Can Texas apartment complexes restrict political signs?

AUSTIN (KXAN) — With election season upon us, campaign ads and signs have become commonplace in Texas. But two places that may have restrictions or limitations on campaign signs? Neighborhoods and apartment complexes managed by homeowners associations.

Under Texas Election Codethe state outlines that property owner associations—i.e. HOAs — “may not impose or adopt a restrictive covenant” that directly prohibits political writing within 90 days before Election Day or 10 days after the election. But that doesn’t mean homeowners necessarily have leeway, said Chad Ruback, a Dallas appellate attorney.

“The HOA may require that the sign be mounted in the ground on a stake, as opposed to in a window or out on a balcony,” Ruback said. “The HOA may prohibit a resident from displaying more than one sign for a candidate or more than one sign for a ballot measure.”

What are the HOA political and social sign rules?

Although HOAs are required to allow political signs during the designated time period, that doesn’t mean all signs year-round get a free pass. Ruback said that under state law, HOAs can legally limit signs to specific items on the election ballot, such as candidates or ballot propositions.

As we enter the 2022 midterm elections, a sign for a political candidate in the 2024 presidential election, for example, could be legally prohibited if the HOA chooses to ban it. Similarly, signs related to social issues — such as those displaying “Black Lives Matter” or “Back Blue” — can be banned because they are not specific election ballot items.

“These social justice themes, these social justice causes are not specifically on the ballot. While they may be generally perceived as an affiliation with one party or another or with one candidate or another…they are not directly on the ballot anywhere,” he added.

This does not mean that the HOA is required to ban political signs outside the Election Day window. It is at the discretion of the HOA board whether or not to permit signs of political or social concern after the 100-day grace period as specified in the HOA’s deed or community rules.

However, HOA boards are required to treat the permit or ban of a sign equally, regardless of the applicant or issue in question. If not, that could open them up to legal action, Ruback said.

“If the HOA regime feels really strongly pro-Trump, hypothetically, and they want to say, ‘There’s no limit on pro-Trump signs, but if you want to put up a pro-Biden sign, it can’t be —larger than that four feet by six feet that we have to let you put up,’ that would probably be a civil rights violation,” he said.

Can housing estates limit signs with political and social issues?

Although there are many residential homes in Austin, the city also has a large community of renters. What does this mean for them?

“[Apartment complexes] they can say whatever they want when it comes to banning political signs,” Ruback said; the majority of complexes in Austin are privately owned.

Some housing complexes are government-run by agencies such as the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. Therefore, they will operate under different rules, he added.

David Mintz, vice president of government affairs at the Texas Apartment Association, told KXAN rental properties can impose “reasonable restrictions on political signs.” These restrictions include:

  • Signs may only be permitted on property leased by the tenant, such as an apartment window,
  • The signs may be posted within a reasonable period before or after the election,
  • Signs that may damage property may be restricted and
  • Signs that are offensive in nature, located in common areas of the complex or that threaten the health and safety of others may be prohibited.

Unlike HOAs, the Texas Election Code has no specific regulations regarding apartment complexes and political signs, leaving those decisions to the discretion of condo owners, Ruback said.

Both Ruback and Mintz said any possible restrictions on signs would be spelled out either in a tenant’s lease, in a notice left in a public space, on a resident’s door or within the property’s community rules.

Like HOAs, condominium owners cannot give special treatment to particular candidates, parties, issues or ideologies at the expense of opposing candidates, parties or viewpoints. Any unequal treatment could lead to a lawsuit, Ruback said.

“The apartment complex can’t say something like you can put up Trump signs, but you’re not welcome to put up Biden signs,” Ruback said. “Even though there’s no law that specifically states that, saying it would make a good civil rights case.”

How about protecting free speech?

Because HOAs and most apartment complexes are not run by government entities, the free speech protections offered under the US Bill of Rights’ First Amendment do not apply to political signs on private property, Ruback said. The First Amendment limits only governmental entities — such as cities, counties, states, or other municipalities — to prohibiting political signs.

“The First Amendment is not as broad as people think it is,” he said. “To the extent that someone has a beef with what their apartment complex prohibits or what their HOA prohibits, that’s just not a First Amendment issue.”

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