Neighborhood Nazis

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More than 32 million Americans now live under the rules of homeowners' associations. Not to be confused with neighborhood groups, these organizations -- alternately referred to as residential community associations and common interest developments -- are initiated by developers to supervise budding, generally upscale villages, and membership is usually mandatory. These quasi-democratic institutions provide amenities from trash pickup to landscape design. The highest concentration of these suburban regimes is in the Sun Belt. Nationally, the statistics are stunning: Since their debut in 19th-century Boston, and a tremendous boost during Florida's 1960s condominium boom, the number of associations has swelled to 150,000 -- and growing at the rate of 10,000 every year.

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.

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