D.C. government officials have announced a new policy that could make it easier for homeowners associations to collect unpaid dues and fees from errant members by allowing the associations to record liens.
Under the new policy, homeowners associations will be able to record liens against the property of members who owe back dues or fees.
Previously, the D.C. Recorder of Deeds office would not record such liens for homeowners associations, even though it would do so for condominium associations.
A lien allows an association to collect unpaid dues if the errant homeowner sells the property, because the lien must be paid before the property can go to settlement, said William A. Marr, a local attorney specializing in association law.
He also said a lien will show up on a homeowner's financial record should he or she apply for a second mortgage.
"That cloud is always an incentive to pay up," he said. "So a lien can be very useful to an association."
Homeowners associations in Maryland and Virginia are allowed to record liens against homeowners who owe fees, as are condominium associations, attorneys there say.
The fees, paid by all home and condo owners in an incorporated association, are used to maintain common areas and facilities.
Their collection always has been a significant problem for associations, but there are few such homeowners' groups in the District, making the problem here relatively minor, attorneys say.
The District had received only a handful of requests from homeowners associations that wanted to record liens, said Harold L. Thomas of the D.C. Department of Finance and Revenue.
"There was never a policy specifically against homeowners associations," he said.
"But the District's policy has been to deny recording liens unless there has been a court judgment as to the indebtedness," Thomas said.
"There are exceptions, though, as this is an exception now."
The District took a second look at its policy at the request of the Chadsworth Homeowners Association, a housing development in upper Northwest.
The corporation counsel ruled this spring that homeowners associations could record liens under current laws.
Last month, Melvin Jones, the acting director of the Department of Finance and Revenue, agreed and issued a policy decision allowing the liens to be recorded.
In addition, legislation specifically providing for homeowners association liens has been proposed in the D.C. City Council. Proponents say the law will clarify the new policy.
Under the D.C. Condominium Act, passed in the mid-1970s, condominium associations have the right to file liens if allowed to do so under their own by-laws.
Besides liens, associations can collect back dues by taking their members to court, but Marr said this is often a costly option.
"They will usually wait until the fees owed add up to a significant amount," said Marr. "So a lien is really a very useful tool."
The new policy also was praised by Robert M. Diamond, president of the Washington area chapter of the Community Associations Institute.
"We favor every weapon in the arsenal to get fees," he said.