Critics deride communities represented by homeowner associations as walled-off worlds where the well-heeled can collectively ignore problems like crime and fiscal despair. Many association members consider their rules repressive and needlessly complex. Nonetheless, these community organizations continue to spring up in unprecedented numbers. This privatization of government functions raises a host of vexing societal questions.
Elitism exacts another price as well: Homeowners' associations exert more control over their members' lives than do any municipal, state, or federal entities.
'I call it secession by the successful,' says Evan McKenzie, a political scientist at the University of Illinois and author of Privatopia (Yale University Press, 1994), a book dissecting the blissful illusions associations proffer. 'When we think about citizenship in our communities, we think of some concept of rights and responsibilities. But common interest developments encourage secessionist mentalities. They give people a variety of incentives for not seeing themselves as belonging to their city or county, since they belong to associations that provide services such as recreation centers, swimming pools, and parks. Meanwhile, those cities and counties shrivel from neglect.'
Elitism exacts another price as well: Associations exert more control over their members' lives than do any municipal, state, or federal entities. They may mandate how many hours a day you may keep your garage door open, whether you can build a pool in your backyard, what kind of shrubs get planted out front, and how high your flagpole can be. Assuming that flagpoles are allowed.
In short, they are not refuges for renegades.
In their early stages, homeowners' associations are run by developer-appointed boards of directors, usually made up of builders working on the development, with one or two homeowners added to the mix. The boards, in turn, hire outside companies to handle daily management chores, and to act as buffers between themselves and agitated residents.
As a rule, appointed board members get most of the votes -- typically about three votes per lot in the project. Homeowners usually receive one vote per home, no matter how many people live in the house.
This formula allows developers to retain control of the property through the association until the community is nearly complete, or up to some preset date. The association is likewise guided by a set of codes, covenants, and restrictions -- known as CC&Rs -- signed by every home buyer. The CC&Rs remain in effect long after the developer turns the board over to homeowner-elected officers and departs. At that point, elected representatives maintain the rules, which typically can be overturned only by a 'supermajority,' or 75 percent of homeowner votes.
Under board tutelage, community parks are established, recreation centers are built, swimming pools are maintained, and architectural consistency is imposed, all financed by membership fees. Associations also lobby state and local governments on a variety of issues, including land zoning decisions and tax relief for services they already provide, like garbage collection, and they've won many struggles. In New Jersey, for example, a recent referendum banned double payment for services.
Problems arise from the associations' contradictory roles. On the one hand, they operate as governments. On the other hand, they're still private concerns and thereby not subject to constitutional guarantees like free speech. The courts consider membership in them voluntary -- akin to joining the Elks or Kiwanis -- although many new homes come with associations attached.
'People who buy into them do give up a large part of their rights as citizens,' McKenzie says, adding that associations don't always wield their power wisely. The gradation of enforcement exercised by civil authorities is lacking, he says. 'For example, if you cross an empty street in the middle of the block and a cop sees you, will he give you a fine? Probably not.'
Associations aren't as flexible: 'Boards feel it's their mandate to enforce every rule every time. And they tend to be made up of people who have some desire to hold power over their neighbors. The situation can create neighborhood Hitlers.