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.