Clearly, you can retain an attorney and file suit, but that is time-consuming and expensive and the results are always uncertain.
There are organizations in many parts of the Washington metropolitan area that can assist.
The oldest is Montgomery County’s Common Ownership Communities, which was established in January 1991 and has 15 commissioners appointed by the county executive and confirmed by the county council. Today, homeowners can also seek assistance in Prince George’s County and Charles County, Md., and in Virginia, the Common Interest Community Ombudsman can help resolve disputes.
Although the District of Columbia has an office that deals with condo conversions, and provides information, it does not handle disputes.
Common Ownership Communities includes condominiums, homeowner associations and cooperative housing. It does not include civic associations. If you have a grievance against your association, you must first make an attempt to resolve it with your board of directors. If that fails, you can file a formal complaint with the Montgomery commission. There are restrictions: For example, your disagreement cannot involve title issues, or whether a collection action against you was proper. More importantly, the commission will only handle disputes involving official actions of an association’s board of directors; it will not get involved in private disputes between individual owners.
The commission will attempt to mediate disputes, but if that fails, you can have a hearing before a volunteer panel of experts. The decision of the panel is binding and can be enforced in the Maryland courts. The two situations raised at the beginning of this column, for example, were real incidents in which the commission determined that elections must be held and established a binding timetable for the election that the association had to follow. And the commission also held that Maryland law — which takes precedence over any inconsistency in the association’s legal documents — required the ballots to be made public.
Although some local Virginia counties, such as Fairfax and Prince William, have limited resources to assist homeowners, the main source of assistance comes from the Commonwealth itself. Back in 2008, the Virginia legislature created two agencies: the Office of the Common Interest Community Ombudsman and the Common Interest Community Board. The board is responsible for administering the various property registration laws and is authorized to promulgate regulations. “It is hard to believe that the board celebrated the third anniversary of its first meeting,” said Lucia “Pia” Trigiani, chairperson of the board. “In those three years, the board had adopted regulations to regulate licensure of management firms, and to address the complaint process to be followed by the ombudsman. In addition, we have revoked the license of a management company here in Virginia.”