Over the last two months, aggrieved homeowners across metro Atlanta have appeared at the Georgia Capitol to share horror stories of disputes with their homeowners associations.
One south Fulton County resident told lawmakers she faces a $25,000 lawsuit over a therapeutic rock garden for her disabled daughter; an Atlanta resident spoke of a foreign investor group that took over her HOA and retaliated against residents; a realtor testified about a Cobb County client who faced $84,000 in arbitrary fines — only for it to be reduced to $600 after the homeowner fought the HOA in court.
A group of Democratic lawmakers led by Sen. Donzella James, D-Atlanta, listened to testimony from dozens of homeowners during a series of hearings held by a special sub-committee formed to guide potential legislation for the upcoming session in January. Critics and homeowners say Georgia law, as it stands, unfairly stacks the decks against residents who risk losing their homes over arbitrary and targeted fines. Many who testified said they felt there was little recourse to rein in their HOA.
The hearings come after an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation published in September found that HOAs face few regulations in Georgia and wield broad powers over the estimated 2.2 million residents who reside within communities governed by homeowners associations. When homeowners are fined for violating association covenants or missing dues payments, state law allows HOAs to pursue debts by various means, including foreclosure, wage garnishment or cutting off water access.
In one case, the treasurer of a Decatur HOA personally benefitted when he bought and resold condos after his association had pushed several residents into foreclosure. Other homeowners faced attorneys fees charged by association lawyers that exceed what was owed in dues and fees.
House and Senate Democrats are looking at a variety of bills that would target predatory water metering practices, limit attorney fees that can be charged to homeowners by their HOA and establish an ombudsman to handle disputes outside of the court system.
“Somebody needs to be in charge,” James said.
Realtor Amy McCoy, who testified in December, later told the AJC that HOAs are often able to take advantage of homeowners because going toe-to-toe with an association and its attorneys can be costly for individuals. She mentioned a client was faced with $84,000 in arbitrary fines which were reduced to just $600 after they got a lawyer and sued the HOA.
“Most people don’t have that extra $5,000 for an attorney,” McCoy said.
So far, no Republicans have expressed public support for James’ efforts and that raises questions about how effective she can be pursuing changes in the GOP-controlled General Assembly. In the past, James has sponsored several HOA reform bills that struggled to gain traction.
But a top Republican leader told the AJC he is open to listening to proposals. Senate Majority leader Sen. Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, said he was unaware of James’ efforts but is interested in looking at the report her committee submits.
He said he’s aware of “overburdensome” HOAs that prevent homeowners from flying American flags or issue fines for lawns that are a few inches too long.
“I’d love to hear the argument for some sort of change,” Gooch said. “I’m a big advocate of property rights.”
Those more supportive of HOAs who spoke before the committee in the past couple months said that foreclosures are often the only way to compel delinquent homeowners, many of which are out-of-state landlords, to pay their dues. Otherwise, a neighborhood can fall into disrepair, bringing down home values and risking insurance lapses, they argue.
George Nowack, a veteran HOA lawyer who has worked with Georgia lawmakers to craft prior laws that favor HOA authority, said in a December hearing that many of the predatory acts described to the committee are already illegal. He recommends that lawmakers focus on enforcing current laws and regulations. One area of agreement seemed to be the proposal to create a state ombudsman to help sort through disputes and act as a neutral mediator outside the court system.
“Having a state ombudsman who has the authority to issue penalties, who has the authority to issue subpoenas” would provide relief to many homeowners, Nowack said.
Valerie Ghant, who brought her HOA story to the subcommittee, described how she faces a lawsuit over a $25,000 lien filed against her by her HOA after she installed a therapy garden and pavilion outside her south Fulton home in 2020 and 2021. Her daughter was a college student when a driver struck her car in 2015, resulting in a severe brain injury.
A doctor prescribed horticultural therapy to help heal and aid in her recovery. Ghant said her daughter, Asia, now 26, finds some peace sitting by the garden, comprised of decorative rocks, a small trickling stream and a variety of plants. But the front-yard garden violated the HOA’s covenants, something Ghant said she didn’t know when it was installed.
Credit: Christina Matacotta
Credit: Christina Matacotta
A U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development investigation this year found her HOA did not violate the Fair Housing Act in part because they said Ghant could move the garden to the backyard. But Ghant said she couldn’t as her backyard is too marshy.
“What I’m asking is not unreasonable,” Ghant said.
James’ legislation will likely land in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Committee chair Brian Strickland, R-McDonough, did not respond to an interview request.
While James said Georgia’s HOA laws need broad revisions to make the system more fair to homeowners, what’s feasible now is a more surgical approach, she said.
“We might have to chip away a little bit at a time,” James said.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Asia Hoskins suffered a brain injury from an accident involving a drunk driver. The driver who struck her vehicle was not drunk. The story has been updated to reflect this information.