In Why You Should Avoid Buying in HOA Neighborhoods, frequent commentator Nila Ridings suggested that HOAs are cult-like. Having lived in several myself, I have to agree with Nila’s observation. I’ve described them as the adult equivalent of a high school clique. Are HOAs cults? A strong case can be made.
Reader Neil Brooks shared his HOA story, a tragic one, and one that supports the notion that HOAs are cults, albeit with smiling faces. Below he presents a summary version of the account he provides on his own website. If you doubt that HOAs might be cults – complete with influence with public authorities – you must read this account. While this may seem like an extreme situation, it has one common thread with all HOA “war stories” – any time anyone comes into conflict with an HOA, they stand completely alone.
Even ordinary residents in an HOA neighborhood quickly and easily close ranks behind the all-powerful board, perhaps driven by fear of becoming the next victim in a future witch hunt. That’s pretty much how cults work. Superficial enthusiasm, masking deep fear.
Here’s Neil’s story:
Are HOAs Cults Behind Smiling Faces?
My name is Neil Brooks. I’m disabled due to chemically burned eyes, primary immune dysfunction, and chronic neuropathic eye pain. I was formerly a corporate executive with several national companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
My wife and I moved into a brand new house in Fort Collins, Colorado in 2009. It was a covenant-controlled community with a Homeowners Association (HOA) and a Board of Directors. There were about 44 homes in the neighborhood. We were among the very last to move in.
The people we met as we were considering this place assured us that it was a very tight-knit community, that everybody was the best of friends, and that you “basically couldn’t make it to the mailbox without somebody offering you a beer.” We really liked the warm sense of community that they described.
But what we thought of as a community turned out to be much more like a cult.
Barking Dogs as ‘Insiders’ – Residents as ‘Troublemakers’
We got settled into our new house only to find that the neighbors (whose house was located mere feet away) had chronic, barking dogs whose barking was unbelievably loud. It would start before sunrise, continue late into the night, and usually go for hours on end, day after day after day. The barking quickly began to take a significant toll on my sleep and my health.
The view from above (Google Satellite) – our house is on the left; the dog owners’ house is on the right. Our house hadn’t yet been built when we bought it. We had no idea how it would sit on the property. By the time we realized this it was too late. We were bound by a ‘Specific Performance Contract’ in a down real estate market:
Repeated and civil requests to the dog-owning neighbors got me nowhere. Similar pleas for help to Animal Control, the Police, and the HOA property manager got me nowhere. Once I reached out to the HOA members (via the Board of Directors) directly, everything went downhill.
The HOA Vice President told me to leave him and everybody else in the neighborhood alone, and made it clear that — while I had done everything in my power to keep this issue confined to only the people in a position to do anything about it — it had become a neighborhood-wide issue, and that “the majority of the neighborhood” had turned on me.
And the barking still wouldn’t stop.
How close the two dogs were to my house, our bedroom, our bed:
No Help from the City Fathers
We were contacted by the City Mediator who turned out to be friendly with the dog owners. She scheduled a mediation date. My wife and I showed up at the mediation but nobody else was there. Apparently the mediator had canceled the mediation but never told us.
My health rapidly declined. I was battling insomnia, repeated infections that wouldn’t respond to medication, medication reactions, and exhaustion. It was a downward spiral from which there was no escape.
We hired an attorney and asked her to encourage the neighbors to get control over the barking. The neighbors’ attorney told us that the neighbors would do nothing and that we should stop bothering them.
Seeing no other options, being too sick to move, and being caught in the midst of the worst real estate market in a generation (nothing was selling, and our house was worth at least $100,000 less than we had paid for it) we filed a lawsuit against the neighbors and the HOA.
Friends and Influence – When You’re Outside the Cult Looking In
As part of the lawsuit, we learned that the dog-owning neighbors, the HOA Vice President, and many of the other neighbors – people who had all moved into the neighborhood before us — had banded together to force me to move out of the neighborhood, spread false and vicious rumors about me, and do everything in their power to side with their friends, the dog-owners. They were totally unconcerned about the truth, the barking, or the harm it had caused me. They simply sided with their old friends, and against this new guy.
Rather than ever talk TO me, the neighbors spent an inordinate amount of time talking ABOUT me.
They had decided that — since they had “seen me ride a bicycle, before,” that I must not be disabled. There was endless correspondence between the majority of the neighbors. It was toxic, mean-spirited, dishonest, and awful.
Twisting the Truth to Manipulate the Facts
As part of the lawsuit, I learned that the dog-owners and their friends had reached out to every member of the community, telling them a one-sided version of what had happened, (but neglecting to mention that I’m disabled, that my bedroom was virtually in their back yard, and that the noise was hurting me) and saying that I was “trying to force them to get rid of their dogs,” rather than simply train them not to bark so much.
In another document, the situation had been presented as me “insisting that the animals are either removed or put down [killed].”
Nothing could have been further from the truth.
From the beginning, my wife and I loved the dogs. In fact, I continued to venture outside in an effort to calm and quiet the dogs when they were suffering, even giving them treats from time to time – something the neighbors’ attorney deemed “suspicious” and ordered me to stop.
Closing Ranks Behind the Propaganda
So the neighborhood had been told a story implying that I was a fraud, a liar, a dog hater/killer, and that I was out to get their dog-owner friends. And I had no idea that all of this was happening. The villagers were riled up. They had gathered their torches and pitchforks.
As part of the lawsuit, I learned that several neighbors often heard the neighbors’ dogs bark.
These neighbors lived quite far away from the dogs, relative to my house. If these neighbors heard the barking from 150 feet away, why couldn’t they imagine just how loud it must have been in my house, only a few feet away from the dogs? In our bedroom, the barking could literally be as loud as a jackhammer.
The Court ordered us to participate in mediation. The HOA wouldn’t do anything. The judge-mediator assured me that we had a strong case — at least one that would make it to Court (ie, never be thrown out in a Motion for Summary Judgment). There were simply too many issues of fact and law.
But our case was thrown out in a Motion for Summary Judgment. The Judge also awarded the HOA its legal fees. That took the rest of my life’s savings and I was still in big medical trouble.
Public Enemy #1 – The Cult Closes Ranks
In throwing out our case the Judge emboldened the neighbors, who began to torment and harass me on the rare occasions when I needed to leave my house, only worsening my concern for my safety. I felt vulnerable and at risk in my neighborhood and in my home. I filed several police reports against the perpetrators. No action was taken by the Police.
In fact, when I told the police that I am “medically disabled, have a primary immune dysfunction, am in chronic pain,” and that “my health has been declining since this all started,” the officer — literally — laughed at me on the telephone, saying that it was “the most ridiculous thing she had ever heard.”
I was afraid of further retaliation and the Police clearly weren’t going to help me.
When Your House Becomes a Jail
I rarely left the house. When I did, I legally carried a gun that I had legally purchased. I had taken a 10 hour course to train in its use. I’d never owned a gun before, but I was in fear for my safety. The neighbors began calling the Police, having seen me carrying a gun on my property.
One day, certain that nobody was around, I dared to step outside to tend to my yard, openly carrying my pistol — legal in this town. For several seconds, after the garden hose began leaking all over me, I had the pistol (which was getting drenched) out of its holster, pointed at the ground, finger NOT on the trigger. I looked down. I looked up. Then I set the hose down. I walked in the house, set the gun down, came back outside, turned off the hose, reeled it in, and went back inside. This all happened in the space of about 20 seconds.
Apparently, the prime villain in this story (the HOA Board member with whom I had been trying to work) had been hiding behind his house, snapping photographs with an eight-power telephoto lens from over 150 feet away.
The pics describe the events of that day exactly as I say.
It Can Get as Bad as You Can Imagine
I was arrested by an entire SWAT team, including an armored vehicle and a sniper. I was jailed – though I have never committed a crime in my entire life and they effectively sent the National Guard out to arrest me.
A Deferred Prosecution Agreement was reached. Among its conditions was a Gag Order that prevented me, for two years, from speaking publicly about what happened to me. By gagging me, they were able to ensure that my story wasn’t publicly told.
I was to be evaluated by a Forensic Psychologist. I was also under a Restraining Order that prevented me from being in my house. We were forced to put our house up for sale (at a significant loss). I was forced to live elsewhere.
The Deferred Prosecution Agreement was lifted in September 2014. But I had already lost absolutely everything — my health, my functionality, my life’s savings, and my home. I have been without a permanent address, and have been living out of a backpack, since June 2012. Everything is in storage.
This HOA Nightmare Has Health Consequences
In the Fall of 2013 I began working with several doctors and a pain clinic to try to manage the pain in my eyes. This led to a severe adverse drug reaction (DRESS Syndrome) in December 2013 that was deemed near-fatal. After months of recovering from that I flew to the Mayo Clinic for further evaluation. I was warned “never to take another prescription medicine unless it was absolutely necessary to save my life.”
I could no longer manage the pain in my eyes, nor could I treat the recurrent infections that had plagued me for the five years since the nightmare began.
A few months after returning from the Mayo Clinic I began to have cardiac symptoms. Over several years of being seen by doctor after doctor after doctor, this was found to be an untreatable form of Heart Failure (HfpEF) and an untreatable form of Pulmonary Hypertension (WHO Group II). Both have been deemed fatal. I have no risk factors for either. I have been seen at some of the best teaching hospitals in the world. We still don’t have any better answers or a treatment plan. I am weak, exhausted, and constantly feel as though I have been poisoned. Every. Single. Day. My once full life has been reduced to walking the dog and watching/listening to TV.
The consensus is that this is all a result of the December 2013 drug reaction.
The Post Script on Our HOA Nightmare…
I am 54 years old. I moved into that house healthy, strong, fit, athletic, cheerful, optimistic, social, outgoing, friendly, and … disabled. I lost everything because I needed, and asked, to be able to sleep in my first-ever, brand new home in Fort Collins, Colorado.
That’s all. Nothing more, nothing less. I never did anything to anybody. Ever.
The people in that neighborhood either believed me (that I am disabled and that the barking was causing me harm) and did nothing or they didn’t believe me and did nothing. Which of those options is okay ?
As the Court-ordered Forensic Psychologist concluded, I:
“responded appropriately to the emotional stress and turmoil created by the ongoing dispute by seeking out mental health counseling and his process of problem resolution was progressive and appropriate to the circumstances. There was no indication that Mr. Brooks responded impulsively or irrationally during the dispute and, while frustrated by the circumstances and outcome of his case, he never verbalized retaliatory or vengeful thoughts against the opposing parties.”
The story — in greater detail and with more pictures and links to the relevant documents — can be found here: The Destruction of a Medically Disabled Man in Colorado