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.
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.