This is the story of Raelene and Steve Schifano, written by Raelene.
My HOA horror story started in August of 2014. My husband Steve and I had just returned from a 3-month trip to Europe, where we had walked a 500-mile trek across Spain (The Camino De Santiago) and visited 9 different countries. We were high on life and wanted an easy place to live, so we could travel the world. Neither of us had any condo experience, so the thought of having low maintenance and a board to monitor our home while we were gone, seemed like a good fit. It was the biggest mistake of our lives.
Right after we moved in, we were fined $250 for our plumbing hoses not being changed inside our condo. How did the board know what was in our condo and when it had been changed? I explained to the property manager that we had an inspection done of the home, prior to purchase and the hoses were fine. The PM decided it was ok and removed the fine. A week later, I received a warning of not breaking down our boxes when we put them in the trash. I knew this wasn’t true but explained to the property manager that if there was a box unbroken, we were sorry, and it would not happen again.
Steve and I decided to spend the spring building a deck, so we could make our patio into an Italian garden. Before we dug up the dirt, I asked the Board President if we could lay the dirt in the flower beds, since they were bare. We would strain it, so only the dirt, with no rocks or debris would be in it. She approved it and we started digging and laying the dirt. Two days later, the president showed up in our backyard, yelling at Steve for laying dirt. Steve was in shock! He explained to her that she needed to speak to me, since we had asked for her approval. When I came home, the president came at me screaming and yelling. I calmly explained to her to go check her email and check what she had written to approve the dirt laying. She called about 10 minutes later, stating not to lay any more dirt. We threw away a 1000lbs. of dirt.
After that, I was targeted. Every month I would receive a fine, so I decided to read the CC&Rs and start asking questions. My plan was to attend the next board meeting to meet them and understand what was happening in our community. The resale certificate I had, stated we could attend board meetings, but I was told the board does not offer open meetings and I was not to attend. This was the first big battle I had with the Board President. She was furious that I would even question her or the board. It took me a couple months to fight to get into the meetings.
Thinking that I must not be the only one that was having issues, I decided to send out an invitation to the homeowners to be on an owner’s email communication list. I went to each home and left a note with my information. Just minutes later, I received an email to cease and desist with harassing homeowners. The Board President sent out an email to everyone to ignore me and that I was a disgruntled homeowner. I was so upset. How dare she!! I owned two businesses in Kent, WA and her calling me a disgruntled homeowner made me sound crazy. Some of my clients lived in the community. I contacted my attorney. I had had enough of the harassment.
To my surprise, many of my notes did make it to homeowners and I had so many replied that they wanted to be on my email list. Over 30 owners signed up and we held our first get together. Even some of the board members participated. What we found out, was that the President controlled the community, and she was not to be questioned. This did not sit well with me, so I asked the Property Manager for all access to the records of the Association. Now the real war started.
Things were getting intense. I was being followed by board members and their minions. One day my daughter and I were walking to my car and the president swerved around us, almost hitting us. Of course, my 21-year-old daughter was in shock and called her a name. I have always stood up for what I believe, but at this moment, I decided to walk away. I told my daughter to ignore her and walk to the car. We sat there for about 5 or so minutes, trying to calm down. As I drove around the corner, the president was in the middle of the road, waiting for us. She was screaming and calling us names. I drove around her and immediately alerted the Property Manager of what happened. I asked to meet with the Board to discuss and try to settle things down. A few days later, I received a fine for $100 for my daughter calling the President a name. I asked what she would receive and was told, they don’t fine board members. I had no idea what the laws were, nor what due process was. The meeting with the board was a joke. The president resigned, then two weeks later, jumped back on the board.
This was the time I decided I would learn everything I could about our HOA, the laws, the CC&Rs and I also started researching court cases that involved HOA. I went on the county web page for all public records. I also, tried to put a no contact order on the President, since she had shown up on our security cameras in our backyard, looking through the window. Our home was constantly being targeted. I had my daughter move in with her boyfriend to keep her out of the drama and safe from the Association Board.
I was denied all access to the records for months. During this time, I asked neighbors for any board meeting minutes they had. I collected all the minutes from 2007-the current date. I read every meeting minute for all those months/years. What I learned was the Board had been violating the CC&Rs all along. They were in violation of the laws. The Property manager and Attorney had taught them how to fine, lien and foreclose. They were fining homeowners for things that were not even in our rules. The board had rules for things that we owned and could not make rules for. The Board was buying and selling homes in Sheriff Sales. They were using the monies of the Association and not putting it in the budget, so homeowners had no idea where or what the money was being spent on. At this point I demanded access to the records. I contacted the Attorney General to help me and found that his office takes in thousands of complaints a year, but refuses to help, since we signed a Private Contract when we purchased our home. Really!? According to Section 12 of the Washington State Constitution, Washington State citizens cannot sign away their rights in a private contract.
I fought and fought to see the “boxes” of the Association. According to the law, I had the right to see them at any time and I would pay for them if needed. The Property Manager couldn’t fight me anymore, so they allowed me in to see the “Financials”. This was only February and March of 2016, plus they gave me some owner’s social security numbers, checking/routing numbers and other personal things. The PM gave me enough information to cause them to be fired in the short future. How does a PM company have the right to violate the laws without repercussions? I even received copies of the PM routing money from our Association to other non-profits. I contacted and sent all information directly to my attorney for safe keeping and initiated a “Recall of the Board” for violating the CC&Rs. Here’s where I learned how much power a board and attorney really have.
My corporate attorney was helping me deal with the board. I couldn’t find an HOA attorney that would even look at our case, because we didn’t have any “damages”. These people were violating our rights and the rights of all homeowners in the property, but no one would do anything about it. There is no governance over HOA and the laws that are written. Civil court is the only answer and if you have no “damages”, you don’t have a case and the Board can continue to bully, harass, and deny all rights. The board is Jury, Judge and Executioner. No one can overstep them. They call all the shots and make all the rules.
The Recall was crazy. I had to get 25 signatures to call it, which wasn’t a problem. The bylaws state the owners must be present to vote. No proxies. Owners only in the meeting. The board hired a police officer to manage me and my attorney. We had never caused any violent actions, yet they needed the police. Then the attorney translated the bylaws to mean that the board could use proxies. Of course, we would lose, due to the proxies did not need to be verified by anyone but the board. At this time, knowing I would lose, I decided to alert all owners to the fact that the PM had given me all their private information. The owners were so angry. The recall was my first loss, but my first victory getting the PM fired. At the end of the meeting, I asked the board to let this go now, so we all could live our lives. The Board decided to fine me maliciously…
Two weeks later, I received a fine for $50 for my husband smoking in our backyard at 4:30am on April 23, 2016. Wow…We were in driving to Utah on April 22nd, so they would be no way to make it back to our house to smoke at that time in the morning. I asked the PM what evidence the board had. They had the neighbor’s text message he sent them at 4:30 accusing Steve of smoking. That’s it!? Anyone can send a text at 4:30am, so where was the evidence? None. This is when I started to make the board follow the CC&Rs. They had a process for Due Process in the bylaws, but never offered it to anyone. I called for my attorney to be present and all evidence to be presented. I want a court reporter and all records shared with the owners. The Board and their attorney refused. Not only one attorney refused, but 3 refused to drop it for six months, costing the Association $28,000 in attorney fees. The day of the hearing, the attorney who showed up to represent the Association was mortified that the board had no evidence and the owner that accused us, stated it was Steve! No one else. The board found us to be not guilty, but our attorney wasn’t paid for, so we had about $15,000 of debt that isn’t considered damages at the time.
A couple months went by and I still demanded to see the boxes of the association. It took 8 months of demands to finally be allowed to see all the financial and records of the Association. 18 boxes…It was a nightmare. Emails of abuse by the Board President to other homeowners, fines for “being black” and so many liens and foreclosures. One of the long-time neighbors had gone along with me and she was in shock. We also found evidence of the board charging special assessments to cover a road project in the City of Kent “LID” for $96,000, but the board doubled the assessment and pocketed the change. There was no evidence of the money being put into the association’s account. I took pictures and kept all evidence.
At this time in September of 2016, we had some water intrusion into the home. We had no idea where it was coming from, so I called my insurance company, and they came out to investigate. This is the first time I had to deal with HOA insurance and found that we as homeowners have no rights to Fair and Equal Insurance. The insurance company couldn’t determine where the water was coming from, so they were willing to pay for the flooring that was ruined. My next email went to the new property manager (This was the third one in 6 months), alerting them to the fact that the water intrusion was coming from the outside of the home. We proceeded with ordering and replacing the floors. The day the floors were being laid, the contractor pulled up half and tested the concrete underneath. The concrete tested high for moisture, so he could not lay the floors. Now we had concrete floors that had moisture and no other flooring. I called the PM and pleaded for his help. He said he would send someone out right away. This person was not certified, it was just a maintenance person from the PM company and without testing anything, stated the water was not coming from outside. Really?!
No one would help us. The board would not repair or send anyone out to stop the water. I contacted the Insurance Commissioner of WA State, but since the Board is the insurance adjustor, they would not help us. WA state has Fair and Equal insurance laws, but they do not apply to HOA and Condo Owners. That is discrimination and not fair. I contacted the Attorney General’s office and the legislators. No one cared. Water was pouring into our home and no one would help.
Finding an attorney was our next issue. HOA attorneys that practice regularly are all members of CAI and would not take our case. When I finally found an attorney, he took our money, said he was going to file a lawsuit for 5 months, but never did. Then he just disappeared. When I received a bill from him after 2 months of no contact, I refused to pay for it. Then he finally answered me, stating he had kidney problems. He didn’t care about us. My search for a new attorney started. The next attorney was young and didn’t have any HOA experience at the level we were at. He did his best, but after 6 months, had to turn the case over to an experienced litigator. Now we had to start over. Our new attorney was a constitutional attorney and between the two of us, we would fight this unfair fight. Thank goodness she allowed me to pay what I could when I could. This was the beginning of 2018…The fight would continue.
During 2017, no homeowners were allowed into board meetings. I found out later, the board and property manager were fighting. Instead of alerting the homeowners, the board allowed this PM to steal funds and deny all fixes on the property. No meetings were held from September 2017-January 2018. Then the board finally hired a PM with ethics.
In January of 2018, I requested a copy of the contract for the PM and the entire insurance policy. The new PM was out of town, so the agent representing her at the time, denied all documents. I had cc’d the PM of his answers not to disclose contracts. The PM sent a message to the agent stating, “Be careful with this homeowner, she sued the Association before.” Unfortunately for her, she replied all, and I received this message. I had never sued the association, so this was a lie. Why would she say this unless the board told her I did. I was furious. I immediately received an email with an apology, but it didn’t make it better. She pleaded with me to meet with her, so we could deal with the situation. I did. She promised to take care of our home and make things right. This was the first time I saw a resolution to our home.
The PM initiated a new inspection with another contractor. They determined all water was coming from the outside and were in the process of suing the previous insurance companies for wind driven rain damage. The PM decided she would start fixing our home. A month later, the Attorney suing for wind driven rain damage, decided that they would not repair the home until the wind driven rain lawsuit was over, which could take years. We were devastated. The board had used our home as their evidence for wind driven rain damage and then refused to repair. We found that insurance laws are not fair or equal when it comes to condo associations. The board is the adjustor and even if we did get money for our damaged home, it would go to the board and they could spend it any way they deemed fit.
Currently, it was May of 2018. We had videos of where the water was coming from, professional inspections done by the board’s contractor and the association taking responsibility for all damages, but no one would repair and restore our home. We could not live in these conditions for ever. Mold was growing in the carpets and in the walls. It was time to file the lawsuit against the association. I pleaded with them to fix the home, so we could sell and be done with them. They refused and we filed the lawsuit for fraud in the resale certificate, failure to restore, harassment and malicious intent by 10 board members, plus other things. Now we wait.
During this time, I was attending all board meetings and recording them for my reference. One day as the neighbors and I went to go into the meeting, the PM blocked be from entering. He explained to me that I wasn’t invited or allowed to attend the meeting. I was shocked! It is against the law in WA to keep any owners out of the meetings. He explained that the board did not want me there and since an attorney in the past had denied my entrance, he was following up on that decision. I recorded the conversation. I walked right in and told him to check the laws. I had always been respectful at the meetings, so there was no reason to keep me out. I had been fighting for Legislative action to change the HOA/Condo Laws since 2016. I had made sure the new laws included the right for owners to enter all board meetings and have a time they can speak at these meetings. The law changed in 2018, so I knew there was no legal way they could keep me out.
It took another year just to get to mediation. I had been deposed for two solid eight-hour days. Beat up by insurance attorneys and the HOA attorney. Both tried to make my husband and I look crazy, as if we had asked to be abused, harassed and bullied by the Association Board. The attorneys did not like that I had turned HOA attorneys in for ethics violations. They said I was the bully for fighting for my rights. Attorneys really don’t care if your home is fixed or if you have been fined illegally. All they care about is the profits they can make off an Association. Attorney’s fees for my HOA were $38,000 in 2014, $26,000 in 2015 and in 2016 they were $28,000. That’s $92,000! We never received the final budgets for 2017 or 2018, but I did order a resale certificate and found over $120,000 discrepancy from 2017-2018 when the unethical PM was fired and the ethical one-stepped in. The board tried to justify the error by stating it was QuickBooks and I wouldn’t understand. I OWNED TWO BUSINESSES! I do all my own taxes and take care of the financials, so I understand QuickBooks.
The day of mediation, it was pouring down rain. My husband and I and were in the office for the entire day, being beat up to settle for $10,000-15,000. Our attorney’s fees were over $68,000 and there was no way we could settle for this. We were so nauseated and upset. The board had been so malicious in making us suffer in a home that was full of water and mold. They delayed, denied and deflected all they had done wrong. Finally, I showed the mediator an email I had from the Property Manager, stating the board and previous PM had done this on purpose. At that moment, the board decided to settle. The Association had to purchase our condo for full asking price, pay for mediation and pay for pain and suffering. It wasn’t nor will it ever be enough to erase the damage they had done.
In hindsight, we are so glad we settled when we did. We would have been hostages for so much longer due to the Covid virus. The day we finally left that home, a huge weight had been lifted from us. It hasn’t been easy, but we are getting better every day. We have endured mold treatments and some counseling.
In the end, I will always fight for the rights of homeowners. No one should have to fight this battle alone and feel that no one is there to help and understand the powers a board has. I work for legislation on the stake holders’ group of WA state and have started my own non-profit, HOA Fightclub to help people for free. We must stop the unethical, unlawful and unconstitutional laws that have held us hostage and take the rights of homeowners away. We shouldn’t have to fight for one homeowner at a time. The legislators have written unconstitutional laws. We need change.