Everyone loves a freshly-manicured lawn. Cutting it, however, can be problematic if you live in Greater Grays Ferry Estates. Neighbors are pitted against one another in a dispute over who should cut the grass in the suburban-style housing complex.
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Trisayra Ortiz moved into GGFE in 2006. In the beginning, she paid the homeowners association monthly dues of $35 to fund bi-monthly mowing and insurance for sidewalks and driveways. Ortiz said her lawn was never mowed.
“Why would I pay them if I’m not getting my grass cut,” she asked.
Ortiz said she contacted the Greater Grays Ferry Estates Homeowners Association but did not receive a response. After three months she purchased a lawnmower and started mowing her own lawn. She also stopped paying homeowners’ dues. Eight years later, the monthly $35 has turned into more than $4,000. Ortiz said she was reported to a collection agency and the negative information appeared on her credit report, keeping her from refinancing her mortgage at a lower interest rate.
“Grays Ferry had messed up my account,” said Ortiz. “That was stressing me. It got me sick. I lost hair. I have a perfect credit score, except for this.”
When asked if Ortiz’s lawn was left uncut, homeowners association board secretary Joseph Wilson acknowledged that some lawns could have been skipped by accident.
“If they weren’t getting their grass cut I don’t think they notified the board, ” said Wilson. “However, because she was not getting her grass cut, it does not alleviate her from paying her dues. We have functions that we have to carry on. We have insurance, email, billing, a checking account and voicemail. There is a lot we have to pay for to keep the organization running the way it should.”
The homeowners association board consists of three volunteers who represent 125 homeowners. The board says it wants to keep the neighborhood looking beautiful but is having a difficult time raising enough capital to institute any programs other than grass-cutting. Board members estimate only about 75 percent of the homeowners are paying their dues.
“Let’s be realistic,” said Wilson. “It’s all about the money, not the grass cutting. They don’t want to pay the $35.”
Some residents say they are spending hard-earned money for a service they do not want.
“I had my lawn concreted out,” said Elizabeth McGraw. “I have never had grass and have never needed this service.”
Others appreciate the service.
“It costs $25 for me to hire someone to cut my lawn, but it needs to be cut twice a month,” said Firew Sileshi. “Now, I pay only $35. Perfect. What is the reason to ask more than that?”
Grass-cutting and unpaid dues were on the agenda at a tense, recent board meeting. About 20 residents attended. One homeowner brought a lawyer with her. Residents were clearly upset. Board members declined to speak to members with unpaid dues, stating that the HOA bylaws do not allow non-paying members to speak at meetings.
Randya Nessar, the president of the Martin Luther King Homeowners Association at 13th and Catherine streets, expressed surprise at the discord between residents and board members.
“There is so much negativity towards the board,” said Nessar, who was invited by the board to be a guest speaker. “I don’t understand how it could have gotten that far out of hand. I think the previous board failed to do the job and now members don’t believe in the board. The board needs to meet with the residents who are not paying their dues and reach out to them.”
Greater Grays Ferry Estates and the Martin Luther King Plaza are both PHA building projects that were primarily funded by HOPE VI, a nationwide plan by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Philadelphia Housing Authority used HOPE VI funds as well as funding from private investors and other public entities to demolish five blighted superblock projects and build mixed-income, low-density, townhome-style housing.
The creation of the mixed-income urban housing developments meant incorporating residents into homeowners associations to maintain shared amenities like lawns, snow plowing and insurance. In theory, participation in a homeowners association builds relationships between neighbors. When residents work together it strengthens their ability to rely on each other and respond to problems as they emerge.
The mandatory homeowners association has been largely successful in the Martin Luther King housing complex. They have an 83 percent collection rate, offer more services than Grays Ferry, and recently lowered their monthly dues from $35 to $28 dollars per month. The Greater Grays Ferry homeowners association has been plagued with problems from the beginning.
“A board member did take about $2,000,” said current treasurer Joan Garret. “I don’t know exactly how much, but the board approached her and she paid the money back in full. That was six years ago.”
At the recent board meeting, residents asked multiple questions about how funds were spent.
“When you have a lack of trust, it is going to cause negative feelings and a lack of people wanting to work together,” said resident Ross Wilson.
Leadership issues and disagreements about the allocation of funds are not uncommon in homeowners associations. However, fees charged for unwanted services heighten tensions when homeowners have limited resources.
“It is very true that leaders of organizations set a tone,” said Anne Taufen Wessells, a professor of urban planning at the University of Washington, Tacoma. “This tone brings everybody along to a place of norms and reciprocity, and a high standard of behavior that become institutionalized. Conversely, there are situations where confusion or misunderstanding or misappropriation of funds can create a culture that is degenerative and dysfunctional and it is hard to break that cycle. ”
Lawyer Evan McKenzie, author of Beyond Privatopia: Rethinking Residential Private Government, has written about the growth of homeowners associations nationally and the resulting issues.
“These private governments have considerable power but little government oversight,” he said. “And they often intrude into areas that many, if not most, Americans believe fall within a homeowner’s sphere of privacy.”
He maintained that state legislatures will eventually increase the regulation of these associations.
Garrett said she and other board members are frustrated. The stress and workload of running the homeowners association is sometimes overwhelming. Garrett has asked the Philadelphia Housing Authority to help them, but this does not seem to be an option.
“PHA was required by state law to create a homeowners association because of the Pennsylvania Planning Committee Act,” wrote PHA spokeswoman Nicole Tillman in an emailed statement. “All the homes are sold and any issues among the private homeowners must be resolved by them. The homeowners are not PHA residents.”
PHA recently received a 9 percent low-income, housing-tax credit to redevelop the Blumberg Apartments area in lower North Philadelphia. Tillman said there might be some homeowner opportunities there. But it has not been determined whether a homeowners association will be established in the community.
“The reason why a community will become a homeownership association community depends on the laws,” said Tillman. “PHA doesn’t decide to create a homeownership association.”
In an effort to improve their collection rate the GGFE board members have hired a new collection agency that retains a lower percentage of the collected funds. They have also hired a lawyer to help with their future legal issues. On the other side, over 40 dissatisfied Grays Ferry residents signed a petition to disband the homeowners association. Residents also filed a request for mediation from the Bureau of Consumer Protection.
“We got to be taking action,” said Trisayra Ortiz. “We’ll go to court. They’ll fix our credit. This has got to be taken care of. I’m not going to pay money where I was not receiving services.”
– Text, Video, and Images by Jessica Griffin.