The Emergence of the HOA

By Evan McKenzie 

How it all started
There was an emergence of incentives that produced common-interest housing. First, people were demanding affordable housing. To meet that demand, developers wanted to build more units on less land to keep costs down. The solution: Common Interest Developments (CID). Instead of providing every house with its own pool, driveway and lawn, CIDs provided homes with shared amenities. They sometimes avoided local density codes because the communities were private developments that the local authority did not have to oversee or maintain. Oversight responsibilities fell to volunteer committees of private homeowners with help from professional property managers and lawyers, creating in each CID a private government with residents signing a binding contract to obey its laws.

The Changing American landscape
Local governments liked getting property taxes from developments that cost them nothing, so states such as Texas, California, Nevada, Florida and Virginia saw to it that little else was built. In 1965, fewer than 500 CIDs existed nationwide. By 1970, there were 10,000. Today, although there is no official monitoring, experts estimate there are 250,000 common-interest developments. Almost all new development in densely-populated areas is CIDs. It is a total transformation of the landscape of American home ownership. The traditional family home is becoming extinct in larger cities.
Is this a bad thing? It is for homeowners who are sacrificing privacy, control and freedom of choice," says watchdog Ken Hyland, director of the National Institute of Community Management, in Phoenix. When you move into a CID you automatically become a member of the association and are bound to certain deed restrictions, covenants and conditions.  They include the association's regulations, and require that every owner be a member of the association and abide by its rules. "The point of the rules is to protect the community, and to maintain or improve property values." When you join a homeowners association, you are signing a contract. These are legally binding covenants and if you don't want to live by them you should not buy the house. You're handing over control of the way you want your home to look, and what you want to do in and around it to the association's board of directors. They can be untrained people with no knowledge of the law or business, and sometimes have very bizarre ideas of what they want in their community. Most associations do well, and protect residents' interests, but there are some horror stories out there. Even when you have a board filled with great people, it's still only one election away from disaster!"

Some love it, some don't
Ironically, the very aspects of safety and tidy appearance, which attract people to CID living, are made possible by tight enforcement of rules that many residents find irksome. Typical CID rules prohibit or limit the use of such things as flags, clotheslines, wind chimes, signs on your lawn or in your window, garage sales and the presence of pets. How many cars you can have and where you may park is a popular bone of contention, but the rules can get far more intrusive. One HOA told a woman to remove the small Cleveland Indians sticker she'd put on her mailbox, another objected to a 'Peace' sign in a window. Some dictate when you can put out the garbage, and what flowers you may plant, others restrict remodeling projects. Repainting? Invariably, you must take your proposed new paint scheme before the committee. Unruly behavior or noise is banned. One man was fined because his too-large flag flapped at night. An elderly lady was fined by her HOA for sitting outside her Missouri home in her car and kissing her retiree beau. "Nobody should have the authority these boards have over what people own," says Elizabeth McMahon, co-founder of the American Homeowners' Resource Center, a consumer group in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. Despite the horror stories and the legions of critics, it's obvious many Americans appreciate the way HOAs operate. Why else would 20 per cent of the population voluntarily place themselves under their control? One man's trash is another's treasure -- or in this case, one man's devil is another's angel. The choice is yours. But make it only after you've thoroughly investigated what you're getting yourself into.