HOA’s Coming Undone – What’s Hiding-In-Plain-Sight A Social-Psychology Perspective

I’ve lived in one of the largest HOA’s in Northern California (2500 homes) now for over 7 years. With a 40+ year background in mental health, my perspective is decidedly psychological, sociological and “systems.” Since living in this HOA community, I have studied its history and dynamics extensively. I have also studied the history of HOA’s throughout the USA.

What I have discovered has been disheartening and alarming. Bottom line: HOA’s do not serve their member homeowners. They serve developers, the real estate industry, legislators, the HOA Industry and the “collective narcissism” of small groups of homeowners bent on control of governance processes. HOA’s claim to serve their members, but this claim exists as lip-service only and window-dressing for the outside world.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

Though the seeds of their undoing exist in “plain sight”, there’s a barrier in “seeing” them. You must know where to look and what to look for. Without such an introspective approach, any HOA appears to be “normal” and “typical” of any other community. Scrutinizing HOA’s to discern their core problems ……..

HOA’s are a “form of government” that by their very design are geared toward an imbalance- of-power, i.e., ultimate control by the Board of Directors. Members are left to figure out and work out their own role, if they can, if they dare. All HOA laws are written and designed this way. All State Governments “exercise” (i.e., loosely) their regulation of HOA’s in such a way as to support and reinforce this imbalance. Again, members (home owners) are left adrift, to assume that a “benevolent” board will guard their safety, privacy and property rights. This leads to a gross denial of basic human nature, e.g., see the “Stanford Prison Experiment” and the “Milgram Obedience Experiment.” It also leads to some very negative social, community outcomes; and, it does in many HOA’s.

These seeds of HOA’s undoing fall into two categories: (1) Ignorance – a very direct result of singular power given to boards; and, (2) Cognitive Impairments – common flaws in thinking and consequences of aging.


Assuming HOA Laws are Fixed – Assumptions such as suing your HOA is the only way to get real justice, or, that boards have no obligation to consider member surveys. Take the latter for example. Legally, it’s true that an HOA board can simply ignore any member survey results. What usually goes unsaid is the highly significant fact that a board’s life depends upon the social/political power of their membership. In other words, if an HOA membership is sufficiently organized and able to effectively wield its power, any board would be very hard pressed to ignore their wishes.

Denial of Historical Influences – Many HOA’s have histories filled with organizational dysfunction. Again, the very governance structure of HOA’s (control by limited-term boards) tends to make them blind to the continuity and patterns within their governance history. If an HOA has a history of significant and/or disabling dysfunction, and, if that HOA largely ignores that history, as if it were of no consequence, it will most likely continue to repeat many of the same previous dysfunctional patterns. Full and open exposure of past dysfunctions along with full acknowledgment of their myriad effects, and then development of concomitant solutions is required.

Disenfranchisement of Members – Many HOA’s, because of their legal design, tend to concentrate social and political power into the hands of a few members, meanwhile relegating other members to a no-man’s-land of isolation and misinformation. A look at an HOA’s history of member voting will tell the story. If it’s worse than the National average of 60%, e.g., 30% in one No. CA HOA, then there is significant member disenfranchisement.

Poor Grasp of “Public Relations” and “Customer Service” Fundamentals – This one is closely linked with the one just above. Most HOA boards tend to have low skill-sets in these areas. Even fewer HOA’s have someone on-staff with such skills. A fairly high-level of these skills is required for the effective actions and responsiveness to engage members and draw them into the community/governance process, rather than offend or alienate them.

Poor Grasp of Organizational Dynamics (understanding human social systems) – Here, again, most boards lack these skills to any great degree. Staff can compensate but often do not excel in this area unless specifically trained. Lack of knowledge and skills in this area typically results in low overall performance in addressing community/member needs.

Resistance to Change – Maintenance of Status Quo – This is a common HOA phenomenon.

Dependence on Existing Problem-Solving Pool (people and ideas) – Some HOA’s insist on solving all problems internally. Unfortunately, this tends toward the creation of a more cloistered community that repeats previous “solutions” and, thus, previous mistakes.

Cognitive Impairments

Collective Narcissism (self-centeredness, low empathy) – This is a social/community phenomenon that was first identified in 1973. If, as is the case in some HOA’s, there are one or more groups of members with significant social and/or political power who also have strong narcissistic traits, they can be a highly disruptive and negative influence. They can become the “tail that wags the dog”, having out-sized effects on community-wide issues. If an HOA has one of these groups that has existed for a long time, their impact can be particularly pervasive and harmful to the membership as a whole. Specific measures will be needed to deal effectively with them.

Low Critical-Thinking Skills – Few HOA board members enter office with these skills at a sufficient level. Good critical-thinking skills are a basic requirement for effective participation on an HOA board. Yet this is rarely recognized let alone put into active practice.

Learning Deficits, e.g., limited perspective, comprehension or language skills – The vast majority in the current “boomer” generation (who are the most numerous on HOA boards) have learning deficits that were never identified in childhood. Although this is somewhat less true of successive generations, many of them, as well, passed through school without significant problems identified. Just to mention a few, an impaired ability to take a proper, broad-enough perspective can greatly hamper a leader’s ability make good decisions. Poor reading or verbal comprehension can likewise interfere significantly with effective leadership. A language impairment such as “Speech Disfluency” can cause a board officer to be poorly understood and even disliked by members simply because they are laborious to listen to.

Cognitive Inflexibility – Simply put, this means the person has “stuck thinking”. They tend to fixate on matters or issues that may not be relevant or important to the HOA as a whole. If someone like this gets onto your board, good luck! You’ve got a real “system” problem.

There’s another aspect of this that comes with aging. Cognitive flexibility, the ability to shift one’s mental process quickly and easily as the situation demands, is essential for effective leadership. With aging, this capacity tends to erode in terms of speed and agility. A certain amount of loss in this area does not necessarily interfere with governance participation. However, there comes a point where it does and this must be recognized and addressed.

Limited Educational Level – The “real” issue here is skill-level. There are people with HS education who have rather advanced skills in critical-thinking, problem-solving, etc. Likewise, there are people with college educations who have poor skills in those same areas. However, college education does matter, as does the quality of that education. This is one area where vetting is essential to determine a board candidates past performance.

Impaired Memory – A reality for many HOA’s is the fact that most board and committee members are from the “boomer” generation or beyond. This, unfortunately, raises the question of aging impairments. Chief among these are impairments in short-term memory. Leaders who make multiple unnecessary contacts, who do not recall having met someone previously or who become significantly less organized than before, all due to failing short-term memory, can significantly impede organizational processes. Great sensitivity and care is needed in addressing this issue.

Mike Gingerich, MSSW, PhD