"People have this idea that they have a deed to this particular property and this is their castle," says Richardson. He often has to remind people "your home is not your castle; your home is part of everyone's castle."
Richardson is actually a litigation lawyer, but he does more and more work with people who live in what are known as common interest developments (CIDs). "Any situation where the homeowners are tied together with a set of governing documents," says Richardson, "is a CID."
The fact is that most of the building projects currently being created in the western US can be described as common interest developments. They are attractive to buyers because they are low maintenance, and city planners like them because they make better use of increasingly scarce areas for development. However, those homes come with a complex set of rules and regulations. It might be something as banal, yet frequently irksome, as how many pets you can have, or even what constitutes a pet.
Americans are an independent minded lot who expect to make their own decisions. "As a result," he says, "many people have a hard time adjusting to life in a common interest development."
"For the most part, the general public is not aware of what their rights and obligations are in these kinds of arrangements," says Richardson. "Buying into a CID means you have elected to live together and be bound to each other, not just physically, not just by party walls or common lot lines, but to be bound together by a set of covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC & Rs) that are difficult to change."
"The problem is the people who live in these units don't understand what they have bought into," says Richardson, "and the homeowner associations that run them do not always strike the right balance between a harmonious community and a viable business operation."
Finding the right tone can very difficult.
In California, where Richardson practices, there have been homeowners who fought their homeowner associations all the way to the Supreme Court of California. Although many people come to him threatening to sue, he advises against it. "It is expensive, and detrimental to the community, it really isn't the way to go."
His law firm prefers to offer mediation in these cases. Richardson says once people understand the rules and regulations, these things tend to resolve. "I've done my share of being the referee at meetings and trying to talk people in to getting along."
Richardson sees community interest developments as having several different personalities. "It has corporate identity with rules that have to be followed," he says "it is also a financial being, that needs strong accounting and wise decisions, but it is still a community."
Three years ago, Richardson began writing a newspaper column about common development issues. Two million people in California now read it regularly.
An affable kind of man, Richardson chuckles as he describes his work with homeowner associations as "really not very glamorous." It may not be glamorous, but in the new world of condos, townhouses and homeowner associations, it is definitely indispensable.
Kelly Richardson is the managing partner with Richardson & Harman. He attended the University of California at Riverside as a National Merit Scholar, where he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science. He obtained his Juris Doctor degree from the University of Southern California. Richardson is a leading advocate for the community association industry. He served on the Board for six years and was the 2004 President of the Greater Los Angeles Chapter of the Community Associations Institute (CAI).