How Do I Stand Up to My Inexplicably Cruel HOA?

published Aug 18, 2020
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graphic of housing for all protest sign
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Dear Apartment Therapy,

My condo building had its annual homeowners’ association meeting last week. My New York City neighborhood has moved two homeless shelters into nearby hotels to help the residents practice social distancing during COVID-19. The HOA board brought this up in the meeting to say how it was affecting our “safety,” and they started a petition to have it moved. I was totally shocked because that’s such a dog whistle/Not In My Backyard thing, you know? I worked up the nerve to say something to that effect—and that safe housing for everyone seems like a pretty important thing right now—but they just yelled at me. (I also asked if there were documented incidents due to the shelters and there were not.) I’m learning that systemic racism doesn’t just exist as one huge system, but in many little groups that wield power. I want to battle it in this small group of mine, but I’m not sure what to do next. Any tips?

H.O. Nay

Dear H.O. Nay,

First of all, good on you for saying something right away. It’s important to speak up when someone asserts an exclusionary attitude. And you’re right, petitioning to stop the housing of homeless people in hotels during a global pandemic does smack of racism and NIMBYism, not to mention cruelty. 

I’m sorry you were shot down so quickly by those board members—but I’m glad you didn’t let your defeat prevent you from writing in. With that said, I have some good news: there’s a very good chance other people in your building agree with you.

“A lot of times in these meetings, it’s the loudest voices in the room who are talking,” says William Thomas, a board member with Open New York, a volunteer group that advocates for accessible housing. 

People who disagreed with the board may not have spoken up, but they’ll probably back you and co-sign a letter to your HOA explaining your stance.

Kenny Schaeffer, a chair at New York’s Met Council on Housing, says writing a letter is a good first step. “You have to say ‘You don’t speak for us. This is a controversial issue,’” says Schaeffer, who also works as an attorney for the Legal Aid Society. 

So, H.O. Nay, you’ll want to start by laying out some statistics. Thomas suggests citing research that traditional shelters haven’t been proven to increase crime rates, for example, to explain why housing the homeless in hotels doesn’t threaten your building’s safety. You also might consider asking them why they think giving fellow humans temporary reprieve from the dangers of a deadly virus is hurting their way of life.

“Remind the HOA that there’s an eviction crisis ongoing right now, on top of an international pandemic,” Thomas says. “In this situation, your HOA really runs the risk of making everyone in your building look like a bunch of heartless reactionaries. And I really think you just have to make the case that this is the moral thing to do.”

Giselle Routhier, public policy director for Coalition for the Homeless, says the most effective way to talk about the issue is in the context of compassion and public health.

“It’s all, frankly, a health and safety issue,” says Routhier. “Hotels are being used right now because they save the lives of homeless people who are in the shelters, particularly single adults.”

Routhier explains that the current shelter system in New York offers shared dorms, bathrooms, and dining facilities, meaning many people are indoors at the same time. This is one of the worst kinds of environments for stopping the spread of coronavirus.

“We know that the virus has spread throughout the shelter system and that people have died. We have worked with epidemiologists at NYU to calculate the age-adjusted mortality rate for homeless single adults and it’s 80 percent higher than the New York City rate,” Routhier says. “It is very much an issue of life and death. The use of hotels is a way to help protect individuals who have no other place to isolate and abide by public health guidelines.”

There are likely existing counter petitions you could sign, too, like this one that’s going around in New York’s Upper West Side, calling residents to “act with compassion and empathy to those among us who are most in need.” If you can’t find a relevant petition, start your own! Then take it a step further by calling and emailing your local representatives to ask for help.

Aside from making your voice known and joining forces with other like-minded folks, you could put time and effort into helping the organization that’s working to shelter unhoused people in those hotels. Donate money to their cause and ask them what supplies they need. Thomas suggests inviting someone from the organization to your next HOA meeting. Having a voice from the other side present could do wonders for addressing the board’s irrational fears. 

“Right now, so many people are realizing that common, everyday decisions that people tend to make can reinforce segregation and exclusion. People may not have ever spoken up about this issue before, but now they realize ‘Oh, this has an impact.’” Thomas says. “It really does make a difference speaking up. I would encourage anyone to do it.”

Even if this is your first foray into activism, I’d also encourage you to think about running for your HOA’s board. Schaeffer explains one of the most important elements of working on problems like these is persistence. 

“Some of these issues that are coming to the forefront now in terms of racial justice and housing the homeless, they aren’t going to be solved overnight,” Schaeffers says. Joining an HOA or community board is one way to commit to long-term change.

Keep speaking up, H.O. Nay. You got this.