I live in an aging subdivision, dating back to the 1970s. It comes complete with a homeowners association and a board of directors. We just had a revolutiona polite one. The association elections for board of directors resulted in the defeat of every incumbent seeking another term. We now have a whole new board, and I am one of the insurgents.
Officially, I am the board’s “member at large.” That means I was late to the organizational meeting in December where the offices of president, secretary, and so on were parceled out. I had talked about being treasurer but the other board members apparently talked about me not being treasurer, which is just as well. My solution to an unbalanced account is to enter an “adjustment” amount, thereby reconciling any discrepancy between the bank and my own figures. It works at the micro level, but nobody seemed too impressed by it for a homeowner’s association.
In elections, each association member has a vote as well as each homeowner. That means my neighbors, a husband and wife, eagerly related that they cast all three of their votes for me: one each as association members and one jointly as homeowners. It sounds sort of Chicago-ish, but it is not unusual in associations like ours.
So far the work reminds me of my experience serving on a small town city council in Missouri. I was the second ward alderman in charge of streets. We have about as many people living in our subdivision as there were citizens in that little Missouri community. The difference is that our city council collected taxes; here we gather dues. That is a sore point.
Class distinctions in the little town were entirely random. Wherever you were in the town hierarchy, more or less, you earned it.
Here we have three arbitrary classes: single-family homes, townhouses, and village homes. Sometimes it feels we are pitted one against the other. The association board of directors is responsible for all exterior upkeep for the townhouses and partially responsible for the village town home exteriors and grounds. We also contract snow removal for both; owners of single-family homes are on their own. Our real job is approving exterior paint colors, fence styles, and locations for basketball hoops. At least we haven’t told anyone he can’t fly the American flag, though some have proposed banning the University of Kansas Jayhawks banner.
The dues paid by each are accordingly classed and kept separate. Townhouse residents get hit the highest, $3360 annually, on top of any mortgage payments. Village homes are next, and single-family home owners pay the least.
That’s where the class resentments erupt. All the board members happen to be single-family homeowners. Townhouse and village home residents revolted because of what they saw around them: inadequate or neglected repair of exteriors and grounds upkeep for the non-single family home dwellers.
So, we have a dues strike of sorts. Our covenants prescribe pretty stern sanctions for non-payment of dues. This is the part of the job I hate most and it will come up every month. We must approve property liens against delinquent residents. We may even seek wage garnishment. We go into executive session and discuss every single instance. One of them, involving an especially cranky guy, is nearing the time when only a sheriff’s sale will settle things. His attitude is “bring it on,” and our board is stumped.
I’m a “Let ‘em up easy” guy, as Lincoln said of the seceded states. That’s pretty much the attitude of the entire board. We’re talking about neighbors, after all. But I sympathize with the hardliners. There is a lot of work that requires attention and doing the work requires payment of dues. Poor maintenance affects everybody.
Without fully funded dues there are things for which we simply cannot payasphalt repair, tree removal, and exteriors with wood rot. I want the things fixed, yet the dues must be paid first so we can do it. Some are willing to settle, but only after they see improvement. We are doing what we can.
There may be a word for this kind of moral dilemmathat’s how I view itbut I can’t think what it is. It does raise for me the trouble any office holder at any level may face daily: seeking fairness in an unfair world.
I have a lot of empathy for politicians, which is not on the whole a dishonorable profession except for the dishonor some individuals bring to it. Always, their actions or inactions aid some while undoubtedly producing possible hardship for someone else, and politicians are often faced with intractable interests that cannot be reconciled.
Tell you what: As part of your Lenten discipline, pray for your least favorite public office holder. Just a couple times, perhaps, until you get the hang of it, then with more regularity. It may do him or her some good, but I think it might be of more benefit to the rest of us.
Russell E. Saltzman is a former Lutheran pastor transitioning to the Roman Catholic Church. His latest book is Speaking of the Dead. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and his previous First Things contributions are here.