5 years ago: On the line

5 years ago: On the line July 23, 2013

Julyu 23, 2008, on this blog: On the line

Homeowners’ associations fascinate me. Marketplace’s Joel Rose reports that there are about 300,000 of these in the U.S., about half of which prohibit clothes lines. How does this prohibition work, exactly? How is it enforced? And by what authority do these Mayberry Mussolinis claim the right to tell others that they’re only allowed to dry their clothes through the operation of energy-intensive, fossil-fuel burning machines (adding chemicals to make them smell almost, but not quite, like they had really been dried the sensible way, out in the sun)?

The Wikipedia entry on homeowners’ associations answers some of those questions, but not the larger question of why on earth anyone would voluntarily submit to live in such prefab neighborhoods where, it seems, all that is not expressly permitted is forbidden. One could argue that this intrusive corporate governance of private life is un-American. But then I suppose one could also argue that the voluntary surrender of personal freedom in the hopes of attaining higher “property values” is quintessentially American.

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  • Baby_Raptor

    But…but…Clotheslines are UGLY! (Or “unsightly,” as my FRG leader said somewhat condescendingly when I asked why houses on the base weren’t allowed to have them.)

  • Andrew G.

    Americans are so scared of government regulation that they set up lots of unaccountable private bodies to regulate them instead.

    (I believe I’m quoting, or misquoting, but I have no idea who.)

  • Carstonio

    The “larger question” is actually fairly simple. These folks don’t perceive themselves as voluntarily surrendering personal freedom, because they see laws and rules as methods to keep others in line. Probably the HOA rules are designed not just to prevent the neighborhood from looking like a stereotypically lower-class one, but also to discourage people of lower incomes from living there for any length of time. Not much different from the old literacy tests for voting in Southern states.

  • Abby Normal

    I just bought my first house and I was surprised how difficult it was to find a decent-sized one in a good school district that WASN’T part of a HOA. I pretty much had to get one on the very edge of town next to a cornfield in order for that to happen. All my friends belong to HOAs, and while they have nice neighborhood pools and sidewalks where they live, the amount of HOA crap they have to put up with doesn’t make it worth it, I think.

  • Hexep

    This makes no sense to me. Couldn’t you just buy the home and then not sign whatever agreement the HOA wanted to put you under?

  • TheBrett

    Most of the ones I’ve heard about and experienced tend towards “Lazy Totalitarianism”, with tons of stuff being banned but rarely enforced unless someone wants to go out of their way to be annoying about it.

    I tend to really dislike them. They get captured by the worst sort of busybody types, who go around nagging people for putting their garbage cans inside your own fence by the side of the house, instead of behind the house. That actually happened to me, and the houses weren’t even close together! I’m surprised they even managed to see the garbage cans.

  • According to the Wikipedia entry it seems HOAs were born out of an unrelated best-of-intentions phenomenon dealing with multi-residence neighborhood land-usage rights which involved more than one landowner.

    Talk about morphing into the unwelcome Kraken.

  • I am always befuddled at the degree to which busybody types will go out of their way to notice the ordinarily unnoticeable. One would almost suspect them of having a need to find things to get annoyed about.

  • TheBrett

    It depends on the development. With some of them, you can’t buy the house without buying into the HOA, particularly if it’s a “gated” community.

  • TheBrett

    It’s usually about protecting the Almighty God That Is Home Price.

  • Alix

    My dad, in a nutshell. He’s not even got the excuse of being on the HOA board or whatever – he just goes around his neighborhood constantly calling the cops for people violating random HOA-like city ordinances, like having too-long grass, or for them parking their cars along the side of his street, which is perfectly legal. (Admittedly, it’s a narrow street, so that should probably be banned. Doesn’t make trying to ding someone for violating a nonexistent law any better.)

    His excuse? “People ought to take care of their properties”, with the unspoken conclusion of “so his looks better.” Also, he is the quintessential authoritarian, and really really likes finding any way he can to assert his authority, even if it means bothering the hell out of the police force.

  • Carstonio

    That fits well with my point, which is about protecting one’s wealth and position from any perceived human or systemic threat.

  • Cathy W

    When I was house-hunting last year, my agent mentioned that at least in our area it’s much easier for developments with HOAs (that take some of the burdens of providing civilized life off the local government – usually, bare minimum, trash pickup and snow removal will be handled by the HOA; some have private pools and playgrounds that reduce demand for public parks) to get approved than ones without them. Personally I couldn’t see paying that much a month for someone to yell at me about leaving my garbage cans out and letting my lawn get a little shaggy.

  • smrnda

    I also see these as promoting the values of certain cultures above others, as I would argue that the use of dryers rather than clothes-lines is just the white, upper middle class American way to do things. (I know a number of people from other countries who can’t figure out why anybody uses a dryer during warm weather. They tell me it makes as much sense as running an air conditioner during winter.)

    It seems like it fits within the broader goal of creating extremely narrow standards of what’s acceptable, and by creating a pretense that people voluntarily agreed to the conditions.

    All said, I never lived anywhere like that, and definitely don’t want to.

  • All of the ones I’ve heard of have been like that. Zero of the ones I’ve experienced have.

    Yesterday, one of my neighbors came by and had me sign off that I didn’t object to him getting gutter helmets. A few months earlier, the neighbor on the other side had me sign off on his plans to have a new facade put on his house (Wish I’d noticed the motion-triggered spotlight that shines on my house). I thought it was awfully nice to be informed ahead of time, and while I’m sure it was a bit of a nuisance to have to deal with paperwork, I’d rather have that than neighbors who are considerably less considerate.

    That’s what it comes down to. You frame it as “lazy totalitarianism” and “annoying busybodies”, but my experience of it has always been “And you have some kind of recourse if your neighbors insist on behaving unneighborly and won’t work it out with you reasonably.”

  • The previous owner signed the HOA, and one of the terms is “I won’t sell the house to anyone who won’t sign it”

  • Sue White

    I was never bothered by the HO in my old neighborhood. I didn’t care about the clothesline thing, since I prefer to hang my laundry on drying racks indoors. I’d rather live in co-housing, where the rules are set up by the residents themselves. And co-housing enthusiasts are usually more concerned with the environment than with keeping up suburban appearances.

  • You know, in Canada we seem to do just fine relying on municipal authorities – you know, people we vote for and their designated employees – to give us effective recourse.