Like most things, Homeowners’ Associations (HOAs) began with good intentions. With home values so closely tied to upkeep and curb appeal, it made sense to establish neighborhood minimums and have that maintenance done collectively, all for a tidy monthly fee.
But has it all gone too far?
If one scours the web for horror stories, they’ll find HOA accounts of unreasonably bureaucratic organizations filled with rules, bullying, and more, along with love stories about how easy life is when you pay someone else a monthly fee to monitor all maintenance.
It’s easy to argue that “a few bad apples spoil the barrel,” and with more than 63 million Americans living in HOA-maintained properties today, 30 times more than in 1970, the number of complaints are understandably skyrocketing.
The end of individualism?
The biggest problem with HOA properties comes from the inability to make notable alterations in your yard thanks to an imposing list of rules meant to “protect” all other residents from folks going crazy and putting, say, a 1957 Chevy carcass in the front yard as art, like a local in my neighborhood has done (and which I love).
The more rules we have, the less individualism we can practice. Personality shouldn’t be verboten, and originality shouldn’t be shunned. Are we having any fun living in a world of cookie-cutter yards where everyone’s life looks the same? Are we teaching our kids the right lessons when we tell them it’s desirable to live in places where just about everything is covered by a litany of laws and personality is a thing that might get you in trouble?
This great article on HOAs opens with an account of how one couple experienced repeated assaults occurring near their property, and a request to install a motion-activated safety light took weeks to get action on the request. One would think organizations convened to protect homeowners would take that responsibility seriously.
The bureaucratic dance
We believe in government of the people, by the people, and this premise is alive and well in the world of HOAs. But when you’re talking about a board comprised of local residents and people who have a vested interest in things but perhaps not the emotional maturity to govern or the kind of leadership backgrounds required for these roles, things get complicated.
Bureaucracy is hard enough for those who know how to manage it, but when it’s in something like an HOA where you’re left without an outside board of appeals, or there are conflicting ideas of what constitutes a priority decision, drama is inevitable.
HOAs have a ton of power, as the Star-Tribune explains well:
“They often partner with management companies that provide administrative and maintenance services — and keep the association’s budget in check, and homeowners in line, using a combination of fines, restriction of amenities, termination of utilities or legal action. If a resident is fined and refuses to pay, the association can put a lien on the unit, and, in extreme cases, even foreclose on it.” (read the whole article)
The loss of quirk
Having once lived opposite the only house on the block that went years without mowing its lawn, where they stored a broken dryer on their front lawn for a year, and had a tarp-covered rusted beater in the driveway for a decade, trust me — I understand why establishing ground rules for a housing community is a winning proposition all around.
But as an art-loving free-spirit, I find these safe, tidy, all-pretty-much-the-same communities devoid of personality and life.
Give me neighbors who repurpose a piano into an outdoor planter, or have an old cast-iron claw-foot tub as a massive bird-bath with grape-vines growing up the rickety showerpipe. Allow me neighbors with a big wooden glider in the front, or the biggest waterslide in the ‘hood in their backyard.
Let me live next to the guy with a hammock on his front porch who fires up a smoker and gestures to me to join him for some pulled pork and a patio beer, as the sounds of old rock on a staticky stereo spill into the night.
I say hang a tire-swing from every front yard, let children abandon tricycles by the driveway, and let every teen try to start a garage band — in the actual garage, trying to learn “Stairway to Heaven” with the door open on an early summer night.
The Land of Irony
It is with great amusement that we speak of the Land of the Free, where more than a fifth of the country now do not have complete freedom to decorate or enjoy their homes to their fullest. Sure, they’ve freely entered into that agreement, but still, it seems oddly contradictory to me.
From front-yard food gardens and smokers, to safety lights and tire swings, through to garage bands, we’re seeing many uniquely American lifestyle quirks vanishing because we’ve opted to impose “laws” upon ourselves prohibiting these choices, all in the name of saving ourselves some maintenance work.
As someone who once wished such minimums could be imposed on the slackers across the road, I find myself sadly and strongly opposed to the cookie-cutter country we seem to be becoming.