First came the growth of homeowner associations--there are now 161 in Loudoun County and 205,000 in the country.
Now comes the growing awareness among residents of such associations that they may be paying twice for services such as trash removal and snow plowing.
Homeowner associations provide those services using dues collected from residents, who have long complained that real estate taxes--which cover such services and which they also must pay--are tax deductible but that association dues are not.
For the last 15 years, lawyers for community associations across the country have argued that this arrangement is a form of "double taxation," and they have battled it in courts and state legislatures with mixed results. A common approach has been to seek reimbursement for residents for dues they pay for any services that duplicate those commonly handled by municipalities.
The issue is on the table in Virginia now that Del. Richard H. "Dick" Black (R-Loudoun) has said he will introduce a bill to make such dues tax deductible. Black said he is collecting resolutions in support of the measure, which is being drafted, from associations in Loudoun and other counties in the state for the upcoming session of the General Assembly.
"Making HOA dues a tax-deductible expense would allow families living in HOA communities to keep more of their hard-earned money and would make it easier for HOAs and their management companies to collect HOA dues," said Black, who is a four-year resident of Cascades, the largest association in Loudoun with about 5,000 houses.
But some local government officials and even some residents of associations are giving the plan a lukewarm reception, saying that the tax break would come with a price--possibly in the form of higher local taxes.
Association dues vary from $50 a month to more than $100 a month--about $600 to more than $1,200 annually per household--and provide the bulk of the annual operating income for most associations. The associations can be comprised of any combination of single-family homes and town houses.
Association dues are used to provide many services that are performed by municipalities, as well as many that are not: landscaping, private pool maintenance, jogging trails.
In New Jersey, the only state to enact legislation, a Municipal Services Act passed in 1990 and implemented in 1993 requires municipalities to provide electricity for street lighting, collection of garbage and recyclables, and removal of snow, ice and other obstructions from community streets in private associations to the same extent that these services are provided to residents along public thoroughfares.
In Ohio, a U.S. District Court judge ruled in favor of the Woodhawk Club Condominium Association, which argued that, under the equal protection clause, the city of Mayfield Heights could not refuse to provide the association with garbage removal services. The city appealed, and the case is pending in the 6th Circuit Court in Cincinnati.
Experts in community association law and policy say that Black's proposal to make dues tax deductible is a simple way to approach an issue that long has been a thorn in the side of association residents.
Black's proposal comes a month after the state housing study commission recommended against pursuing any legislation to address "municipal services equalization" because of the issue's complexity, said Pia Trigiani, a lawyer with Mays & Valentine in McLean.
"There is a sense that it's hard to define what is and what is not a municipal service, which makes Delegate Black's approach very interesting because he doesn't draw a distinction," said Trigiani, whose firm lobbies in the Virginia legislature for the Community Associations Institute, an Alexandria-based nonprofit organization of association professionals and residents.
Black has estimated that his proposal would cost the state $20 million in tax deductions claimed by association residents statewide.
Many professionals who work with associations, including lawyers, accountants and association managers, are embracing Black's proposal.
"I'm for what Delegate Black is trying to do because it is a way to put some equality into it, and it is not going to cause, I don't think, a huge bite out of the state's budget," said Ron Kirby, president and owner of Community Management Corp., of Chantilly, which represents 32,000 housing units in Virginia associations. "It does give the homeowners something and it may satisfy at least temporarily the issue of double taxation."
In a flurry of activity in December, Black mailed letters explaining his proposal to the management offices of the 161 associations in Loudoun and met with Kirby and Trigiani to brief them.
Loudoun Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott K. York (R-At Large) said that such legislation eventually could result in the assumption of services such as trash removal and snow plowing by local governments.
"What we have to understand, those of us who are in HOAs, is if it's going to fall to the local government to start providing these services, taxes are going to start going up," said York, who is a member of the Cabin Branch Forest homeowners association in Sterling.
York also cautioned that a tax break proposal for residents of private communities could cause a backlash among residents outside those communities. In Loudoun, those who are not residents of a town or an association must arrange and pay for their own trash removal.
"Is there not a fairness issue for those people who are not involved in HOAs who are paying for their own trash services and are not able to deduct it?" York said.
Association residents tempered their enthusiasm for a tax break with the reality of the reception such a plan might receive countywide.
"I don't know that I'd support it yet," said Alice Coffey, president of the Potomac Woods association, with 76 houses. "It is an independent choice to live in an association."
Ray Ceresa, a lawyer whose Sterling firm represents 40 associations in Loudoun, Prince William and Fairfax counties, said the perception that the deduction may not be fair to residents outside associations could be key to the proposal's reception statewide.
"People in the HOAs go into it with their eyes open," he said. "I doubt it affects a purchasing decision whether they can deduct $600."