Edmonton·The Henday Project

Neighbourhood watch: Homeowner associations ensure appearances aren't slipping in the suburbs

Homeowner associations are now commonplace among Edmonton's new neighbourhoods. But what they offer and what they restrict varies greatly.

Annual fees are used to make and keep neighbourhoods more desirable

As Edmonton grows, the suburbs are choosing more HOAs to fund the community features they want. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

CBC's Kory Siegers is spending time digging into stories just like this one that explore issues affecting neighbourhoods around the Anthony Henday ring road. We'd always love to hear your ideas. You can email us at edmontonam@cbc.ca or kory.siegers@cbc.ca

In 1986, the Whitemud Creek Homeowner's Association was a rarity in Edmonton.

Tucked between Rabbit Hill Road and the Whitemud Creek Ravine, the neighbourhood was initially planned as a gated community — to this day a guardhouse still stands at its entrance.

According to the research Donna LaFleche could dig up, when the city kiboshed the neighbourhood's plan to be gated, the developer decided to use an American-style homeowners association instead. 

LaFleche has been working with HOAs for the better part of 20 years. She was on Whitemud Creek's board and had a couple stints as president. Today, she manages both the Whitemud Ridge and Cameron Heights associations. 

HOAs are set up to manage the aesthetic and the expectations of a neighborhood and its residents. Encumbrances added to the property titles make membership mandatory — as well as the payment of annual fees.

Today, there are at least 30 HOAs or resident associations in Edmonton, mostly in fast-growing communities in Edmonton's south and west.

However, there is no central database to tell you exactly how many there are around the city or how they operate.

HOA responsibilities vary

"[When developers] design a community, they want to put certain amenities into the development to attract buyers, which makes a whole lot of sense," LaFleche said. 

"But who's going to pay for these amenities going forward?"

That's where the HOA comes in.

When Lake Summerside freezes over in the winter, several rinks are made on the private lake. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

Summerside, in south Edmonton, gets a lot of attention when discussing HOAs. Their residents annually pay anywhere from $395 to $950, if they're on the lake. The fees maintain the private gated lake and the perks that come with it — like paddleboards and paddle boats in summer, and ice maintenance on the lake in winter. 

Upper Windermere, in southwest Edmonton, built a private leisure centre with a heated pool, tennis courts and skating rink, and look after it through their HOA.

The associations also enforce and maintain neighbourhoods' aesthetic looks.

In Aurora, adjacent to Summerside, the $100 to $200 HOA fee pays for masonry pillars, entrance features and lighted pond fountains. 

The Aurora HOA website touts the group's ability to adapt in the future and offer new amenities residents deem valuable — like replacing old playground equipment or even snow clearing. 

"The reason the developers include these assets is because the general public want these assets." LaFleche said.

Amenities are maintained by the developer for a certain period of time, and then handed to the HOA to control. 

How much it will cost and how restrictive the HOA is all depends on what the developer builds in and then what the community demands. 

There is no opting out.

Jennifer Lucas, chair of the Realtors Association of Edmonton, says this is a way for communities to reinvest in themselves.

"I think communities have learned from the past," she said. "Something gets rundown and dilapidated and then they think, 'Oh, geez, how are we going to fix this?'

"It's just sort of rethinking how neighbourhoods are being built."

Homeowner associations are mostly set up under the Societies Act in Alberta, where are considered an independent legal entity. Societies must put any profits back into fulfilling the organization's objectives. 

That means the annual fees pay for the upkeep and programming of the additional community amenities.

HOAs can also be used to pay for enforcing the aesthetics of the community, like fence colour or home features. (Kory Siegers/CBC)

Rules for HOAs

But it's not all gated lakes and outdoor pools. HOAs can control everything from the colour of your fence to your outdoor lighting, making sure the look of the neighbourhood remains the way it was intended.

"It really depends on what the developer created or developed or drafted when they put that particular development together," Roberto Noce said.

Noce deals with real estate and condo law with Miller Thompson LLP. He says there is a lot to consider when buying into a development with an HOA.

"There are rules that you will have to follow. And if you're a person who doesn't like rules and cannot follow rules, you probably ought not to live in a development with a homeowners association."

There's also no one set of bylaws. Each neighbourhood's bylaws are built with its specific needs in mind. Some are able to recoup the costs of collecting unpaid fees from homeowners. 

Noce recommends checking if bylaws allow for an HOA to have a special assessment, similar to a condo, when they don't have enough in the reserves to fix something.

"You need to do your due diligence," Noce said. 

"You need to look at the financial records of the association to determine what it has done over the past number of years, and what it plans to do over the next five to 10 years. 

"Knowing full well that you will be responsible for those extra costs if you buy into it."

Lucas says even though homeowner associations are becoming more common in Edmonton, they are still somewhat new to the city.

For realtors, finding out what HOAs cover can still be a challenge.

"Unlike condo fees, where you've got a condo board and there's a president, and you can phone them and you can find out that information," Lucas said. "These are still sort of [managed by] Joe Smith down the street." 

As the city grows and developers recognize that they can add value to neighbourhoods by having homeowners invest in them, there is little doubt more HOAs will come.

"If you think of it like you're reinvesting into your community, then you get that pride of ownership," Lucas said. "The purpose of it is to maintain where you live."