June 28, 2006

While
the Senate was all wrapped up with the flag desecration issue this
week, the House passed a bill that I bet would be of interest to a heck
of a lot of your readers/viewers/listeners/users. The Freedom to Display the American Flag Act
ensures that, for instance, condo- or gated-community dwellers cannot be
barred by their homeowners association from flying the American flag.

The bill, which now heads to the flag-loving Senate, says:

A condominium
association, cooperative association, or residential real estate
management association may not adopt or enforce any policy, or enter
into any agreement, that would restrict or prevent a member of the
association from displaying the flag of the United States on
residential property within the association with respect to which such
member has a separate ownership interest or a right to exclusive
possession or use.

Congressman Roscoe Bartlett
sponsored the bill after a man who sells flags said people told him that
they could not display flags in their neighborhood because of
deed restrictions. One veteran, Richard Oulton, said
he was threatened with arrest or eviction for violating his homeowners association
laws when he flew a flag outside his home. A while back, ABC’s 20/20 reported on Oulton’s case, as well as others:

In Richmond, Va., Richard Oulton, a Vietnam
veteran, is fighting his homeowners association for the right to fly an
American flag on a 25-foot pole. The association ordered him to take
the flagpole down, calling it a “visual nuisance.” 

Oulton, who has been raising the flag ever since he was a medic in Vietnam
and flew the Stars and Stripes over his bunker, has refused. “To take
it down now would be a total dishonor and an insult to everyone that
has ever stood for the flag,” he says. 

Oulton says he checked the association’s rules before he moved in,
specifically to see whether there were any restrictions on flying the
flag. He found no reference to flags or flagpoles, so he put up a large
flagpole next to the huge home he built on three lots. 

He says his neighbors didn’t object, and three neighbors 20/20
talked to agreed. One of them, Frank Taylor, called Oulton’s flag “an
asset to the community.” 

But the homeowners association board said the flagpole was too big.
“We had no idea someone would erect a flagpole that large when the
guidelines were written,” says board member Birdie Nichols. Since their
guidelines did not mention flagpoles, the board instead relied on a
rule that says, “no structure shall be erected … without
approval.” 

The board later adopted rules allowing flagpoles — but restricting
them to 6 feet in length and requiring that they be mounted on the
house, not standing in the yard. 

“All we are asking Mr. Oulton to do is to show his patriotism within
the guidelines that everyone else in the community is willing to live
by,” says Nichols. 

Oulton admits he could easily hang his flag from a pole mounted on
his house, but says, “It wouldn’t be the right thing to do.” 

Oulton says the board is trampling on his basic freedoms. “I don’t
understand what the problem is. It’s a property right that I have to
fly this flag. It’s a free speech right that I have to fly this
flag.” 

But people living in planned communities may have fewer rights than
they think, says [Evan] McKenzie,
[a political science professor at the University of Illinois who has
written a book about homeowners associations, “Privatopia: Homeowner
Associations and the Rise of Residential Private Government”]. “A
homeowners association is essentially a
private government. … They don’t have to respect your civil liberties
the same way a real local government has to. They don’t have to worry
about the Constitution or the Bill of Rights.” 

So far the courts have ruled that Oulton’s flagpole does violate
association rules. But he vows to appeal, to the U.S. Supreme Court if
necessary. 

The bill’s co-sponsors include:

As I travel around the country working with newsrooms, I have seen similar stories pop up in places like Las Vegas and Phoenix,
which are ripe with homeowner associations that act with the heavy hand
of a dictatorship when it comes to issues like what kind of flag one
can fly outside one’s home. What a wonderful July Fourth topic. More than fifty million Americans live in communities with homeowners associations.

The Community Associations Institute provides this perspective on how many people live in these types of communities. The CAI says:

Estimated number of U.S. association-governed communities and individual housing units and residents within those communities:

The Community Associations Institute also says:

  • More than 1.7 million Americans serve on a community association
    board, with close to 400,000 participating as committee members.
    Assuming the average board or committee member spends just one hour a
    week on association business — and for most it’s much more than that
    — these volunteer leaders dedicate more than 110 million hours of
    service to their communities every year.
  • The estimated real estate value of all homes in community
    associations approaches $4 trillion, approximately 20 percent of the
    value of all U.S. residential real estate.The total annual operating
    revenue for all community associations in the U.S. is more than $41
    billion. Most of this is spent in associations’ local economies for
    goods and services. Community association boards also maintain
    investment accounts of more than $35 billion for the long-term
    maintenance and replacement of commonly held property.

    Here is a Zogby International survey
    of people’s experiences and feelings about these associations. One of
    the poll’s findings that particularly interested me is that just about one out of
    four people
    living in an association community has taken a complaint about a
    neighbor to the board.

    Related stories:

    Vietnam veteran’s neighborhood dispute prompts flag-flying bill
    Measure would limit ability of homeowners associations to restrict flagpoles, flag displays.(Feb. 22, 2000)

    Michigan appeals panel blesses religious message on couple’s house
    Attorney
    says homeowners’ association, which had won in lower court, won’t back
    down on trying to force removal of ‘Jesus is King.’ (Nov. 27, 2003)

    Arizona bill aims to make homeowners groups more open
    Measure would require association boards to give members broader access to meetings, financial records. (Jan. 17, 2004)

    Apartment dweller, managers clash over flag display
    Retirement community board says father-in-law of Supreme Court Justice
    Clarence Thomas can’t fly flag on holidays. (June 6, 2004)

    Bill to make flying U.S. flag always legal loses steam
    Tennessee attorney general says measure would interfere with neighborhood-association covenants forbidding flag displays. (May 11, 2005)

    N.J. homeowners groups must recognize residents’ free speech
    State
    appeals panel overturns lower court ruling, says residents’ ‘rights to
    engage in expressive exercises … must take precedence over the
    [association’s] private property interests.’ (Feb. 8, 2006)

    New Fla. town could be governed by Catholic principles
    If
    pizza magnate has his way, Ave Maria will ban abortion, pornography,
    birth control; civil libertarians call plan unconstitutional. (March 2, 2006)

    Illinois assures condo owners right to religious displays
    Governor’s
    office says law, to take effect next January, was prompted by cases in
    which co-op boards, condo associations attempted to ban religious
    symbols in hallways. (April 18, 2006)


    Why “Zero Down” is NOT the Way to Buy a Car

    You may know that, this week, the newest round of car wars will begin. The Detroit Free Press says
    automakers are launching the latest incentive programs to clear 2006
    models from the lots, including programs that include the phrases “zero down” and “no-interest loans.”

    But “zero down loans” are a
    bad idea for a lot of buyers — and they even cause problems for car
    dealers trying to sell new vehicles. A column in The Detroit News
    explains that the average car loan now is 64 months. In 2003, it was
    only 60 months. Now, some lenders are offering 72-month loans — that’s 6
    years! If you trade in that vehicle before you pay it off, there is a
    much higher likelihood that you will owe more than the car is worth if
    you made no down payment.

    The Detroit News explains:

    Last month nearly 29 percent of U.S.
    car buyers found themselves “upside down” on their loans, owing an
    average of $3,789 more than their trade-in value — the highest level
    since September 2004.

    Loan officers and car dealers call it “negative equity” — and there are a plenty of negatives to it:

    • First, car buyers often pay more interest as they roll old upside-down loans into new car purchases.
    • Second,
      they’ll be saddled with higher payments that make it harder to save for
      their next car or keep up with their current loans.
    • Third, those buyers are instantly turned upside-down in their new purchases, creating a vicious cycle of excessive debt.

    Upside-down loans also dampen auto sales, says Tony Jerome Jr., general manager of Tamaroff Dodge in Southfield.

    “It hurts us all the
    time,” Jerome said. “Typically they can’t do anything, which means we
    can’t sell them a car. Sometimes you can, but some of the negative
    equity is ridiculous.”

    Longer car loans are
    the prime factor flipping car buyers upside down, experts say. Where
    the average car loan in 2003 lasted for 60 months, it’s crept up to 64
    months today, says Jesse Toprak, executive director of … Edmunds.com,
    a Web site for car shoppers. Part of the reason is the introduction of
    the 72-month loan.

    “Seventy-two months
    is sort of becoming the norm,” Toprak said. “Unless you put a
    substantial amount of money down you will have negative equity.”

    Another trend turning car owners topsy-turvy is no-interest loans.

    It sounds like a good
    deal: All of the payment goes toward reducing the principal instead of
    paying interest. But buyers usually take the no-interest loans instead
    of a rebate that would cut the overall size of the loan.

    “When they take that
    zero percent, they’re doing that in lieu of $5,000 in rebates,” Jerome
    said. “If they try to trade in early, they’re automatically $5,000 the
    wrong way.”


    Shuttle Coverage

    Yahoo! has an impressive collection of resources for this weekend’s scheduled shuttle launch. It may be cancelled by rain.


    That Big Rock Out There

    Space.com says:

    An
    asteroid possibly as large as a half-mile or more in diameter is
    rapidly approaching the Earth. There is no need for concern, for
    no collision is in the offing, but the space rock will make an
    exceptionally close approach to our planet early on Monday, July 3,
    passing just beyond the Moon’s average distance from Earth.


    Changing the Way they Board Planes

    Beginning July 10,
    Southwest Airlines will test out the idea of assigning seats. At the
    same time, other airlines are changing the way they call out who should
    board. The issue at hand is how to load the planes quickly and get them off
    the ground. The St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times has the story.


    We are always looking for your great ideas. Send Al a few sentences and hot links.

    Editor’s Note: Al’s Morning Meeting is a compendium of ideas,
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    upon the accuracy and integrity of the original sources cited. Errors
    and inaccuracies found will be corrected.

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    Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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