Persecution Complex

Windsor Place resident Pat Snyder wages a jihad against the homeowners' association, which she accuses of cronyism, racism--even hastening the death of an elderly black woman

Imagine a block of Soviet workers' housing plopped down in central Phoenix, then cloaked in shades of hot pink and aqua. Le Corbusier meets Miami Vice. Imagine four hulking cinder-block-and-glass buildings whose residents live in strict compliance with covenants, codes and restrictions dictating everything from window coverings to doormat placement.

Welcome to Windsor Place, on the southwest corner of Fifth Street and Thomas Road.

To the casual observer, the second-floor condominium in building C doesn't look much different from all the rest. But to the Windsor Place Homeowners' Association, it is a blight. The two unauthorized air conditioners dangling from its windows are a gesture of defiance for which their owner has been slapped with several $100 fines.

The woman who aims to usurp the ruling elite--a seven-member board elected by the complex's homeowners--is an energetic 48-year-old firebrand named Pat Snyder, who views her struggle as nothing less than a war against oppression.

"Please refer to me as a homeowner activist, a freedom fighter," she says in a recent letter to New Times, "because what goes on in malfunctioning HOAs [homeowners' associations] is UNCONSTITUTIONAL, and violates citizens' rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Snyder has waged her revolution since she moved onto the property two years ago. The battlefields are the hallways, common areas and the clubhouse of the 6.5-acre, 167-unit complex. It has been a costly and wasteful affair, chewing up hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars in legal bills.

And, like most revolutions, it has a martyr: Rosa Anderson.
Anderson, a 72-year-old retired schoolteacher and grandmother, saw Windsor Place as ideal to live out her retirement in proximity to downtown, shopping and hospitals. She bought a unit on October 27, 1995, and moved a few days later.

On August 13, 1996--a little more than nine months after moving in--Anderson died of complications from heart disease. In the time since, questions surrounding her last months have hung over Windsor Place like a pall. To hear Pat Snyder tell it, Anderson, who was black, strode into a den of racists, stood her ground and paid for it with her life.

"You've heard of the town without pity?" Snyder asks. "This is the condo without conscience."

Snyder's call has been taken up by the Reverend Oscar Tillman, president of the Arizona chapter of the NAACP, who has accused Windsor Place's homeowners' association board of persecuting Anderson because she was black.

It sounds like a compelling story--an elderly, educated, African-American woman squares off against the all-white homeowners' board. And loses.

But the facts do not support allegations of a racist plot to harass Rosa Anderson.

Windsor Place has its share of problems, but they have more to do with the maddening vagaries of homeowners' associations than with bigotry--the problems that spring up when 30-year-old buildings are overseen by people with little experience in governance who wield the powers that homeowners' associations routinely hold.

Rosa Anderson was born Rosa Harris in Oklahoma on January 13, 1924, one of nine children. Her family moved to Phoenix when she was still a little girl. Soon after arriving in their new home, her mother set up a small poultry business. Though not poor, the family was never well-to-do, either.

"I'll put it this way," says Jovee Smallwood, Anderson's eldest son. "My grandmother wasn't a genius, but she wasn't dumb, either. They always had food, and she made sure they all went to school."

Rosa Harris enrolled in junior college, eventually obtaining an associate's degree. It was around that time that she met Jovee Vance Smallwood, her first husband. The couple had three children in quick succession, but soon divorced.

She moved to Los Angeles and worked as a nurse. She met Seawright Wilbur Anderson, a young medical intern. They married in 1952.

Rosa Anderson had two more children and continued to pursue her education, eventually obtaining her Ph.D. in education. In 1963, she made the first in a series of sojourns to Africa, where she taught at girls' schools. Jovee Smallwood has vivid memories of his first trip to Ghana with his mother.

"They loved her over there," he says. "And she loved being there. She was fascinated by the country."

After Anderson's second marriage ended in the mid-1970s, she returned to Phoenix to care for her sick mother. She purchased a home in Sun City, where, Smallwood says, she remained active both academically and socially. She played bridge, gave lectures on her travels and teachings and was active in her church. She also continued her lifetime association with the NAACP.

Anderson's problems began almost immediately after she paid $23,000 for her one-bedroom, ground-floor condominium.

About two months before she died, she spelled out her grievances in a four-page, single-spaced letter to a Phoenix law firm. The firm did not take on the case.

"My health has become worse since I moved to Windsor," wrote Anderson, who had diabetes and heart problems. "My blood pressure stays up, and so does my blood sugar, which makes my eyesight worse. The association board members are very partial and inconsiderate. I cannot live here without them harassing me. I am willing to sell my condominium to them and go elsewhere."

She wrote that she moved into her new home only to discover that it was overrun with roaches. Water from a neighbor's dishwasher overflowed and seeped down on her kitchen cabinets and shelves. She complained to the homeowners' association, but because the matter did not involve the complex's common area, the association said there was nothing it could do.

Then the complex's cooling and heating system, which had served the building since it was built in 1960, had to be shut down.

"Reported no heat," she wrote. "Was told to buy a heater."
The problem, explains Scott Schaible, president of Windsor Place's Homeowners' Association board, had loomed ever since the underground pipes linking the condos to the chiller unit and boiler first began to crumble.

Schaible, 36, has lived at Windsor Place for eight years. He and fellow board members Steve Loomis and Leroy Heflin agree to discuss Rosa Anderson, they say, in an attempt to defuse what they describe as a smear campaign launched against them.

Schaible explains that plans to repair the heating and cooling system had been hatched well before Anderson bought into Windsor Place. Schaible and his fellow board members had levied a $260,000 special assessment on the homeowners, payable in three monthly installments, to patch the aged system.

Such fees did not sit well with the complex's homeowners, many of them elderly and many others absentee owners who grouse about spending any money at all. Schaible says many dragged their feet. Some, like Pat Snyder, fought the levy--$1,367 for a two-bedroom condo, $911 for a one-bedroom--and its three-month payoff as unduly harsh.

"They never came out with that in an open meeting," Snyder laments. "It's like everything else they do, all behind closed doors."

In the end, though, everyone--including Snyder and the woman who sold Anderson her place--paid up.

Linda Warren, Anderson's real estate agent, says her client was aware that the heating and cooling system was to be overhauled, and that the seller had paid an assessment. She adds that the heat still worked when Anderson bought her condo.

Still, Anderson and her neighbors had no idea what those repairs would entail. They were in for a rude awakening.

The repair plan called for the underground pipes to be bypassed entirely. A new set of eight-inch pipes would be suspended from a second-floor balcony. The pipes would enter each ground-floor condo above the back door. Once inside, the new pipes would connect to old ones that run up to the floors above. All connections were to be concealed inside the apartments by drywall.

While the measure may have eased interior views, it did nothing to erase the blight that the dangling pipes created outside.

"It looks like an oil refinery," says Pat Snyder. "They did not add any value to this property whatsoever."

Schaible admits the solution was more a nod to mechanical necessity than to aesthetics. He says the board would have preferred to run the pipes underground, but that would have cost an additional $400,000. He adds that the board may decide to conceal the exterior pipes once the funds become available.

"That way, everything will look nice again," he explains.
The contractors began their work in early April 1996. Anderson watched with growing apprehension as the fat pipes snaked their way toward her condo.

"My place would be where two connecting pipes would join," she wrote to the law firm. "I said no. They did not discuss this with me earlier. They told us we would not have any alterations. . . . I did not want my kitchen for a railway pipe station."

The only problem was, the decision had already been made and the work needed to proceed. Summer was rapidly approaching, and the condos above Anderson's could not be cooled until the pipes were connected in hers.

On April 5--Good Friday--Schaible and Joe Wilson, the complex's then-property manager, went to Anderson's apartment. What happened next is the subject of two divergent stories.

According to Anderson's letter, Schaible threatened her by saying that if she didn't allow the holes to be drilled above her door, he would call the police.

"I ask why would they call the police?" Anderson wrote. "I had not broken any law."

Her letter goes on to state that Joe Wilson told her she had to let the workers drill because it said so in the covenants, codes and restrictions (CC&Rs). The two men left. The letter continues:

"The doorbell rang--it was the police. They asked to come in. I let them in, they told me I should let the workmen do their job. I was holding up the work. The CC&Rs said they were supposed to come in and drill. They pointed to a line on the [CC&Rs] and read. I asked why couldn't they connect the pipes outside? They wouldn't listen to anything I had suggested."

After the police left, Schaible and Wilson drew up a hand-written statement promising that the pipes inside Anderson's condo would be neatly boxed in as soon as they were installed--work that had already been promised to all ground-floor homeowners. Yet by mid-May, more than a month after signing the agreement, Anderson still hadn't allowed the work to be finished.

Snyder and Tillman of the NAACP also tell of an ugly incident that took place around that time, just as the temperature was inching past the century mark. One of Anderson's upstairs neighbors--a man Tillman describes as "twice Rosa's size"--knocked on her door.

Both Tillman and Snyder say Anderson was frightened, and believed the man constituted a physical threat. She slammed her door on him, then called the police. The officers spoke to Anderson and the neighbor and left. No citations were issued.

The neighbor, a renter, says he meant Anderson no harm. But he doesn't deny that the confrontation took place.

"We was all burning up, so I was the one that went on down there. And I was a little mad," says the tenant, who declined to give his name. "Why don't you try sitting around in this thing without any AC in the summertime?"

A woman emerges from a bedroom. She and the man say they have lived at Windsor Place for seven years, with no trouble with neighbors. Until recently. The woman is black.

"We don't want no trouble," she says resignedly. "We never wanted nothing bad to happen to that lady."

When they read Rosa Anderson's letter for the first time, Scott Schaible and Steve Loomis puff heavily on cigarettes. Leroy Heflin scratches his forehead thoughtfully.

Schaible finally says, "There was a day when we talked to her, and she kept slamming the door on us, refused to talk to us and refused to allow the workmen in. I think Joe [Wilson] called the police and asked them if they would talk to her. And she talked to them, individually from us."

Loomis shifts uncomfortably in his chair.
"I'm gonna go on the record here," Loomis says. "Something is not being said that needs to be said. Okay, she was black. But she was holding up the plumbing to her unit and the ones above her. I don't see what that has to do with the color of her skin. And ironically, she wasn't even out of pocket. Somebody else had already paid for this in advance.

"I hardly think that we were discriminating against her on some sort of racial line."

Such arguments carry little weight with Rosa Anderson's champions.
"The homeowners' association has acted like gods in this whole thing," says Oscar Tillman, the NAACP president, "but Rosa was born of stuff that doesn't back down. This is a sad ending for a lady who spent her whole life helping people."

Pat Snyder sees Anderson's stand against the workmen as nothing less than a blow for private property rights--and good taste.

"This was a proud woman," Snyder says. "She had a very strong sense of aesthetics. She saw what an abortion those pipes were and she didn't want to have that in her apartment."

Snyder also notes that Anderson was one of the only resident-owners living on the ground floor. Nearly every other ground-floor unit was a rental whose tenants have no voting rights in the homeowners' association.

"They [the other owners] didn't know what was going to happen," Snyder says. "Rosa was the only first-floor owner on the property who objected to this because she was the only one who would have to live with it every day."

Snyder says the association board inflamed tempers by spreading word that Anderson was responsible for holding up everyone's cooling.

"They did not properly respond to her concerns for due compensation, for the taking of her private property," Snyder explains. "They were creating a utility easement into her private property. These are legitimate legal concerns. And when they tell you, 'Rosa signed this piece of paper,' that was after they had the two police officers come in. Who authorized them to run their pipes through there? Whatever they had Rosa sign, it was obviously done under duress."

Though the new heating and cooling system has been in place for seven months, Pat Snyder has no plan to remove the unauthorized air conditioners from her windows. She claims she needs them because the repair job did not restore cool air to her condo as promised. She says the vertical pipes running to her apartment are so choked with hard-water deposits that any benefits derived from the new pipes leading to them are negligible.

Schaible says that the problem is not with the risers, but with the pipes connecting them with the air handler within Snyder's condo. If she would replace those pipes, which are not the community's responsibility, her place should stay cool, he says.

The matter will likely wind up in court.
Schaible, who has had his share of run-ins with the irascible Snyder, says her allegations are the products of an overwrought imagination.

"Really, as far as I can tell, her only purpose in life is to show up at our meetings and cause problems," he says. "What it comes down to is that some people just aren't cut out for community living."

But Snyder has her allies at Windsor Place. One of them is Donna Gahagans, another condo owner and a counselor with the City of Phoenix's Neighborhood Services Department.

Though not as impassioned as her friend, Gahagans has backed Snyder from the beginning, saying that the homeowners' association has made life "hell" for Snyder and, before that, Rosa Anderson.

"I know Pat [Snyder] can come across a little strong, but she has a good case," Gahagans says. "She's not just doing this to stir up trouble."

Snyder is a nonpracticing nurse and a real estate agent with an encyclopedic memory for the finer points of laws covering multifamily housing. She grew up in Connecticut, where she worked as a real estate broker.

"Taking care of people and property is something I'm very familiar with," she says in a voice that still betrays traces of her Yankee roots.

She became enmeshed in Windsor Place politics shortly after she moved in and took a job with a property management company that oversaw 40 condos on the property belonging to California investor George Beebe.

If the board members are the dukes of Windsor, George Beebe is its distant king. Because he owns almost a quarter of the condos, Beebe can hand-pick up to four of the condo board's seven members.

One of Pat Snyder's original allies was Don Snyder [no relation], who sat on the board. Both agreed that the assessment for the new pipes would hit property owners too hard, and wanted the association to get a loan that would allow homeowners to stretch payments over 12 months instead of three. On September 15, Snyder and Snyder met with an attorney to see if they had any recourse against the board's actions.

"We seem to do everything in a closed meeting," Don Snyder complained during the tape-recorded meeting, "because there's a clique of four or five people. And this has been going on constantly now."

Don Snyder also complained that Joe Wilson's wife, Patty, was the board's treasurer, which placed her in the position of paying her husband. He added that when he spoke against the board for overcharging homeowners, he was "isolated" from the inner circle.

Within 90 days of that meeting, however, Don Snyder was whistling a different tune. Beebe fired Pat Snyder and hired him in her place. Don Snyder was also made the board's treasurer.

"He clammed up real fast," Pat Snyder says of her former ally. "And the reason is obvious: They bought him out."

Don Snyder denies being bought off. He says he simply grew tired of Pat's crusade. "She bleeds on people," he says. "That's her leverage. She gets you all worked up, and she has so much energy, it's hard to resist her."

Don Snyder says he's satisfied with the way the board's business is conducted, and that a new, shining era of open governance has taken hold at Windsor Place.

If anything, Pat Snyder counters, things are hitting a new low. She says Don Snyder has a conflict of interest in serving both as an employee of Beebe's and as treasurer, overseeing the association's $550,000 in annual receipts.

Pat Snyder has another ally in homeowner Dan McCabe, who served on the board five years ago but stepped down after two years, he says, because he grew frustrated with the board's lack of professionalism.

"When you've got money going out that you can't account for, when you're paying subcontractors for labor and you can't produce the 1099s [tax records], wouldn't you say that's a problem?" he asks.

As further proof of the board's abuse of privilege, Pat Snyder presents The Theiss Incident.

Kathryn Luella Theiss had lived at Windsor Place for 15 years. When she died in September at the age of 85, Scott Schaible, who works as a mortician for a Chandler funeral home when he's not busy with homeowners' association affairs, was hired to handle the arrangements.

Because Theiss was to be laid to rest out of state, Schaible arranged a visitation so that her many friends at Windsor Place could pay their last respects.

It was held in the Windsor Place clubhouse on September 14.
Schaible says he did it to accommodate Kathryn's friends, many of whom are elderly and would have had difficulty traveling off the property for a visitation.

Pat Snyder doesn't buy it.
"We can't even get into that clubhouse when we're alive," she says. "But he can drive his friggin' hearse right up to it. He used that clubhouse to further his personal business, and that's illegal."

Snyder says it shows how much members of the board and their cronies can get away with.

"These guys have more power than the federal government," she says. "The feds can't just slap a lien on your place without due process, but these guys can. They're judge, jury and executioner."

To be sure, homeowners' associations are probably one of the more imperfect forms of government ever conceived. Staffed by part-timers who often have little or no experience overseeing the large budgets they inherit, the potential for abuse is very real.

Occasionally, a homeowners' association makes the news. Recently, a Chandler couple was convicted of embezzlement after police determined the wife, who served as treasurer and property manager, had paid her husband thousands of dollars for work he had never done.

But more often than not, HOAs remain in the shadows.
Vernon Busby has been a detective with the Phoenix Police Department's document fraud division for 10 years. Although there are more than 5,000 homeowners' associations scattered throughout the Valley, Busby has only managed to build a successful case against one. The problem, Busby explains, is one of evidence.

"What you're trying to prove is fairly simple--theft," he says. "If they [HOAs] adhere to some semblance of basic accounting procedures, it makes it easier to build a case. But very often, there are no books because everything is handled on a cash basis. And if there are books, they're often incomplete."

Busby adds that confusion often abounds in HOAs because their bylaws often bestow vague yet far-reaching powers.

"You put yourself under a taxing authority that is not under the same rules as public government," he says. "It can get really confusing."

Busby plans to investigate Pat Snyder's allegations. Though he has only spoken to her over the phone and has not reviewed her case in detail, he says he has been impressed by her grasp of the law.

"Lots of times, people just focus in on the petty personal BS," he says. "I'm not seeing that from her."

The debacle over the pipes was not Rosa Anderson's only run-in with the Windsor Place board of directors.

On February 15, after a series of break-ins at her new condo, she wrote to the property management company, saying she planned to install security bars over her rear windows and door unless she heard otherwise. She heard otherwise, but not until the wrought-iron security bars had already gone up.

"As you have been informed, those [bars] are not approved by the Association," Grant Sumsion, attorney for the association, wrote to Anderson. "The exterior walls on which you have installed them are not your property. Rather, they are part of the common area belonging to the association. Because you have refused to remove the bars and the security door, they will be removed shortly by the Association."

But there was one significant flaw in the board's argument: Security bars nearly identical to Anderson's had been guarding the windows of a condo in a neighboring building for almost six years.

In the letter she typed shortly before her death, Anderson stated that the condo's owner had told her he had received approval to install the bars in 1990. The owner has since left the Valley and could not be reached.

Anderson also wrote that property manager Joe Wilson had told her the bars on the neighboring building had been approved. She made the same argument during an April 17 board meeting, which the NAACP's Oscar Tillman also attended.

"I've been to meetings before where people could care less about my organization and my race," Tillman says. "But this was worse than anything I had ever experienced."

Tillman says Anderson was not allowed to state her case, and was rudely shouted down by members of the board. When he saw that they would achieve nothing, he says, he and Anderson left the meeting.

"I just couldn't stand it any longer," he says.
Schaible disputes this, saying Anderson was given a chance to state her case. He says that if anyone was rude, it was Tillman.

"I've never had a conversation quite like the one I had with that man," Schaible says. "When he first called me, he wouldn't even let me speak.

"Then, at the meeting, he never even said a word, until the end. He said, 'You'll be hearing from our attorneys.' Well, we never did."

Pat Snyder attempted to tape the meeting, but shortly after Anderson began to address the board, the audio level on the tape slowly dissipates.

"I wouldn't be at all surprised if they have some kind of high-tech device that interferes with tape recorders, something that they picked up at one of those security places," Snyder says.

In the fragment of tape that remains, Anderson can be heard calmly pleading her case about the bars and her justification for installing them. Aside from an occasional question from Wilson, she is allowed to speak.

Schaible says the flap over the bars grew out of a misunderstanding. He claims that when Wilson told Anderson about approved security devices, he was describing the retractable metal shields that several owners had installed.

"Joe Wilson knew more about this property than anyone," Schaible says. "He would have never approved those bars."

Wilson has since moved and could not be reached for comment.
So why was one owner allowed to slide for six years, while Rosa Anderson was pounced on as soon as she put up her bars?

Schaible and Loomis say the neighbor's bars were largely concealed from view by a brick wall. There is no such wall behind Anderson's condo, which fronts a walkway and parking lot.

"I didn't even know those bars [on the neighboring building] were there until this whole thing came up," says Loomis.

It is a response Pat Snyder calls disingenuous, to say the least, considering that Loomis has lived at Windsor Place for 14 years.

Nevertheless, both sets of bars were removed.

Around 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday, August 13, Rosa Anderson called 911 to report that she was choking, according to records obtained from the county medical examiner. Paramedics rushed her to St. Joseph's Hospital, where she was pronounced dead at 2:19 a.m.

The following Sunday--as Anderson's family, including five children and six great-grandchildren, gathered at the Universal Memorial Center on East Washington Street to pay their respects--workers unbolted the security bars from her condo.

Pat Snyder says the timing of the bars' removal was not accidental. She calls it the final indignity--a tap dance on Anderson's grave by the members of the board.

Schaible says the work had been planned for weeks.
"None of us had any idea she had even gone to the hospital, let alone died," he says,.

His response seems dubious, considering that Windsor Place is a close-knit community where secrets never stay secret for very long, especially involving someone like Anderson, who had been the focus of so much controversy.

Today, from outward appearances, the only vestige of Rosa Anderson's short but tumultuous residency in condominium C102 at Windsor Place are the holes drilled into the blocks around the doors and windows.

Inside, her presence is still very real.
Her oldest son, Jovee Smallwood, has moved into the condo.
Aside from clutter ("I'm definitely not as tidy as she was," Smallwood admits), the apartment is still the way she left it. In one corner sits a collection of ceremonial masks and other artifacts she collected during her African travels. The bars she had installed over her windows--the ones removed by the board--lean against the wall.

On a coffee table, there's a stack of her mementos. Smallwood sifts through the pile. There are four passports, and copies of the degrees and honorariums Anderson received during her long academic career. There's also a copy of the slim volume she once wrote about her African travels.

"I still haven't figured out what to do with all this stuff," he says.
When asked whether he has felt snubbed by anyone at Windsor Place, Smallwood replies that, no, it really hasn't been a problem--so far.

"But I don't think they'd mess with me anyway, 'cause I'm a man," he says.
And what does he make of his mother's problems at Windsor Place?
"She never told any of us what was going on," he explains. "That wasn't her way--she didn't want us being all bothered by it."

But Angela Petit, Rosa Anderson's 22-year-old niece, says there were signs that all was not well with her aunt. Petit, a junior studying music at ASU, often kept her aunt company on weekends, helping her out with shopping and errands.

"Before she moved here, she was always just this really peaceful lady," Petit remembers. "But then it just sort of changed, like she was always worrying about something. . . . It just seemed like it all happened so fast, you know? And then when she died, it was like, 'What happened?'

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