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Saturday, April 23, 2016



This day's one of those I can't wait to close, my light is fading out.
I tried pushing through, met storms without you, and had to turn about.
I've faked enough to, know I still need you,
Turn and forsake, makes my smile less opaque, so Your light can break through. 

If it's the rules that make us shine,
I'd be breaking all the time.
Shine, shine, shine, this little light of mine. 
Let Your glory shine, not my light but thine.

When you look at me, I want you to see, I burn with heavenly fire.
But the glow that you see, should not just be me, aglow for you to admire.
Follow the rules, can't be the fuel
For joy all the time, not a smile but a shine, of Jesus glowing through

If it's the rules that make us shine,
I'd be breaking all the time.
Shine, shine, shine, this little light of mine. 

Let Your glory shine, not my light but thine.

Scott and Becky Swinton

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Your Presence

In Exodus 33, we find the young nation of Israel in despair.  They have been caught in the act of rebellion and severely punished. But compounding the weight of guilt and the agony of God's punishment, they have just been informed that God will send an angel before them into the promised land. Let me be very clear; an angel - and not God Himself. How is this possible?  The God of their fathers has told them explicitly - "I will not go up in your midst, because you are an obstinate people, and I might destroy you on the way."

"When the people heard this sad word, they went into mourning and none of them put on his ornaments." The whole mission was in jeopardy and it felt pointless to go on. Catatonic bewilderment overshadowed the whole camp.  Moses would go out to meet the Lord and the entire camp would stand to watch him go. They were in shock and despair. God had severely, resolutely, mercifully distanced Himself from them, because of their rebellion.  

It's under these conditions that Moses goes before God for the nation and says:

  “See, You say to me, ‘Bring up this people.’ But You have not let me know whom You will send with me. Yet You have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found grace in My sight.’ Now therefore, I pray, if I have found grace in Your sight, show me now Your way, that I may know You and that I may find grace in Your sight. And consider that this nation is Your people.” And He said, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” Then he said to Him, “If Your Presence does not go with us, do not bring us up from here. For how then will it be known that Your people and I have found grace in Your sight, except You go with us? So we shall be separate, Your people and I, from all the people who are upon the face of the earth.” So the Lord said to Moses, “I will also do this thing that you have spoken; for you have found grace in My sight, and I know you by name.”

I wrote the following lyrics last year after I had studied this passage. I was quite impressed by Moses' unwillingness to move forward without God's presence. God had promised them continued success with an angel leading the way; but Moses wanted more than success - he wanted God's presence.

Your Presence

A mountain shrouded in Clouds and smoke.
My conscience pierced by the words you spoke.
I cast away all my ornaments
For in your presence, I now repent

I played the fool, I wandered off. 
Afraid your plan was just not enough.
But now you beckon, you call to me
No more resisting, for now I see:

If your presence will not go before me,
I'll stay here in the dark of night.
I won't go on without your presence,
Can't leave without you by my side.
If your presence will not go before me,
I'd stumble even in the light.
I won't go on without your presence
Can't leave without you by my side.

We are your people, we are your prize.
Your loving mercy we realize.
We need your presence all along
Except you lead us, we can't move on.

If your presence will not go before me,
I'll stay here in the dark of night.
I won't go on without your presence,
Can't leave without you by my side.
If your presence will not go before me,
I'd stumble even in the light.
I won't go on without your presence
Can't leave without you by my side.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Who I Am

So I'm sitting here reading from an online course by Steve Barnes about how to become a better writer. I can dream right? His background is screen-writing, but he's also written books. His position is that a screenplay is nearly equivalent to 120 pages of any book and the basic composition is the same. Interesting, I suppose.

But more interesting is this; his first homework assignment is to write the story of my life starting right now and moving forward until the day I die. Seems a bit morbid there at the end, and frankly I'm not sure If I'm capable of designing my own demise. However, I'm challenged by his assignment. Can I write as directed? More to the point, do I even know enough about who I am to begin writing?

I'm not actually taking his course, so I'll skip the assignment.  But still, I ponder the difficulty of even defining who I am well enough to write my story.  If I were to develop my character from this point forward, what material would I be working with at the outset?

Who I am now is the product of so many forces, people, institutions, choices, and varied experiences over my 38 years of life, that the story starting now, must necessarily have much reflection and glancing over the shoulder to make sense of the jumbled pile of circumstances, ambitions, relationships and emotions that are me.

What if I did write that story? Who am I? Christian, father, husband, contractor, cyclist, runner, driver, writer, friend, son, brother, cousin, uncle, nephew, boss, customer, vendor, neighbor. There must be very many more. But is that who I am or what I do? What comprises the Who? Is what I do - who I am, or is what I feel - who I am? Those two are not the same.  Is who I am some combination of what I do and how I feel about it?  Does why I do it matter?

Today I didn't want to run, lift weights, or workout in any way. So I didn't. Am I now not an athlete? But then I decided that I was being lazy and lifted some weights and did some pushups. Did I regain status as an athlete - even though any Joe can do what I did? I can run more than a marathon without stopping and enjoy doing so. Therefore, I am an athlete. But on days like today when I don't feel like an athlete and don't feel like acting like an athlete, am I any less of an athlete than on the days I blister the pavement?

Who I am must be more than what I do, must be more than what I feel, must be more than just my identity to those who watch from the other side of this skin. Who I am must have many facets, and must be the compilation of those facets into the finely crafted gem that God designed in his infinite wisdom and sovereign sense of humor

Who I am is both controlled by me and simultaneously not controlled by me. When my environment collides with me I can do nothing but react. Scars across my body along with misshapen fingers and toenails give testimony to constant collisions. The collisions are largely out of my control; only my reaction to the collision, the force, the timing, and the overall impact of the impact is entirely my own. And who I am is modified and developed more at each collision. Physical environmental collisions are no doubt the least impacting. The emotional collisions indubitably pack more punch.

So, Who I Am, is not static. Certainly I am not now the same young man who presented himself to my wife-to-be over a decade and a half ago. Nor am I the same as I really was behind the presentation's glossy veneer. So something about my essence has changed and can be supposed to continue in like manner. And, who I now present myself to be to an observer, has changed from the former facade. Who I am therefore, is a capricious vague reality that is in a constant flow of change. The very concept of "Am" becomes ridiculous. I "am" only long enough to say the word. Any collision with circumstance will invariably alter the being.

But obviously, some trends or patterns transcend the caprice and allow for an acquaintance to identify a person over a course of years. Like the visage or physiognomy in spite of a constant transformation tending either toward good or ill, the basic essence of a person - who they are - maintains a basic likeness throughout the course of a lifetime.

So what remains and what shifts?  A former acquaintance could today identify my dad by his walk, but not so with my mother, as Parkison's has altered her stride.  Yet, both are immediately distinguished by their voices, expressions, and tone of voice. My mother's sense of humor has not budged from its perch on the verge of droll; my dad - still a sage.  Yet time together has wisened my mother and dad's jokes now elicit more groans.  Some elements changed, some unchanged. Who are they? Still my parents, of course.

Who am I? Still their son. There it is. We have discovered something that truly defines who I am. This fact cannot be altered. Go ahead and grope around for other defining characteristics that cannot be altered. I'll always be the father to my children. According to scientists, many of my brain, heart and eyeball cells are for the most part not regenerating, so those parts of me are pretty much the real deal. My genetics are unalterable, I will always have an x and y chromosome set. My hair, alas, does not qualify here, as changes in that arena are irreversibly trending toward undesirable. My physical form?  That has indeed remained fairly constant for my last twenty or so years, but I have an elderly friend who's midlife photos are utterly unrecognizable to us who did not know him then.

And what about beliefs? Similarly, if we wander off down the garden path of what I believe, we will soon come across the abandoned cocoons of my former positions.  The chrysalises of other ideas and opinions scattered along the trail lend doubt to the likelihood of ultimately identifying me by my beliefs either.

So round and round we can go and possibly if we spin enough times we will tease out a subset of characteristics or particles that are the true boiled-down essence of who I am.  And if amassed, they would lay a dormant and uninteresting pile of indistinct matter.  I could then congratulate myself for having discovered myself, and promptly lose interest. And the mass - would be unrecognizable, because that is not who I am.

Who am I?  I am pain. I am sadness. I am joy. I am peace and frustration. I am angry and forgiving. I am ebb and flow, breath in, breath out. I am who I am because I am not the same as yesterday - not in spite of who I was yesterday - rather I change to become who I am.

I know some would want me to dash off in a spiritual direction at this point. Perhaps you would prefer I leave the spiritual alone and out of the calculus?  I'll say only this; I am confident and convinced that "who I am" is a product of and accepted by the Creator because of Jesus Christ.  I am sinner, and forgiven. I am a child of God. I am who I am because I change. I am accepted by the Creator, because He does not.

Eternity alone will define me. If I were to write my story it must include my faith, and as such, my demise would be less the end than the beginning.  Who I am here and now, who it is that I am slowly becoming, is but a shadow of what I will some glorious day be.  Who am I?  I'll tell you when I get a better idea - somewhere and sometime further into eternity.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Pause In-Between

I am that pause in-between.

A breeze at the summit, a wide angle view unexpectedly seen.
I'm the reason for battles bitterly fought, scars for my cause are a badge. Yet don't be deceived, know this, though I'm brave I thrive when avoiding the fight. I'm the flowering vine undisturbed by the sunlight, the rain, or wind.  Yet how often I'm lost or simply passed by in the trials of heat and storm.

I'm there in the shouts of children at play, 
I'm there in the crash of the waves, 
I'm breath of winter, and color of spring, 
but absent in your dismay. 

Softly from chaos I run off and hide,
But linger expectant nearby, 
As nothing for chaos was ever designed, 
So I wait for those storm clouds to fly.

But I can be found in a storm, and on mountains and busy streets, though busyness cannot create me. Demand that I come, and a poor substitute will enter and rule in my place.  I preference no age, or gender, or race.  I'm gained or lost in a word. I'm gained or lost in one simple glance,

I'm that pause in-between,

I am Peace

By Scott Swinton
Written for my nephew Micah Lagger on his birthday.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Great Social Experiment

             "HOA's are filthy, stinking, power mad animals." 

I saw this comment recently as I was skimming an article by an HOA critic and finding the predictable discontent; the path to the HOA woodshed is well worn. But what impressed me most were the comments.

Another had posted:
"Nothing wrong with HOA where I live. To each it's own."

And then the discontented reply:
"Evedently you're on the board cause it's a rip off. No one should be in control of property you own. As long as you keep your property up they shouldnt tell you what color door or what color your house should be or what your yard should look like. And they charge a arm and leg for nothing. Its taking away your freedom of choice and something should be done about it."

And these were the more objective comments that didn't reference Nazism or Gulags. Beyond the obvious ignorance, there is an undeniable undercurrent of angst toward HOA's (Home Owner Association's) or more broadly defined as Common Interest Developments (CID's). Misinformation and ignorance abounds, but let's admit it, so do a number of true horror stories, such as the hard on her luck woman in Pomona CA, who correctly argued a $200 discrepancy between what the HOA had assessed her, and what she believed she owed. In spite of being right, the court slapped her hand for missing back payments, and she was saddled with the $22,000 legal fees. And then there's the guy from Rancho Santa Fe, CA, who lost his home over his myriad rose bushes; and the stories go on and on. Are HOA's "power-mad animals? Or, are they a heroic Dark Knight, unappreciated in spite of triumph and valor?

Humans have always lived communally. Yet, while single family home neighborhoods are revered as one of the sacraments of the American Dream, that model of community is not the historical norm. The Pueblos shared clay brick walls with their neighbors, Romans built apartment style insula, and nomadic tribes had no concept of a fixed home and a landscaped lawn. But, in America we do it better right? In rigorous pursuit of the American Dream, our suburban homes with tidy green lawns, are the evolutionary inevitability of the modern enlightened age, right? Maybe, but probably not.

In the United States 37% of the population is in some sort of rental, and nearly half of them are living in apartment buildings. Step into the cities, and those percentages quickly skew toward high-density rentals. In these cities where so much of another sacrament of the American Dream, Employment, is centered, it's obviously geographically impossible for all of the residents to live in their own single family home with rose bushes and an oak tree. So, no matter how much you dream, unfortunately a cursory sociological glance proves that living in close proximity to other humans is integral to our thriving culture. For a large segment of society, the green lawn and oak tree will never be reality. High density living, whether in apartments, condos, or tightly packed single family home subdivisions, is here to stay.

So, if humans have adapted to living together in close quarters over the millennia, what's the big deal with living stacked in a condominium or side-by-side in a row of town-homes? After all, if apartment living has proven a successful and cost effective housing solution, then what makes living in something so similar - the condominium, so contentious? Why do homeowner's association members seem so discontent? Why the lawsuits? Why all the angst? What has made this particular condition of living communally so dynamic compared to apartment living?

To begin to understand these questions well enough to answer them, requires a few steps back and requires answers to another set of questions a bit simpler to answer. When did this system of CID's begin? And, what are the philosophical underpinnings of Common Interest Development? We'll start there.

But before we do, a well-behaving contingent of HOA's needs to be applauded and excluded from the broadly brushed criticisms into which they've been painted. By no means are all HOA's "filthy," "Stinking," or acting like "Mad dogs." I am an owner of a unit within a mid-sized CID, and in my daily work, CID's make up 90% of my customer base. I have seen well run, well managed communities thrive in the same environment where others violently implode. What follows, is not a criticism of HOA's. Much to the contrary. What follows is a behind-the-curtain look to see what might be contributing to the madness where it exists, and hopefully a pulling aside of the curtain to let in some vitality and light.

  • A Brief History - From a California Point of View

In Common Interest Developments - Housing at Risk? written in 2002 at the request of California Senator Tom Torlakson, Julia Lave Johnston and Kimberly Johnston-Dodds, discuss their research into the origins of CID's. According to their research, the modern CID was conceived among the other Utopian ideas of Ebenezer Howard in the late 1800's and was tested in part during the roaring 20's in the Community of Radburn in New Jersey. Unfortunately, as Johnston and Johnston-Dodds put it, "Radburn failed to become the garden city envisioned by its planners. Howard wanted to create quality affordable housing for working people. This utopian ideology did not work with American capitalism, which was building for profit, not philanthropy."

Profit vs. Philanthropy. Where have we seen that before? This crisis of concept, Utopian ideas vs. Capitalism, is a key, or maybe better described as a thread that weaves its way through the fabric of modern CID's. Has there been an intrinsic conflict of interest ever since the very beginning of this concept - the Common Interest Development? We'll come back to that.

Floundering as a Utopian idea, the CID concept incubated for several decades, and didn't find a catalyst for rapid growth until late in the century. From 1900 to 1965 the total estimated number of CID's developed in the United States was 500. Among those was Lakeshore Homes Association in Oakland whose website boasts it to be the second oldest CID west of the Mississippi. Established in 1917 and advertised as "a veritable fairyland of rolling hills and wooded dales right in the heart of Oakland," and claiming that "nothing approaching Lakeshore Highlands in attractiveness ever has or ever will be offered to the seeker for ideal home conditions in the Bay Region." The historical record on their website demonstrates that as a single family home community, they have found relative success over the decades working together under a set of uniform governing documents, and were only substantively disturbed from the outside after losing in their combat with the 580 freeway. Even then, in a testament to the power of community, they hold the distinction of winning a mandate of "NO TRUCKS" on that section of 580, a regulation unique from any other highway in the United States.

Lakeshore Homes boasts a rich heritage in the San Francisco Bay Area, and though possibly shy of "fairyland," it seems a pretty nice place to live. But drive less than 3 miles down the hill toward San Francisco Bay, and things look markedly less Utopian. Countless small developments dot the sloping terrain, sharing none of the glory or heritage of fairyland. Why, and from where then, did these dispirited communities sprout?

In the expanding economy leading up to 1978, California property taxes were increasing at a rate considered by most California home owners to be, "out of control." Older, fixed-income residents were losing their homes as neighborhood property values drove their own property taxes to unaffordable levels. Demand had usurped supply in the California economic balance, and bidding wars on average homes raged. Property values soared, but with them rose property taxes and the gilded dreams of the municipalities collecting them. The taxpayers were soon clamoring for relief; their property values may have risen, but their monthly incomes had not.

A solution emerged when Howard Jarvis spearheaded the famed Proposition 13, which rolled back the current 1978 tax rate 2 years. The rollback was substantial on its own, but it wasn't the full extent of the Proposition. While before Prop 13, property taxes were increased at the self-serving whims of the municipality, often as much as 100% from one year to the next, after Prop. 13, the assessed tax was set at 1% of the property's value, and could only rise 2% each year after that. Only when the home was sold would it be reassessed and then only taxed at 1% of the sale price. Taxpayers stood and cheered as the plug was pulled on the rising flood of taxes. But it was a different story for the municipalities as they watched the revenue tide going out, and out, with no certain hope of a reversal. The municipalities were forced to maintain services with less income.

Compounding the effects of Prop 13 were the lingering effects of a somewhat obscure court case, Serrano V. Priest, from earlier in the same decade. The "Equal Protection" clause of the 14th amendment was invoked as Mr. Serrano sued the San Antonio Independent School District over the lack of equal opportunity for his children. California public schools were being funded by property taxes. In more affluent communities, the schools thrived on tax based income; a comparatively low percentage of the average home cost. In less affluent communities, the same quality schools were impossible, even if a much higher percentage of the home prices were calculated. It was impossible for a low income community to have "Equal Protection" or equal opportunity with regard to their public schools. This was the basis for Mr. Serrano's argument. He won his case, and many municipalities were suddenly scrambling to meet new requirements with less cash.

So, a few years later when Prop 13 landed on the desks of city planners, a brave new world challenged their balance sheets. What does this have to do with Common Interest Developments? Much.

The 1970's rise in property values, was making home ownership more and more elusive. Developers were looking for creative ways to provide homes that buyers could afford. Cities had their revenue streams constricted, and were also looking for creative solutions. The stage was being set for an innovative solution ready to come into its own. But one more critical element was yet to be introduced. The 1970's EPA provided yet another catalyst that would draw HOA's out of the incubator with a seemingly irrelevant piece of legislation that fully matured in 1977.

This further catalyst was the Clean Water Act of 1977. Tucked neatly inside the over 200-page document, was the regulation that new housing developments must not create a significant change in water flow to nearby properties. In other words, what developers develop, must not affect the impact of rainwater on the neighbors. This seems simple enough, until you begin paving parking lots and collecting rainwater from rooftops. Seasonal streams can be inadvertently created and carve canyons through adjacent lands if careful storm water engineering is not implemented. So how did this help hatch the incubating HOA's? As developers began designing means of catching and controlling the runoff water - they were faced with a dilemma - who would pay to maintain the drain inlets, ponds, and collection structures? With property taxes simultaneously being bludgeoned and municipality coffers being drained, the cities were in no mood to add storm water structure babysitting to their budgets. So then who would be responsible?

A young, naive, and upwardly mobile member of the community stood ready to assume responsibility for these structures - The Common Interest Development. Coming of age, the CID bravely accepted the responsibility to maintain the storm water facilities, and then deftly passed along the cost to its members. It was brilliant, effective, and addictive. It was win, win, win. Homeowners had access to more affordable housing, developers had a solution to the Clean Water Act problem, and municipalities benefited from higher population density for taxation, while sidestepping responsibility for a portion of the Clean Water Act mandates.

The HOA construction boom was on. And boom it did as the Great Social Experiment got under way. Before 1965, there were an estimated 500 such communities nationwide. By 1970 that number had climbed to 10,000. Today the estimate is well over 250,000 with more than 50,000 of them in California alone. Though some of the catalysts for HOA growth noted here were unique to California, similar environments were concurrent in other states, and encouraging similar growth.

  • The Engineering

This new way of living was opening new doors, literally, for thousands of happy homeowners. But many of them had absolutely no idea what they were buying into. Truly, even today it is my experience that most first time buyers of CID homes, have no idea that they have just joined a corporation and have taken on responsibilities and risks consistent with those accepted by shareholders in major corporations. Many HOA's are worth millions of dollars, in which each homeowner becomes a shareholder, and each newly elected board member, often unwittingly, and almost always naively, takes on an executive responsibility to manage this multi-million-dollar endeavor.

The HOA's corporate legal status is derived directly from the existing corporate model. Business owners incorporate for their personal protection from a company's liabilities, and similarly, HOA's incorporate for the individual protection of home owners from the community's liabilities. In a typical scenario, before breaking ground the developer files unique corporate status for the new community, sometimes as a non-profit 501(c)4, but most often as a typical tax paying corporation. Under the guidance of the developer, the first board of directors emerges from the pool of happy new home owners. As soon as the community reaches full occupancy, the developer removes himself from the Board of Directors, and the new corporation steams away under its own power.

The new community chugs happily along for a few years. Board members learn their corporate roles and minor squabbles are put to rest. Then something breaks - a window for instance. Who fixes the window? The Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions (CC&R's) for the community will ideally give direction. A well written set of documents will, among other things, tell the Board of Directors where common area and private space divide. Sometimes this is at the property line in single family home communities, or for condos, possibly at the back of the stucco or siding, or sometimes between the drywall and the stud wall. What about that broken window? Again, sometimes the whole window belongs to the owner, sometimes only the glass pane, while sometimes, the owner is responsible for the entire window, while the HOA is liable for leaks that originate in the flashing or siding around the window. When the CC&R's are clear, life is good; when ambiguous, the Board of Director's role can be a daunting one.

But maintenance and common area delineation are hardly the only things the CC&R's identify. Frequency of board meetings, pet restrictions, parking regulations, and sometimes hundreds of other corporate regulations are defined in the document. What often comes as a surprise to those both outside the HOA, and ironically, often even within the HOA, is that at the time of purchase, owners sign an agreement to abide by these rules and by any new rules enacted by any sitting board of directors. This is a tough pill to swallow for many liberty loving Americans. Ignorance of the CC&R's is the basis for pervasive and continuous contention. Misinformation and ignorance continues to make the rapid expansion of CID's tricky and troubled.

The 70's and 80's brought the adolescent industry growing pains, and as problems arose laws were passed, scattering legislation throughout the California civil codes. The 1980's HOA legal environment was not unlike the 1880's make-it-up-as-you-go wild wild west. Then in 1986 the now revered Davis-Sterling Act provided rails on which the CID locomotives could run more predictably. This added segment, section 4000 of the California Civil Code, consolidated the regulations surrounding Common Interest Developments. The 25 pages of regulations were then revamped in 2014 - adding an additional 75 pages to the California Civil Code

Davis-Sterling brought clarity to issues such as assessments and foreclosure, liability of owners and directors, financial reporting, and elections. Professional management of these communities became big business as regulation brought protection and guidelines. Other industries also capitalized on the new stability. Insurance companies, attorneys, and accountants were now specializing in CID's, along with blue collar vendors such as maintenance, landscaping, and pool companies. Countless organizations and associations rallied to offer education and stability to this new economic subset. California Association of Community Managers (CACM) established in 1991, and the Community Association Institute (CAI) founded in 1973, fill an important role informing legislation and educating the industry's professionals.

  • The Ramifications

The ramifications of the Grand Social Experiment have been vast, and while a 45-year social experiment would seem likely to be producing great data, analysis, and insight, the way forward still lays, too a large degree, shrouded. Is HOA governance working? Is the status quo the best method, or are options such as alternative corporate status, professional boards or mega management companies the better way to go? Are we expecting too much from board members who have little, to no training in their roles? What is the long term impact of tethering a corporate structure to private property rights, and then submerging the whole thing into the rolling boil of divergent personalities and priorities? Who is ultimately benefiting from this structure? Who is losing out? Are Utopian objectives driving the concept forward, or are darker motives born of greed and selfishness at the helm?

Today's HOA's are no longer adolescent, and as such, can no longer rely on immaturity as an excuse for their various dysfunctions. Yet, were there incipient developmental dysfunctions that are still imposing lingering negative effects on the industry; Was the concept flawed even at conception? After all, who was the intended beneficiary of the CID? What forces conceived the embryo that matured into the CID?

As discussed above, among the key beneficiaries of the early CID model were large corporations and local governments. Did these entities swindle eager home buyers? It's possible. Home buyers out on the fringes were by definition the most likely to buy-in. Lower income families, first-time buyers, and retirees continue to be the backbone of the HOA population. These uninitiated shareholders / buyers have responsibilities which are traditionally managed by governments, foisted onto their shoulders. Realtors are still renown for downplaying the ramifications of buying into such communities, and in the first decade of the new millennium, banks were over-eager to provide loans for condos and town-homes. Corporate and municipal greed, or at least self-service, seems to be a major player in the industry.

But professional crooks and swindlers cannot possibly be responsible for the entire problem and could not be the sole force at conception. Here is where we must confront the paradigm of the American Dream. The American public is an all too eager foil. After all, what has been preached to the nation since, at least the end of the Great Depression? A home, a garage, and a car to put in the garage are all indicators that you are approaching the American Dream. "You don't own your home? - better keep dreaming," we seem to say. But wait, is owning a condo really the fulfillment of the American Dream? Is it possible that the new condo owner feels duped, being told she has become a part of the dream, but not really feeling it? Are HOAs nothing more than a "grasping at" of the American Dream at best, and at worst, proof that the dream was simply that - a dream? If so, this a key to the innate discontent.

What is the American dream after all? Is it not, at its core, simply a desire for something a little better? Depending on your philosophical bent you may or may not see this as a healthy state of being. Wanting something better is certainly built into the human psyche, though most would caution that any dominating discontent can only be malignant. But, it should not be assumed that all dreamers are discontent. And, that is not the point here, rather, the pursuit of this particular dream, home ownership, likely does not include the many compromises required of those living within an HOA. Steven Dubner of Freakonomics fame, may have said it best, "The best way to find happiness in life is to meet or exceed expectations, therefore keep your expectations low." The homeownership piece of American pie is tantalizing for many and filled with high expectations. Yet when beyond the typical difficulties of homeownership come the additional burden of living in an HOA, expectations are often shattered. I believe it is these unmet expectations that drive much of the angst within the industry, especially among relatively new owners. 

In defense of the willing HOA member, I recognize that many fully understand the implications, benefits, and responsibilities of owning within a common interest development. The HOA is no burden to many. They may be living their American Dream in a condo, and rightly so. I do not infer that they have been duped, or that like many, they have had their dreams damaged. However, there is another trap that even these otherwise contented homeowners fall into. As a matter of fact, the informed owner may be the most likely to fall into this trap.

A dysfunction hinted at earlier, is the conflict between Utopian ideals and purely pragmatic, or narcissistic ones. For example - where to spend HOA money? Does a proposal benefit me directly, or does it benefit the community at large? A member might say, "I'm retired, and I refuse to support your proposal to install a playground." Or, a stubborn member leads a campaign against raising monthly HOA dues - in spite of pressing community needs. He doesn't want to pay higher dues to fund the roofs going on the town-homes, when his roof isn't leaking, and he doesn't see the point.

The issue here is not simply differing opinions. The deeper issue is that some people see the community as a community benefiting everyone, and others look only for how the community can benefit themselves. This distinction in personalities is normal among humanity, but in a CID the differing personalities are forced to attempt a resolution of differences that affect, often, their greatest financial asset, their physical safety and security, and their very lifestyle. Weighty psychological forces are at play in this Great Social Experiment, and it's no wonder there is so much angst. Disregarding their corporate responsibility, the discontent seem to say, "Decisions you are making are affecting my private kingdom - which I own, and paid good money for. You're messing with my dreams."

Consider also the idea of managed ownership. The psychological effect of managed ownership, such as being delegated a certain responsibility at work under an overbearing supervisor who never allows you to truly take full ownership, is almost always negative. In a sense the CID relationship is this scenario playing out in what is supposed to be your private little kingdom - your American Dream awakening. Instead of broad horizons, many new homeowners feel claustrophobia as their neighbors play loud music and the HOA won't let them put up their favorite decorations. "This is my home, they cry. Why does it have to be this way?" Because someone else got to make the rules and set the parameters before they showed up, and continues to look over their shoulder to make sure. 

And then there is Apathy. I talk with HOA board members and community managers on a daily basis. A recurring complaint is that; no one seems to care about community governance or rules. They don't care, that is, until it affects them personally. The community manager can send out a letter announcing board member elections and get 4 responses from 100 members. Don't the other 96 households care about how their community us run? No, they really don't. At least, not yet. Do they care that the roofs are failing, and the pool fencing is deteriorating? No, not yet. For a decade, homeowners will operate as if the HOA doesn't even exist - simply paying their monthly dues, using the community pool, and parking in their assign parking spot. The few willing to sit on the board of directors are unappreciated, not malevolently so, but unappreciated none-the-less. Until... Until the pool is closed in August for emergency repairs. Until a board of directors is voted out, and the new board discovers a depleted reserve fund riding tandem with looming roof repairs - and sends out a letter announcing a rise in monthly dues coupled to a ten-thousand-dollar special assessment - per owner. Apathy is an amazing affliction in that it is a rapid healer. The fix for "don't care?" Make it personal.

When "don't care" becomes "care," in an HOA, the resulting conflict is almost always laced with misinformation and ignorance. Not because the information was inaccessible, but rather because the information wasn't pursued. The typical owner has never read his CC&R's and certainly not all the way through. The typical owner has never attended a board meeting, and never will. The typical owner doesn't care, until something affects him personally. And even then, when the storm passes, he will often return to his apathy.

At no other time in history have we lived under such conditions - owning a piece of the whole, while co-owning the shell; claiming property and individual liberty rights, while insisting that our neighbors submit to our ideals. So many disparate philosophical drivers, all converging to form a perfect storm.

  • The Way Forward

As noted earlier, the way forward seems somewhat shrouded. Talking to almost any group of professionals in the industry often leaves one with a nagging sense of something not unlike despair. Apathy among CID's is endemic, and maddening to anyone hoping for efficient management. Educating board members perches high on the list of proposed industry remedies. Cultivating executive level, highly trained community managers is also close-by on the list. Many living in the communities, or making their living managing them care deeply about the sustainability of the industry, but as is so often the case, the ones who care are not those causing the problems. While many choose to exist quietly within the experiment's constructs, the vocal discontent, are drowning out the vocal content. The ability of the industry to create positive energy and reconstruct its image will be critical to a smooth transition into the future.

Education is certainly among the answers to the dilemma of the CID, along with developing the role of the community association manager and transforming that role into a more highly respected profession. Organizations such as CACM and CAI are working diligently to inform community managers and affiliate organizations. They are also actively working with lawmakers to guide legislation that will actually streamline, rather than snarl the workings of HOA's. Organizations like ECHO (Educational Community for Homeowners) serves in a similar capacity for homeowners and board members. But the impression that HOA's are "power-mad animals" will be difficult to offset any time soon. And therein is the rub - Because HOA's are here to stay. As much as they are despised, they are also a fixed element of the social landscape. No matter their progenitors, they exist and they are serving in a role that needs to be filled. 

I believe that CID's are the Great Social Experiment of our age. Especially if the world population trajectory is any indicator, it is certain that more growing pains are in our future, and then a long road to maturity. Many communities are well managed and are thriving, and those give hope. I believe the good news is linked to those success stories. The CID concept can work. The future of CID's will combine the successes of capitalism and the benefits of community and help fulfill the dreams of many eager, hard-working Americans in the decades to come. In the mean-time it will take a concerted effort on the part of community planners, lawmakers, and industry professionals to think through the real reasons for the angst and come up with viable solutions.


Friday, March 4, 2016



In times of grief, in times of doubt, in times of peaceful rest,
The glitter of some better way puts Eden to the test.

I walk distracted glancing down broad roads that call to me,
But lasting peace is only found nearer God to Thee.

The rush of opportunity, I hesitate, I pause.

If I alone must choose my course, be wise beyond my flaws,
If sorting out the next best step falls heavily on me,
Then I am lost unless I find it nearer God to thee.

Persistent winds may shift the sands and make the way obscure,
And so it is so many times but still I walk secure.
Let desert drifts or white sand shores be destiny for me,
In tent or castle, Let me be, nearer God to Thee

Scott Swinton

Friday, February 19, 2016

The Fix for a Foul Mood

I woke up a few mornings back with the words "Are My arms shortened that I cannot save," on my mind. I knew that phrase came from the Bible, but had no idea where to find it. Later in the day, I searched and found it in Isaiah 59, where Isaiah asks Israel, "Are the Lord's arms shortened that He cannot save?"

Swell, my memory wasn't too far off. I kept reading. I was prepared to be encouraged by the passage, and wanted encouragement, being in a rather foul mood lately. But as I read, the verses went a different direction from what I had anticipated. Isaiah began to assail the crumbling nation of Israel for their unfaithfulness and disobedience.  Isaiah was telling them that though God was most certainly powerful enough to save them, their sin had driven a wedge between them and the protection of the Savior.

Well, this was hardly what I needed.  I needed some encouragement. I needed a reminder that everything was going to be OK. Yet, here I was being convicted by the accusation, "but your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that He will not hear.

Hmmm? I thought, maybe the Holy Spirit had handed me the wrong passage to meditate on today - I had gotten up pretty early.  Might Philippians be better?

Dubious, and maybe even a little annoyed, I accepted the passage at face value, kept reading, and tried desperately to pin the sole application of Isaiah's accusation onto the nation of Israel. But my nemesis, logic, demanded that if I wanted to apply a share of the encouragement to myself (supposing I was to find any), then I should probably consider applying a share of the admonition to myself also.

I shuffled forward, "for our offenses are many in your sight and our sins testify against us, our offenses are ever with us and we acknowledge our iniquities: rebellion and treachery against the Lord. As if I wasn't already depressed enough - Now ouch, I have Isaiah rubbing salt in my wounds.  This was bitter medicine.  But Isaiah was going somewhere with this, and let's just say I'm glad I kept reading.

Isaiah went on to say that "the Lord looked and was displeased that there was no justice and He saw that there was no one; He was appalled that there was no one, to intervene."  God was looking down on stubborn and rebellious humanity and recognizing that there was no way we could solve our problems. There was no one to intervene, there was no human who could stem the tide of wickedness, there was no human who could even stand in the way of his own sinful nature. So since there was no one else, Isaiah said, "so His own arm achieved salvation for Him and His own righteousness sustained Him. He put on righteousness as His breast plate and the helmet of salvation on His head; He put on the garments of vengeance and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak.”

"The redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins," declares the Lord. "As for me this is my covenant with them, says the Lord. My spirit, who is on you, will not depart from you, and My words I have put in your mouth will always be on your lips, on the lips of your children and on the lips of their descendants --from this time on and forever says the Lord."  

Our great Savior knew that we would never be able to work loose that self-righteous wedge we are ever driving between his love and ourselves - so with His mighty arm He wrenched it out, with His amazing love He bridged the gap with a rugged cross.

When I woke that morning, I was looking for salvation from my circumstances. I was hoping for relief from the stress. I wanted victory from circumstances, but God had something much greater in mind when he offered me salvation.  Not unlike Job, I was looking around, saying, "what did I do to deserve all of this?"  And in a few short paragraphs, Isaiah had me looking around at the blessing of Salvation, complete release from the burden of sin, and asking, "what did I do to deserve all of this?" I was being humiliated by God's love. 

Isaiah follows this with a rapturous prophetic account of the return of Jesus Christ and the Messiah's kingdom. It is here that we see the concept of beauty from ashes and joy from tears.  We see the Messiah treading the winepress in his wrath against his enemies, we see a glorious kingdom. And, I was hoping Isaiah would just wrap it all up right there with a resounding Amen!  But he didn't.

Isaiah references Moses at the time of the wilderness wandering and I thought uh, oh, where is he going with this? And then Isaiah says those all-too-familiar words, "all of us have become like one who is unclean and all of our righteous acts are like filthy rags, we shrivel up like a leaf and like the winds our sins sweep us away."  Why bring up our depravity again?  Let's just pull up short here on the promises of peace - no?

I kept reading.  It seemed there was another angle to this.  God says "all day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people walking ways not good pursuing their own imaginations, the people who continually provoke me to my very face." Their sacrifices are described as being smoke in God’s nostrils, an irritant. The truth is, Isaiah's friends and countrymen were sacrificing not to God but to the gods of their own imagination.  My raw wounds were stinging again. I considered how I was sacrificing to the god of discontent, the god of worry and the god of anxiety - the gods of selfishness and imagined scenarios.

The message to me was clear; if you are going to trust in Almighty God, then you are going to have to let all of the little gods go.  

And so now I return to the words that were playing through my mind as I woke that morning, "Are the Lord's arms shortened that he cannot save?" These come now with a deeper understanding of my own depravity and my own need of being rescued.  Salvation from circumstances pales compared to our need of rescue from our own depravity. And it occurs to me, with a slow resigned shake of the head, that my circumstances may actually be the means God is using to rescue me from my depravity. Did not Isaiah describe the beauty coming as a result of the ashes, and the joy after the mourning? Oh, believe me, this is not what I have in mind. I want beauty without ashes and joy without weeping.  But I can honestly say I want the joy and beauty that comes from being at peace with the Savior.  Do I stand here again on the threshold of the essence of Faith?

I still need help with all the physiological, logistical, and emotional issues that annoy me.  And, I recognize that the arm of the Lord is certainly capable of resolving all of that.  I rely on that fact each day.  But with Isaiah's help, I also recognize that temporal relief is not the great end.  Far greater is the ongoing work of redemption that he is working in and through me.  

Finally, when the Lord said that He looked and saw that there was no one to intervene - It's a bit of a challenge to me.  I can do nothing to assist in the redemption of a fallen race.  But to a degree, I can intervene.  I can imagine a hundred ways that I could shed idolatry and stand with hope, between the chasm and the world.  I can share what I know - that the Lord's arms are not shortened that He cannot save.