll have these tasks no longer performed by amateurs.”

He also thinks Florida’s law will be keenly watched elsewhere. Nationwide, an estimated three in 10 people live in planned communities or condo developments, and other states have experienced similar irrationality. In Missouri, for example, one HOA sought fines and jail time for a family in a dispute about whether a child’s swing set could be painted pink or purple.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if other states follow Florida’s model,” Wolf said.

Pittman, meanwhile, expects a backlash to the law once its effects become apparent.

“There’ll be complaints. This neighbor had these workmen parking in his driveway, and we can’t have that here. That guy’s hedges are too high and it’s spoiling the view. And they’ll be told, ‘I’m sorry, state law says we can’t regulate them any more,’” he said.

“You’ll see them complaining to their legislators, and slowly they’ll start chipping away at it. I’m predicting within five years people will be saying the law went too far, all this stuff’s lowering our property values, and we need to make the pendulum swing back the other way.”