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CAI Troubled By Outcome of Condominium Racial Disrimination Suit in Washington, D.C.

6/11/1998  -  Alexandria, VA

Citing the powerlessness of community associations to enforce public laws, the Community Associations Institute voiced concern over the settlement of a Fair Housing Act suit against a condominium association in Washington, D.C., reported in The Washington Post yesterday. A D.C. judge ruled that Carrollsburg Condominium could be sued for failure to take legal action against a unit owner for racial and sexual harassment of another owner; Carrollsburg settled out of court. CAI contends that the association had no legal right to force the offender out of the complex.

Deborah E. Reeves, a longtime resident of Carrollsburg Condominium who served as president of the association in 1987, sued the association for not taking legal action against resident homeowner Thomas Schongalla. According to the suit, Schongalla, who is white, harassed Reeves, a soft-spoken black attorney, by shouting racial and sexual slurs at her, writing threatening notes and making her feel unsafe in the condominium complex on several occasions. Schongalla has pleaded guilty to a criminal charge of making threats and faces a year of probation. The condominium, whose board and managers had written numerous letters to Schongalla, told The Washington Post that the settlement was a business decision made to avoid a costly court fight. Carrollsburg Condominium reportedly agreed to buy Reeves's unit and pay $550,000 in settlement.

"It's widely known that community associations have broad powers of enforcement for covenants included in association documents. But Carrollsburg Condominium was literally hamstrung in its efforts to put a stop to Mr. Schongalla's unacceptable behavior," said Robert M. Diamond, past president of CAI and an attorney with Hazel & Thomas, P.C., Falls Church. Diamond represented Carrollsburg a number of years ago when Reeves was on the association board. "Community associations are ill-equipped to force out a homeowner for discrimination and usually are not empowered to purchase an owner's home for that purpose."

"It's ironic that the same people who criticize community associations for failing to protect one owner from the actions of another protest when the association reasonably enforces its architectural restrictions," Diamond said. "The primary vehicle for the enforcement of public laws must be local government and the police. Community associations simply do not have the resources."

"These developments highlight the maturing of community associations and raise new questions about the role community associations will play in society," Diamond said. "We're progressing from disputes over paint colors and treehouses to issues that test the boundaries of community association governance, from dealing with discrimination to efforts to ban "Tier 3" Megan's Law sex offenders from living in associations."

CAI will continue to provide training and resources to board members who must address these increasingly complex questions in community associations striving to strike a balance between their duties of governance, business management and building community.

The Community Associations Institute is a nonprofit association created in 1973 to educate and represent the nation's 205,000 community associations—condominium associations, homeowner associations and cooperatives. CAI members include homeowners, associations, builder/developers, public officials and related professionals and service providers.

Phone: 703-970-9235