Thursday, December 07, 2006

HOAs Only as good as those who serve

I served on my neighborhood board of directors for about 6 years. Before I moved to this neighborhood, I was out more in the country without an HOA. Both ways of living have merit.

A lot of my conservative friends dislike the concept of an HOA, and some have even argued that I can't be a good conservative and live in a neighborhood with an HOA, much less like it.

But I believe that most of the problems with HOAs are simply because of bad people who run them, and indifference among the homeowners. And I think that, in principle, HOAs are very much in keeping with the concepts of limited government and power being wielded at the lowest possible level.

So I wrote about it in my column for LAST week, titled "HOAs as good as those who serve", playing off a recent article about a particulary eggregious move by an HOA out west to fine a homeowner for a christmas wreath in the shape of the peace symbol:

HOAs as good as those who serve
Potomac News
Thursday, November 30, 2006
Most people have a negative opinion of neighborhood Homeowner Associations (HOAs). There are plenty of horror stories about HOA actions, from banning American flags, to shutting down a child's lemonade stand, to fining a homeowner for planting too many roses.

A recent story out of Colorado has once again raised the ire of those who despise HOAs. It's the time of year when people put up Christmas decorations, some more gaudy than others, but most with the intent, if not effect, of evoking Christmas joy and cheer in observers. One family, taking to heart the refrain "Peace on earth, goodwill to man," included a wreath in the shape of a peace symbol as part of their display.

Some neighbors felt the symbol was an attack on the war in Iraq, or maybe a satanic symbol. They complained to the HOA, which threatened to fine the family unless they removed the wreath. The owner denies that the wreath is about Iraq, saying "Peace is way bigger than not being at war. This is a spiritual thing." The HOA is unrelenting, claiming the peace symbol is "divisive."

I will not defend the actions of this HOA. Even granting the desire to prevent divisiveness, common sense dictates that sometimes a wreath is just a wreath, and that peace is not a bad concept even in a time of war. And as I've said many times, we waste too much time and effort ferreting out things that offend us, and toleration is becoming a lost art.

But that doesn't mean I object to the idea of HOAs. Stories like this paint an unfair picture of homeowners associations, and obscure the valid reasons for their existence. And in most cases, the problem isn't the associations, but the people elected to run them, people elected because the membership doesn't bother to show up to serve or even to vote.

HOAs are an example of good government, putting the power and the control of government at the lowest possible level, within communities of a few hundred to a few thousand people. The key is to have well-defined limits over the power of an HOA. Virginia has good laws setting limits on the power of HOAs, and each association is also limited by its own deeds and covenants.

Within those limits, HOAs let communities decide their own rules. Prince William is a county of over 350,000 people. Why should one set of rules govern all 350,000 of us? HOAs allow each of us to choose how we want to live, and to peacefully co-exist with like-minded individuals.

For example, my neighborhood has rules that are relatively permissive. We can have TV antennas on the roof, and air conditioning units in windows, but we can't park cars and boats on the grass. We must get approval for color and architectural changes, but our elected representatives are reasonable people. We need an HOA anyway to manage our community pool and community property.

Just as I'm happy to live in Virginia, and not Maryland, and to live in Prince William, and not Alexandria, I'm glad I can choose a community that imposes restrictions I agree with, but not a bunch of silly rules that I would find abhorrent.

We all tolerate some level of "community" control over our lives, in exchange for "common good." That is the purpose of federal, state, and local government. We give up some freedom because we don't want every person to do whatever they want. This is in keeping with the ideals of our founding fathers. An HOA provides certain "community" services, and has the limited power to tax the citizens of the community for that purpose. Community members democratically elect board members, and the HOA has a "constitution" (deeds and covenants) that limits and defines its power.

But like any government, it will only be as good as the people elected to run it. If you don't vote, you might end up with a board that bans Christmas wreaths. And if you won't serve, and don't attend meetings to express your opinions, those who will serve can't represent your opinions. So, attend your HOA annual meeting this year.

Those who have monitored my comments at other blogs recently will detect some common themes, as my arguments for HOAs mesh with my arguments for zoning rules and slow growth support.

And I imagine those who disagree with me on those points may well disagree about HOAs as well. That's what makes being a conservative fun, we do not have a laundry list of policy positions we all hold, instead we have a set of principles which, even if rigidly accepted, can lead sometimes to arguments over what policies best reflect those principles.


Riley said...

I agree with you in regards to HOA's fostering limited government and being the level closest to the people and thereby more responsive. I'm in my fourth year serving on my HOA board and third as president. It has been a very positive experience for me since we have accomplished a lot of tangible things that are important to people -- improved landscaping, getting our own postal mailing address, getting special privileges at a new neighboring golf course equal to what their residents will have, etc. You can't make everyone happy, but once you realize that, you know that you can do what is right and make most people happy. It was particularly gratifying while I was working my precint's polls on Election Day when a number of our residents recognized me and told me we were doing a good job with our community.

Riley said...

I should add that we were able to achieve a lot while keeping assessments low (for '07, our monthly fee is only increasing $1 on account of increased cost for trash pickup.)

Anonymous said...

HOA's are only a small step into the world of communism. Don't come on my property and tell me what I can and cannot do. Someone will get hurt. Preferably you.

Anonymous said...

Actually, when instituted correctly, it is the privatization of most government functions, not to mention the most responsive being as close to people as it can be. It is also voluntary given that people have a free choice whether they wish to band together and abide by certain rules, sort of a mini-Rousseau social contract. So, in reality, HOAs are very libertarian in nature and 180 degrees from communism.