Home Fires

HOA rep Julie McGhee Howard tries to make sure everyone just gets along

Published in 2020 Georgia Super Lawyers Magazine

When “Pumpkin Man,” a bottoms-up scarecrow, bared too much backside for some of its North Atlanta neighbors last October, residents asked their homeowners association to intervene. Rather than remove it, however, the homeowner simply covered the pumpkin rump with a “Censored by the GBHOA” sign. Atlanta-area news stations, not to mention social media, had a field day. 

Julie McGhee Howard, managing partner of NowackHoward, an Atlanta-based firm devoted to community association law, stresses that while those types of cases make headlines—and “Pumpkin Man” wasn’t hers—they’re not exactly typical. 

“Our work runs the gamut from contract law and insurance issues to collections and aesthetics issues,” she says. “Anytime you have people living in close proximity, you’re going to have disputes. It’s just human nature.”

Howard and her law partner, George E. Nowack Jr., founded their firm in 2016, building on a niche that Nowack has pioneered since 1981—just six years after the state passed the Georgia Condominium Act, making owners associations mandatory for condos. Since the 1990s, many counties across Georgia have also begun requiring HOAs in single-family residential developments. 

“I consider myself a general counsel for communities, which are like small towns,” she says, noting that some HOAs govern thousands of residents, and their elected officers manage multimillion-dollar budgets. The same issues that would come up in a small municipality—document interpretation, covenant and rule enforcement, lien foreclosure, collections and bankruptcy, zoning and property tax appeals—are all part of her purview.

“In the scheme of things, this is still very much a new and evolving area of the law,” she adds. 

That’s part of the appeal—the chance to make new case law. “A hot issue now relates to the Fair Housing Act and pets,” Howards says. “Conflicts can arise when HOAs have pet restrictions, but this runs up against FHA provisions for residents who have a documented need for an emotional support animal.”

Other new issues for the firm relate to the trend for residents to age in their homes. “Our clients often have concerns about residents with dementia who are wandering and might be a danger to themselves or others, but their HOA doesn’t have the means to deal with that,” she says. Lease restrictions and questions related to short-term rentals with the advent of Airbnb is another emerging and challenging area. And with demographics showing more people moving to urban areas and living in high-density areas, community association law should remain a growing field. 

“We used to say community association law was all about the three P’s—people, pets and parking,” says Howard, who is past president of the Community Association Institute, an international organization with chapters in Dubai, the U.K., Australia and Canada, in addition to the U.S. “Now we’re dealing with things that didn’t exist when I first started practicing—like liability for handling rental lockers for Amazon Prime delivery. Or medical marijuana, when an HOA covenant prohibits smoking.”

Amidst the old and new challenges, the inevitable human element keeps things interesting, Howard notes. Where, for example, does the HOA come down on privacy issues when security camera footage is subpoenaed that may indicate a resident is having an affair, or when teenagers are captured on video being naughty by the pool? What to do about the potential fire hazard of hoarding? “One resident fell asleep in the bathtub and flooded the building. Another guy on the 33rd floor hung his laundry on part of the fire sprinkler system and caused millions of dollars of damage,” Howard says. “Believe me, it’s never boring when you’re dealing with people.”

Though about 33% of NowackHoward’s practice is litigation, the goal, says Howard, is proactively putting policies and documents in place to keep communities functioning well and responsibly. 

“Our philosophy is preventative. We’re dealing with people trying to live together peacefully in community,” she says. “People want to come home after a long day at work to someplace that feels harmonious, not a place of conflict. Their home is often their biggest investment, so helping ensure that investment is protected and their quality of life is preserved, to me this is exciting and worthy work because that sense of home is so important to people.”

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