I’ve been a member of this site for many years but have never written about anything that affected me personally. Yesterday, after reading onepissedoffliberal'sdiary, it occurred to me that my experience might be relevant.
I’m a highly educated, middle class, thirtysomething white male. I’ve had my share of enemies, but I never thought that classism or racism would hurt me. Sadly, I was completely wrong.
In 2006, after having spent nearly 5 years working for the Federal Government, I decided that I had to leave. I realized that I couldn’t wait any longer for a positive work environment. After five years of paying my dues, I was still viewed as an academic egghead who couldn’t offer any "practical" analysis. I watched as my completely unqualified assistant brown-nosed his way to the top and was given projects that I was shielded from.
I had the choice of quitting, taking it up with the union (which probably wouldn’t represent me in this since the issue related to my role as a supervisor), or bringing in a recently legalized semi-automatic rifle.
I chose the first and it could not have been a better decision. Immediately I was able to find part-time work teaching at a community college and it looked like things were better for good. I decided to get another advanced degree and started looking simultaneously at PhD programs and Law Schools.
While I was pondering my next step in life, the economy was slipping. Not crashing the way it has been in the last few months, but slipping. Being a pessimist and reading Kos as much as I do, I was not like my neighbors who saw it as a "hiccup." Instead, I knew it to be a fundamental failure of the economy rooted in rampant deregulation at all levels of government. Specifically, I started to worry seriously about my house.
When I moved to Inland Southern California back in the spring of 2005, I was not initially in the market to buy. I didn’t think that I would be here for more than a few years and I had always been happy to rent. But when I looked at rentals, I was seriously underwhelmed. On one end there were ramshackle properties in ramshackle neighborhoods and on the other end, they were more than I could afford. What was even worse was the level of distrust and incompetence that I had to deal with when dealing with landlords and landlord’s agents. It was not enough that I had 3 years of unbroken work experience with an employer that would never fire me-- I had to prove bank account balances and employment history and pay for background checks. After nearly 10 years of renting, I was less trusted than when I got my first apartment in NYC as a 21 year old. Looking back at it now, the "injustices" were clearly trivial. My only excuse is that when you are underappreciated in most aspects of your life (no job, no girlfriend) you tend to look everywhere for a sign of approval.
After looking at rental properties for a while I couldn’t escape the constant comments of my co-workers who had doubled their money in real estate. I humored them by visiting a real estate agent.
The difference between homes for sale and homes for rent was night and day-- higher quality homes in better neighborhoods and in better condition. I was treated with respect and was immediately qualified to buy a huge house. Still, I know how to calculate percentages so I was frugal. I was able to buy a one-bedroom condominium with a mortgage payment that was less than comparable rent (mainly because I would have had to rent a larger place to get the same quality). The condo was close to work and was extremely well cared for. It was a gated community with a Home Owners Association, but the dues seemed low and the rules seemed reasonable.
Well, as everyone knows, prices didn’t rise like I had been told. But that was OK, as long as prices didn’t go down, I was still better off than if I had rented. Interest rates were extremely low and I realized that if I took the money I had saved up through work and a small inheritance and plowed those assets into my house, my mortgage payments would drop. Lowering my bills was fun and seemed like a very responsible thing to do.
Of course, prices kept dropping. Neighbors were trying to sell and couldn’t, so they tried to rent. Rentals were not filling up but it all looked like greed to me. Since I had paid off about half of my mortgage, I knew that I could easily make my mortgage payments by taking a tenant once I moved away to go to grad (or law) school.
It’s funny how when the shit hits the fan, you remember things that never seemed all that important when they happened. First, the fact that people treated me differently when I was looking to buy rather than looking to rent. Second, the fact that the condos I moved in to were originally built as for a retirement community that was changed at the last minute. Third, the fact that a friend of mine, a twentysomething Hispanic renter who hung out in the hot tub complained to me how, whenever there was vandalism, his neighbors would ask him if he knew about it (no one ever asked me if I knew who caused the vandalism).
What these facts all point to is the intense desire of the owners in the community (who were nearly all white and were predominantly over 50) to remake the community in their own image. Two years after I moved in (Spring 2007) an amendment was proposed to the bylaws that would prevent all new renting. Since I was planning to move out in Fall 2008 and the only way I could prevent a huge loss was by renting, I was definitely concerned.
So I went to a board meeting and I sat there as a group of elderly white people told me that their amendment was the best thing for my finances. See, they told me, the REASON that property values are dropping is because there are too many RENTERS in the community! Seriously? Well, they admitted that prices were going down elsewhere, but they felt that OUR community was different, and if we could just keep out the RENTERS, everything would get better.
I tried a different tack. Let’s assume that an owner occupied community does fetch higher prices, I posed to them. Those higher prices would only be seen in the long run. But in the short run, the inability to rent will harm people’s finances in a very real way. There is more than one way to earn money, I told them, but they didn’t want any of it.
Thinking back to that day I realize how blissfully ignorant I was. My final comment was something to the effect that it’s unfair to renters that they can’t live here (they kept complaining about "families with kids"). The most telling response, however, was provided by the association’s lawyer who said, "I know how I was when I was in college. I wouldn’t want to live next to me now."
We still had to vote on it. And the original bylaws clearly stated that any amendment restricting renting had to be passed by 75% of the membership. That’s 75% of the membership, so if more than 25% of the members didn’t vote, the amendment was a no-go.
So I crossed my fingers and voted no. Even if the amendment passed, I still had the option of getting "grandfather status" if I moved out and found a renter in the time between the counting of the votes and the recording of the amendment in the County clerk’s office.
A day or two before the votes were counted I was taken aside by my neighbor, a former board member who had written the amendment. "Did you vote on the amendment? Did you? Did you? You really have to vote YES on the amendment."
"I’m just really concerned that when I go to grad school I won’t be able to rent. If I could just get on the list of grandfathered units, I’d be fine."
"Don’t worry, just ask."
"Is that all I have to do?"
Well, it passed by 90% to 10%, but because about a third didn’t vote, they didn’t get the votes they needed. Hurray! But wait-- there is a law in California that says that if an amendment gets more than 50% of the vote, the HOA can petition a judge to grant the amendment as passed. (Yes, there’s a law for every god damned thing in California). All the members had the right to go to court and it seemed like half the association was going to show up in favor of the amendment.
I had two months to decide what to do. First, I could move out and find a tenant to get grandfathered status. Second I could go to the judge and try to stop the rule from passing. Third, I could try to get on the list.
I talked to another neighbor (another former board member who had worked on the amendment) who told me, "Just put your girlfriend as your tenant."
"Will that work?" I asked
"That’s what Joe O is doing."
"Are you sure that will work?"
"Don’t worry, you’ll be fine."
And so, perhaps because of that battered spouse syndrome that so many liberals have, I decided "not to make a scene" by going in front of the judge (and I had work that day too). I also thought that "getting on the bad side of the HOA" would hurt me in the end. Instead, I wrote up a legal lease with my girlfriend and got her to move in. I registered her as my tenant with the HOA on the day before the judge ruled.
The office manager was pleasant when I gave her the paperwork. "I know exactly what you’re trying to do and we’re fine with that... I don’t think you’ll have any problems."
The next day the f-ing amendment passed, but I felt I would be OK.
But of course, that wasn’t the end of it. See, the amendment gave the HOA board the ability to "interpret" the amendment as they saw fit. And the first thing that they interpreted was the definition of what a "grandfathered" unit was. They sent out a form that required anyone who wanted grandfather status to apply for it (there was nothing like this in the amendments). In order to apply, you had to submit two utility bills in your tenant’s name (you weren’t given any time to change it, it had to have been done already) and you had to sign a document swearing that you no longer resided in your condo.
I hired a lawyer. Straight out of law school, he told me that the rule seemed wrong to him (he was probably wrong on that as no-rent amendments are commonplace) and that I shouldn’t have to send in all of their paperwork. I sent them my lease as proof that I was renting.
They wouldn't budge. Their lawyer responded that I couldn’t be renting if I couldn’t prove that I lived somewhere else. It didn’t seem to matter that I had been told that it would be no problem by the people that wrote the amendment or that when I did rent to my GF they happily accepted my paperwork. There was a new sheriff in town and they were the law. But what was even more curious was that the lawyer responded with "It appears that Ms.X is your roommate. If that is the case you have no need to respond. That is allowed." [I’m paraphrasing].
Trying to pick up the pieces
I was screwed. But I still had "equity." So I put my condo on the market for 20% less than my purchase price. I didn’t get a single offer. And when I enrolled in law school, I had a condo that I didn’t know whether or not I could rent.
I moved out in the middle of the night and my former boss, a man of Mexican ancestry, moved in. Well, they didn’t like it. My neighbors were keeping a diary. According to one neighbor, another neighbor (one of the women that said getting grandfather statues would be easy) was keeping the diary of my comings and goings. "Not because we don’t like the tenant, but because we can’t forgive the owner for hiring a lawyer." My tenant told me he felt discriminated against.
So about a month ago I got a letter telling me that I had to appear in front of the board to discuss the allegations that I am renting my place. In the envelope was a note saying that they had just decided that the fine for violating the no rent rule was $250 for the first month, $500 for the second month, and $1000 for all subsequent months. Yes, you heard me right, $1000 per month.
This evening is my hearing. I drove 400 miles and skipped a day of law school so I can try to convince the HOA board to understand my situation. I don’t have high hopes. I live among people who think that their job is not so much to enforce the rules, but to keep out anyone who is not like them. Although I am white and male, I am not like them and they have no problem kicking me out.
If they find that I am in violation (which I expect they will) I could hire a lawyer, but because of my "assets" I do not qualify for legal aid. Most lawyers that work on these issues work for HOAs exclusively and the lawyer I previously hired was not very good. If I don’t hire the lawyer, I will have to kick out my tenant and will lose my place. My condo is now worth less than half of what I paid for it. I know that I am extremely lucky that I’ll still have a place to live and that I’ll still have a fine credit score, but it really hurts knowing that all of the money I got from my grandmother and all of the money I saved up while working for a job will be flushed down the toilet.
Why this matters
I am writing this for cathartic benefits and also because I realize now that you have to stand up for people who aren’t like you even when it is hard and even when it won’t affect you. The old white people will hurt themselves in the end, but in the meanwhile they are hurting everyone else.
As Pastor Niemoller once said:
When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.
When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.
When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.
When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I was not a Jew.
When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.