I’m big on local. Not because I hate Walmart and 3,000 mile Caesar salads but because, as I see it, communities built on interdependent systems are better suited to taking on the challenges and opportunities presented by time.
That’s why, when it comes to the decisions that most directly impact day-to-day quality of life, I tend to advocate for smaller, more local, more responsive increments of control. Things like neighborhoods, NPUs, districts, and towns.
The world around us, whatever form it takes, comes to reflect the priorities of the people setting policy, making rules, and allocating funds. The more those people understand the nuances of context and maintain a shared stake in the outcome, the better things tend to be.
Here’s where my belief system gets challenged because, perhaps the smallest, most local form of governance — one that over 60 million Americans routinely submit themselves to — is the home owners association (HOA). And lately, HOAs haven’t exactly been getting great press in our collective efforts to build a better world.
Like the whimsy of chalk drawings on the sidewalk? Your HOA doesn’t. Want to make a show of patriotism? Take it somewhere else, rabble rouser. Got a hankerin’ for fresh veggies or just like to spend some time tending the garden? No can do.
So what happens? Ironically, we end up appealing to higher forms of government, just so we can gain permission to hang the clothes out to dry. The anti-local.
That’s not the way strong, resilient communities get built.
To be fair, the links presented here are cherry picked to make a point. Spend some time on Google and you could surely come up with equally satire-worthy dust-ups where the city, rather than an HOA, is the villain. But HOAs, more than any other form of governance, are comprised of neighbors. Literally. And historically, a neighbor was someone who could help you through tough times.
Not foreclose on your house for two missed dues payments.
So what happened? Basic agreements over neighborhood standards aside, why are we so concerned with such minutiae?
The answer, it seems, is rooted in the legacy of separated-use Euclidian zoning. Originally conceived to move noxious and dangerous activities away from where people live, it’s since mutated to now separate all of life’s daily activities — living, working, shopping, going to church, and educating our children — no matter how benign. Today, such policies have added up to countless places where two defining characteristics reign: simplicity and predictability.
Unfortunately, real life is neither. But, for an HOA, the charge becomes clear:
Maintain that standard.
By reducing our neighborhoods to subdivisions defined by price point, we’ve created a world where, at the most local levels, decision makers no longer have to contend with complexity. They don’t need to balance the needs of the less affluent with those who have more. Or the needs of the old with those of the young. Or single family concerns with those in duplexes and apartment buildings.
Or any of these with the needs of a local business community.
As a standalone entity, built out as planned, they need not concern themselves with developing a vision for what they hope to one day become. All they need to do is this: Ensure that things stay as they are.
And that’s a death knell for viable, resilient local community.
The way back
Communities best positioned to thrive in an ever-changing world are those where governance is an exercise in balancing complexity. In contending with reality. That’s because, in the day-to-day life of a traditional city or town, people are forced to acknowledge and contend with others unlike themselves. It happens two people at a time as ideas are debated and alliances formed. It happens through a process of negotiation where diverse individuals concede their need for one another and explore equitable common ground from which to interact and collectively advance.
It happens in a million messy ways. But the one way it doesn’t happen is on the pleasantly manicured streets of an HOA-regulated single-use subdivision.
HOAs pursue consistency in an ever-evolving world, an unsustainable proposition if ever there was one. And it’s not because they’re evil, or local, or undemocratic, but because, through conventional zoning, they’ve been given the wrong charge.
Curb HOA madness where you live. Put this most local form of governance in the service of better outcomes by coding your way to a more diverse, walkable, mixed-use city or town.
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6 responses to “Zoning Our Way to HOA Insanity”
HOA rules and regs are usually written in stone by the developer, long before the first resident buys in. And it takes unanimous, or near unanimous consent to change anything.
Exactly, Ken. It’s an inflexible system without a future. Cities and towns looking to build long-term community need zoning that precludes the single-use subdivision. Yes, developers of more diverse and complex mixed-use projects will still set up HOAs, but they’ll be of a new model that’s forced to contend with competing needs and wants. The manufactured simplicity of the subdivision, and the desire to maintain it, will be engineered out.
Thanks for the comment.
Nice post. But the idea of zoning has not mutated – it was always about maintaining standards. Zoning covered 30 million Americans before it was even declared constitutional and almost all of those were middle-class suburbs. HOAs have basically taken up where government stopped.
I suppose it’s true that the actual act of separating things in order to maintain certain standards remains unchanged. More specifically, I suppose it’s the application of zoning, and the standards being maintained, that has morphed.
Thanks for the comment.
The really scary part is in the NPR article about HOAs foreclosing on homes; it seems that individual HOAs are often run by private HOA management companies who stand to make a buck off the unflinching enforcement of the rules. Private sector making money off the privatization of public functions? Never heard that one before.
Enough cynicism. What’s the right solution to make HOAs more accountable? I’m trying to think of a good localist solution here. Maybe part of the problem is that HOAs get the rights of municipalities to enforce zoning laws, but without the responsibilities to provide public services: infrastructure, safety, etc. If HOAs had this responsibility, and had to pay for it (effectively making them mini-cities) maybe they would be more likely to seek diverse, revenue-generating communities? At the very least, the full slate of HOA powers would be more transparent, and home-buyers could (and hopefully would) choose to live in the less-oppressive HOA zones.
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