Community Associations May Have a Duty to Address Neighbor-to-Neighbor Discrimination

Steve Black

Community associations have historically been able to stay largely uninvolved in neighbor-to-neighbor disputes unless the conduct complained of violated the governing documents of the association. If no governing documents were being violated, the neighbors would be expected to work out the issues among themselves. Now, there is an important step for association boards and managers to consider when learning of neighbor-to-neighbor disputes.

The Fair Housing laws may create a duty for community associations to investigate complaints of discrimination between neighbors and to possibly take some action. Note – This duty might exist even if the board of directors and association manager were not involved in the matter at all.

An example of where this duty may arise is when the board of directors or community association manager receive information from a complaining occupant in the community (owner, tenant, etc.) alleging discriminatory conduct by another occupant. For example, Sue tells the board vice president that she believes her neighbor is throwing trash in her yard because of Sue’s race, national origin, religion, color, sex, handicap, or children. Such facts could trigger the association’s obligation to investigate and possibly take action.

The difficult question is – What action could the association be obligated to take? There is little guidance in Fair Housing laws on this question other than that an association is expected to “do what it can do to prevent discriminatory conduct.” Because the law is still evolving on this question and because of the lack of guidance from FHA, it is strongly suggested that the first step for a board or manager when they hear of neighbor-to-neighbor discrimination be to contact the association’s attorney for guidance. 

If the attorney determines that some action is necessary based on the facts, various approaches might be recommended, such as:

  • A letter from the association attorney to all parties acknowledging the issue and  encouraging that they as neighbors try to talk/work through the issue.
  • A letter from the association attorney to both parties encouraging professional mediation and providing information on possible mediation resources.
  • A proposed declaration amendment that prohibits discriminatory conduct that could then be enforced by the association through the hearing and fine process.

Circumstances vary and facts matter. Improper behavior on the common area might be addressed differently than on an owner’s private lot. The association might have different responsibilities if the acts complained of are by an association officer, director, or committee member, For these reasons, associations are strongly encouraged to seek legal advice promptly when such issues arise. 

The attorneys at Law Firm Carolinas are available and glad to discuss these or other legal issues facing associations.

See also Dealing with Owners Who Bully or Harass.

HOA & Condo Associations