Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The Rise of Little Government

     Growing up in South Florida, the topic of "Condo Commandos" was in the news often. South Florida is heavily populated with the elderly, and condominiums seemed to be the residence of choice for many of them. It made sense, seeing as so many were used to apartment-type living in New York and most were unwilling or unable to take care of a house and a yard. Condos have boards, and some retired residents adopted board meetings as a new hobby to fill their time. Commandos would make life miserable for other residents, imposing rules and enforcing others. Requiring a resident to appear at multiple board meetings to get approval to put up a sign on their door or to pay a fine for leaving an umbrella in the hall. I always assumed the Condo Commando problem was fairly unique to South Florida. Litle did I know that they were on the forefront of the newest trend in democracy.
     Homeowners associations are popping up everywhere. At first, they were voluntary. They were good groups to form a neighborhood watch, maintain communal spaces, or organize block parties. My current neighborhood has one - I think. I'm at work during the week and I keep pretty busy on weekends, so I don't have much time to talk about flowers and speed bumps. Then, developers started putting homeowner associations in their contracts to buyers, making them, in effect, mandatory, and giving them the power to fine members and put liens on their houses. The argument there is that if you're going to raise money to build a neighborhood pool, you couldn't rely on voluntary contributions due to social loafing. That is, some people would not contribute, but then would want to enjoy the benefits. There was also the additional benefit of being able to force homeowners to maintain pretty exterior appearances of their houses. But when there's power to be had, there will always be people looking to abuse it.
     I think a lot of people are in similar circumstances to mine. Both spouses either work all day or are taking care of children and only have so much time for things such as beautification. If it rains all weekend, for example, maybe the lawn doesn't get mowed for a 2-week period until the next weekend. Or perhaps the house is being cleaned and there's so much junk in the garage that a car has to be parked on the driveway. Or maybe a car breaks down and a friend generously lends a pickup truck. What happens when the association rules conflict? In an Atlanta suburb a year ago, a condo owner got into a particularly nasty fight with her association that had decided to ban pickup trucks. Eventually she was forced to sell her property.
     Would your city or county be able to get away with fining you for having a pickup truck? For not mowing your grass weekly? Probably not. There are restrictions on what kind of power a local government have have over you. For starters, they're bound by the US Constitution and the state Constitution and some other rules as well. But a homeowners association is like a club. You can buy into an association or not - it's your choice. And if you make the choice to be bound by a contractual agreement, you have to abide by its terms. Associations are not bound by very many of the rules your city is. And in some ways, that's why they're attractive. You can rest assured that your neighbor's lawn won't be overrun with weeds and that there won't be unsightly clunkers littering their front yard. (In the South, that can be a problem. In the North too - you might have the Squattersons as neighbors.)
     But are associations really that voluntary? I bought a 20-year old house. Had I bought in a newer neighborhood, I would not have been able to avoid signing my rights away. As older neighborhoods fade away and are replaced by new ones, there won't be any housing choices free of association entanglements. So if it's not so much of a "club" anymore, aren't these associations really small governments? They're run by the people for the people, and they do have the power to tell you what to do. And if that's the case, shouldn't they be subject to the same sort of restrictions on power that any other government has? In a recent article about faux grass, some Nevada homeowner associations banned the fake grass as tacky. Tacky? It may be, but don't I have a right to be tacky? And what's to stop one association from banning families in which both parents work? Or banning Christmas decorations? Or the American flag? Imagine if you lived in a neighborhood with 100 households and 51 of them decided that every house had to fly the Iranian flag? It's legal. And it's coming to a suburb near you.


Mike said...

Amen, brother! I just bought a house recently. When we were looking we were outraged at some of the HA fees. Some places wanted $150/month! For what? Snow removal, trash removal, and use of the common grounds?$150/month! Any other neighborhood the snow removal is handled by the township. And that's only maybe 10 times a year. Ok, I can understand the groundskeeper and garbage man needin' to get paid, but if there's 100 houses in a developement, that's $15,000/month. How much does Paco get for mowing the grass?

So we moved to a neighborhood without a HA. Good thing too cuz the first time they came and tried to fine me for not pulling weeds out of my flower bed there would have been problems.

The Attractive Nuisance said...

Homeowners Associations are pretty scary, particularly since they tend to be run by powermongers with a lot of time on their hands. Most people avoid taking on responsibilities like active duty on an HA like the plague, so you have to wonder about the type of person who would volunteer for such a post.

I would just note that there are limits to what HAs can do. There is a case stating that you can't have racially discriminatory qualifications for purchasing property (e.g., the Klan couldn't make their own development and burden the land with a covenant that said the land could only be sold to white Protestant owners). But that's a pretty extreme example.

In a more common example, the California Supreme Court upheld a HA's pet restriction prohibiting cats and dogs but allowing some other pets as not arbitrary, but rationally related to concerns about health, sanitation, and noise. (Nahrstedt v. Lakeside Village Condominium Assoc., 8 Cal. 4th 361 (Cal. Sup. Ct. 1994) in case anyone wants to look it up.) Basically, this woman who annoyed her neighbors had three cats. Her neighbors were trying to find a way to get rid of her. When they were peering in her windows, they noticed she had 3 indoor cats. Thanks to the HA covenants, the neighbors were able to kick Mrs. Nahrstedt and her 3 cats out on their collective tushies. Nuts.

Ben said...

Just so you know, the American flag has been banned by some Homeowner's Associations, to the point where people tooko them to court and lost.

It ought to be illegal to deny someone the right to fly an American flag on United States soil.

Mike said...

I wonder if they allow burning American flags in those neighborhoods?

Shannon said...

I will echo Mike's "Amen." I detest HA's. I live in an older neighborhood, and there are a few houses with tall weeds and clunkers in the front yard, and I don't particularly like that, but whatever. I enjoy the freedom.

If I purchase the property I feel I should have the right the paint my house hot pink if I damn well please. I should have the right to opt into or out of a HA. I should have the right to fly, or not fly, the American Flag...or even the Iranian flag if I wanted.

In Las Vegas, there are tons of "Master Planned Communities" which require you to join a HA in order to buy properties. Happy denizens of these neighborhoods argue that HAs keep their property values high...which obviously is more improtant than individual rights.

Erica said...

You may not even be safe if you don't have a HA. I'm not sure if this is a common practice around the country, but this week the city of Raleigh began giving citations and a $50 fine to residents who do not remove their garbage cans from the curb in a timely fashion. The rule is that cans may be placed at the curb at sundown the day before collection and must be removed by sundown the day after collection, all in an effort to protect the appearance of Raleigh's neighborhoods.

sideshow bob said...

I love it when suburbanites (read: whites), due to the fact that they've fenced themselves off from most of the minorities, turn on each other.

Why don't we put "Don't tread on me" back on the flag? With the snake and everything. That would be so badass!

ORF said...

HA's are a total racket. My dad's house in NC is in an HA development and he hates it. However, getting fined by the city because of trash pickup is not so unreasonable. Trash cans ARE unsightly and having them on the curb means there is just one more thing for drivers to crash into, so it could be argued that there is a safety thing involved too.

In NYC, you can get fined for putting trash out on the wrong days and you are also responsible for shoveling the walkway in front of your house when it snows. I know this because I lived in a house here for a while and we got a ticket for $100, which we promptly turned over to the landlord. I've also done that trash on the wrong day thing and got a ticket. That one also went to the landlord.