In live in suburbia, and while there certainly are benefits, there are a handful of things about it that I sincerely loathe. One of them is the prevalence of the Homeowner’s Association (HOA). It’s very, very difficult to find a place to live that is not under the rule of an HOA. If you’re going to live and work here, HOAs are simply a fact of life.
In short, HOAs are in place to protect the value of property (the home you purchase – or in my case, rent). They do so by dint of by-laws dictating anything from the upper limit of your lawn’s height, your house color, the number of pets you’re allowed to have, what type of vehicles you are allowed to store on your own property, to what time of day you are allowed to take your own trash out. These laws presumably protect the value of the property by preventing eyesores like RVs and pink houses, and the infiltration of crazy cat ladies with their accompanying herds of felines into the neighborhood. Every home owner in a neighborhood under the HOA is required to sign a contract agreeing to A) abide by these laws and B) pay the HOA dues. The dues are used for neighborhood perks like pools, snow plow services, tennis courts, etc – and presumably punishing those who do not abide by the laws they are contractually obligated to follow. If you’re a homebuyer looking to purchase a home in the neighborhood, you either sign the contract or you are not permitted to purchase the house at any price.
Well, fuck that, says I.
While the idea of neighbors banding together to protect their property initially seemed like a good idea to me, my first-hand experience with the HOAs has been nothing but negative. It is very clear to me that having an HOA around limits personal freedom, self-expression and creativity, and it turns neighbors into snoops and tattletales.
For example, my roommate Luke has parked his motorcycle on the corner of the curb and covered it for the winter. He was careful to park it where it wouldn’t be in anyone’s way (at least, I thought). I suspect it must have irritated someone, because this past weekend our landlord received a nasty-gram from the HOA. Someone reported my roommate’s motorcycle as having expired tags – and that’s against the HOA’s by-laws. I got the call while I was out for my 9 mile training run. When I got back, I noticed that the motorcycle cover had been pulled up to show the tags. I can’t remember if the cover had been up like that before or not. If it wasn’t, then somebody went out and messed with my roommate’s motorcycle. WTF?
Let’s think about that possibility for a minute. Let’s say you’re going to go mess with someone else’s vehicle. Which one are you going to pick? The big old boat of a Caddie that always parks with the nose sticking way out? The beat up old van? or the motorcycle? Hmm… the first two probably belong to either an older person (and the vehicle has some sort of sentimental value) or a much younger person who hasn’t upgraded yet. Both relatively harmless when you consider the kinda people who generally own motorcycles (ie, the type that could casually reach down your throat and turn you inside out). There’s a reason James Cameron put the Terminator on a motorcycle – because it is the natural mode of transportation for giant, body-building, shotgun toting bad-asses.
Now, Luke’s a nice guy and maybe whoever decided to mess with his bike knew that he’s not likely to casually reach down your throat and turn you inside out. Or maybe they didn’t consider the possibility that the motorcycle owner might not appreciate his motorcycle being messed about with. In which case that person just happens to be dangerously stupid. Or maybe the cover was up and they never touched the bike in the first place. One way or another, I see nothing at all to gain in reporting the expired tags to the HOA and knowingly triggering a nasty letter.
Now, let’s assume that the expired tags are REALLY bothering you. (In which case, you have problems, but that’s fodder for another post, I think.) Wouldn’t it be much more conducive to creating a comfortable and safe environment in which to live to actually personally say something to Luke? “Hi! Nice day, isn’t it? I noticed that your motorcycle tags are out of date. Did you know?” What’s so hard about that? Now you’ve got some personal contact with another human being, and you’re giving the impression of looking out for his best interests instead of being an obsessive compulsive rat. Neighborly, right? Now Luke’s more likely to give a rat’s ass if something wrong on your property – and more likely to say something to YOU instead of reporting you to the HOA. Well, that’s not how things are done in these parts. People would rather avoid a possible confrontation and just report your ass to the HOA.
Of course, you COULD just mind your own goddamn business in the first place, but what good is an HOA if you can’t skitter off and tell on your neighbors? That’s exactly the sort of rat-on-your-neighbor environment that I loathe.
If the rat-on-your-neighbor mentality isn’t bad enough, the restrictions seem to me to be outright unconstitutional. HOAs are not governing bodies. They do not have the rights of sovereign states. So why the hell should I have to bow to their arcane and occasionally draconian rules? If somebody wants to paint their house in rainbow colors or buy an RV so they can travel in comfort or keep three German Shepard as pets, that’s nobody else’s business. Your home is supposed to be your castle, and the way you live an expression of who you are.
There’s a great quote that I think applies here “Your right to swing your fist ends with the other guy’s nose.” Basically, if you’re not hurting anybody, fine. Do what you want – it’s a free country. At least, it’s supposed to be. Now, if I’m the one with three German Shepards and they are chewing on your cat, then my proverbial fist has hit your proverbial nose, and that’s a problem that needs to be solved. But that’s not a job for some puffed up board of directors. It’s my job and my neighbor’s job to resolve it. If we can’t, there are other venues – civil court or the police (if the infraction is serious enough – say, if I’m running dogfights with my German Shepards).
But what about those perks that an HOA provides? Pools and tennis courts and snow plow services and so on? If you can’t afford a pool or a tennis court on your own, then that’s a trade in for your personal freedom. Join the YMCA. As for snow plowing and other services, what is stopping you from getting together with your neighbors and your local snow plow company and working out a deal on your own? That it’s hard? Suck it up if you want a deal on your snow plowing so bad. It’s not like the HOA would be providing that service for free – it’s part of your dues, remember?
What about the idea of protecting the value of the property? Maybe your rainbow colored house is scaring away potential buyers when it’s time for me to sell my home. In the end, I believe that your right of expression is more important than my right to turn a profit, and I suppose that is at the very heart of my argument. Besides, if I’m the potential buyer, I think I’d like to know if I’m moving in next to someone with the testicular fortitude to paint their house in gay pride colors. Actually, I think I’d kinda like to see a rainbow colored house.
I have yet to earn the privilege of home ownership. When I finally do, under no circumstance will I purchase a home under the thumb of an HOA. If, when I can finally afford to purchase a home, there is absolutely no home to buy that does not fall under an HOA, I would have to seriously consider whether I will move out of the area entirely, or go ahead and purchase the home with the intention of undermining the HOA with everything I’ve got. A one-woman campaign against an rooted system like that can only be an uphill battle, and I doubt I have the social skills and charisma required to change things. I’ve got my fingers crossed that it doesn’t come to that.
In the end, the whole thing is deeply ridiculous – particularly to someone so enamored of the concept of social capital. If we all just took a breath, thought for a second about how our actions affect others, and then made a serious attempt at making a connection with the people around us, I can’t help thinking that a good number of our aggravations would go away. Dammit, my hippy-self is showing. ‘Scuse me.