Saturday, June 30, 2007

Todays Local News for Logan Utah and Cache County
Thanks to alert reader Neil A. who found this article addressing the issue parking on one's lawn, noted below in a post on Houston TX. This one is from Utah.
Notes on HOAs in China
Since Friday, June 22, I have been in Beijing, China, attending the “International Conference on Community Governance: Multicultural Perspectives.” The conference was held at Renmin University, which translates as “People’s University,” an institution that has traditionally been the place where future Communist Party officials are educated. The conference was organized by the University of Southern California’s School of Policy, Planning, and Development, which was formed fairly recently in a merger of the School of Public Administration and the School of Urban Planning. These are my unedited and hasty thoughts on the conference, started in the Beijing Fellowship Hotel and finished back home in Lindenhurst, IL.

The actual purpose of the conference is to come to a better understanding of the rise of private communities in China. The conference brought together a variety of American, British, and Chinese scholars of political science, law, and urban planning; a number of Chinese practicing attorneys and community organizers; and many Chinese homeowner association members, consumer activists, and other concerned citizens. We spent two long days, running from 8:15am until late in the evening in formal and informal presentations and meetings. The USC delegation visited the homes of some Chinese homeowner association members and leaders. All told, we have learned a great deal about events in China, and I hope we have been able to convey a good understanding of the US and British experience. I am setting this out descriptively, but in truth this has been an intense experience with some dramatic testimony. I am going to summarize what I have learned without attributing particular statements to individuals.

It is important to understand that the current situation, while far from perfect, is probably an enormous improvement over the past, and the country is making progress. Hundreds of millions of people are now able to become owners of property (that means something different than in the US—see below), and to use that property as a financial asset that they can sell down the road. Also, millions of people have moved from the countryside and the hard agricultural life to work in cities, where they are saving money and thus accumulating wealth, even though by American standards it might seem that the wages are very low. Keep in mind that nearly all these folks are buying units in high-rise condominium buildings.

However, there are some pretty significant problems, and that is why this conference was organized and a lot of western social scientists and planners were brought over to talk about the situation.

From my standpoint, it has been important to understand how private communities work here in China. There are similarities and differences as compared with the US experience. Let me first explain who the players are and then try to explain how they interact. There are basically six key participants:

1. Local government: also referred to as “subdistrict” government
2. Real estate developers: these are private entities, but many of them were government and/or Communist Party officials in the past
3. Property management companies: these entities manage the private communities and have a great deal of power. Many of them were in the past government employees charged with managing public housing projects on behalf of the state.
4. Resident councils or committees: these are officially recognized organizations that are supposed to be owner organizations, but in reality they are an arm of local government, and they are for the most part led by Communist Party members.
5. Homeowners: the owners are struggling to be recognized as such. They pay assessments to the management company. They do not chafe at living under restrictions, as many Americans do. But they are very concerned about the way their money and property are being (mis)used in many cases.
6. Homeowner associations: these are voluntary organizations set up by owners to assert their rights as owners collectively.

In China, people do not actually own land. Agricultural land is owned by agricultural collectives. All urban land is owned by the state, and where residential land is concerned it is owned by the local government, which has the power to sell the right to use the land to real estate developers for a term of years. The developer in turns sells that right to the homeowners. Recent changes to the law at the national level provide for renewal of those rights, but it remains unclear what the term of renewal is to be, and whether those who have purchased housing units from the developers will have to pay the local government again for that renewal.

Clearly the national government wants to create a genuine real estate market. The hitch is that local government is making money off some practices that may make it harder to get there. The local governments want to attract developers, many of whom are former government officials. That’s fine in itself, but the opportunity for local officials to profit from that situation is obvious. The developer hires the property management company which runs the development, and in theory you have the government-affiliated resident council to represent the owners. No problem, if everybody took their job seriously. But they have the problem of what seems to be fairly widespread corruption, where people use their positions as local official, developer, or property manager to profit handsomely at the expense of the owners, who are at the bottom of the ladder in terms of political influence and economic power.

What about the HOAs? Well, these are voluntary organizations, for real, that are actually created by the owners to represent their real concerns as property owners, because they feel that the resident councils are part of the government, the government is eager to keep the developer happy, and the management company is an extension of the developer. The HOAs do not have the power to enforce the rules and regulations, which is done instead by the PM. These PM firms are very powerful and politically connected. They also control the ubiquitous private security firms that police the projects. Some of the HOAs, though, have filed and even won lawsuits to enforce their rights as owners.

Here are some examples of practices that Chinese HOAs complain about:
a. The property manager and/or developer convert 16 residential units to rental units that they lease to commercial enterprises and pocket the money
b. The PM and/or developer sell the common area, such as open space, to somebody and pocket the money.
c. The developer sells most of the units and then never finishes the building to the point where it can be occupied, so the owners can’t move in. The developer disappears.
d. The owner of a top floor unit in a 25 story building knocks out the roof and adds a story to the building, giving himself a two-story unit. The PM doesn’t do anything about it, presumably because he/she was greased in advance.
e. The owner of a unit knocks out load-bearing walls to enlarge his unit. The roof of the floor below begins to crack badly and water leaks in. The owner of that unit is afraid to complain for fear of being beaten (see below). An engineer recommends putting somebody on the roof if it snows to sweep off the snow so the weight doesn’t make the building collapse.
f. When owners complain or get involved with their HOA, the property management firm has the private security guards beat them up.
g. Owners can’t get to see the records of their own development, which are kept by the management firm. So they have no idea how their money is being spent. It seems that often some of it being pocketed by the PM and/or developer.
h. Owners can’t fire the developer’s property management company and hire one they trust without a difficult court fight.
i. Owners with the right connections don’t pay their monthly fees and get away with it.

The HOAs have a problem getting people to become involved because they are afraid of physical violence and they believe they have no chance of success. However, it seems that they have in fact rung up some lawsuit wins, and we heard from one attorney who specializes in representing HOAs in these fights (interestingly, he said when he was in the US he couldn’t find any lawyers who represent the owners—a familiar story). Some of the present and former HOA leaders we met are very impressive people.

Obviously there is room for this situation to improve. The single most important improvement, I think, would be to professionalize the property management firms so that they do their jobs instead of profiteering on their own behalf and that of the developer. They should not be extensions of the developer at all, but should be independent and guided by standards of professional responsibility. Beyond that, somehow the general problem of corruption has to be addressed. It undermines the integrity of the whole institution of property ownership. Everybody knows this, but making it happen will take some time.

Yet, somehow people are so determined to become home owners that they brave all this and put their capital at risk. In China people do not like to borrow money to buy homes, so they save and put cash into it. They find our 10% down and 90% loan arrangements absolutely bizarre. So, we have a lot of owner enthusiasm despite a level of risk that would probably deter most American buyers.

I will try to post more on this, but here you have the big picture.