Headline: Home Is
Where The Rules Are
Byline: Robert H. Nelson
The professional woman from
Twenty-five years ago, Ronald Reagan argued that government is the problem, and Americans need less of it. Yet today, many people who once voted for him are demanding much more government, though on the smallest scale and at the lowest level possible -- in their neighborhoods. And they prefer that their powerful new governments be private.
Across the country, community associations -- which include housing developments run by condominium, co-op and homeowners associations -- are spreading faster than the crabgrass they probably require you to root out of your lawn. Though often depicted as restrictive and even tyrannical, these private governments represent a number of positive developments, from restoring an active, innovative local democratic process to bringing back the sort of community that has long been in decline in this country. And their status as the wave of the future can't be denied: Tens of millions of Americans have been voting for them with their moving vans.
In 1970, only 1 percent of us lived in association-governed communities.
Between 1980 and 2000, fully half of the new housing built in the
When historians look back on the last decades of the 20th century, they may well see the associations' rapid spread as a phenomenon with the same social and economic importance as the rise of business corporations at the end of the 19th century. Where Americans of that era collectivized private ownership of industrial property, today we are collectivizing residential property ownership -- and literally transforming local government as we go. Traditional individual rights of ownership are giving way to group rights of the whole neighborhood -- a sort of paradoxical "private socialism," American-style.
In the 1960s and '70s, a powerful new individualism swept through American society. This had its benefits, but it also left many people looking for new sources of connection in their lives and, more recently, finding it privately in neighborhoods. And in these neighborhoods, community associations could successfully manage tennis courts, golf courses, swimming pools, open space areas and other services enjoyed by the whole community. Today, they increasingly collect the garbage, clean the streets, plow the snow, cut the grass, maintain jogging trails and hire security patrols -- providing, in short, more and more of the services that local governments are supposed to provide, but frequently fall short on.
Moreover, with rapidly rising land prices and people driven by economic forces to live closer together in townhouses and on smaller lots, Americans want tighter controls over what goes on nearby. More and more, we're willing to give up certain elements of our personal autonomy to gain greater control over others. So a private community can dictate the color you paint your house, where you locate fences and shrubbery, where you park your car, which way your new deck faces -- and much more. A 51-year-old California woman once received an official reprimand from her condominium association accusing her of "kissing and doing bad things for over one hour" while parked in the driveway with a local businessman, and threatening to fine her if it happened again.
A community association can be as small as a building or as large as a
mid-size city like
As it stands, the older cities of the Northeast and
This doesn't mean that local government is disappearing altogether. As the "micro" functions are privatized in the South and West, large county and other public governments still shoulder "macro" responsibilities for highways, water, sewer, courts of law, education and the like. This new pattern -- a few large public jurisdictions and hundreds of private community associations -- is rapidly coming to dominate the organization of American metropolitan governance.
Organized legally like a business corporation, a community association is
governed by a board of directors elected by the unit owners. The owners may
have voting "stock" in other associations, too, just as individuals
can own shares of numerous corporations. This means that locally, universal
suffrage is being replaced by a democracy of property owners. Nothing prevents
a unit owner with a winter condo in
So community associations clearly violate the one person-one vote rule. Indeed, because they're private, they can limit freedom of speech or assembly and other constitutional rights that would be protected in the public sector. Bans on political signs, for example, are common.
At play in community associations is a clash of individual rights. The freedom to join a church or other group of choice -- the freedom of association -- can run up against other individual rights, such as freedom of speech and assembly. But Americans seem increasingly willing to accord greater weight to the group rights of association, at least locally.
Perhaps their willingness reflects a sense of decline in community in other dimensions of American life. Traditional kinds of associations, such as the Masons or the American Legion, have been in decline. Fewer Americans live close to aunts, uncles, grandparents and grandchildren. As pressures on the nuclear family intensify, people seem to be searching for new forms of small community where people with shared interests and values can live together.
Community associations may not lawfully discriminate on the basis of race,
national origin, religion, sex or handicapped status. But Americans seem to
want to share neighborhood space with others of similar backgrounds and beliefs.
The Sunset Hall Association in
Moreover, their private status gives associations greater flexibility to
innovate in matters of internal governance than a public government could have.
Not long ago, my parents' community association in the
Perhaps all these are reasons why so many people who live in community association neighborhoods are willing to put up with the divisions that arise when associations exercise tight controls, and when leaders sometimes turn into minor tyrants who mistreat unit owners.
As the volume of owner complaints rises, states such as
But some states may now be going too far. The stresses and strains in many community associations should be seen as part of a trial and error learning process of a major new social institution in American life. Community associations are more likely to resolve their problems successfully if they have the flexibility to try out innovative new methods and approaches.
"All politics is local," the late House Speaker Tip O'Neill once
said. He didn't know how local. With the rise of neighborhood
associations, grass-roots politics is taking on a whole new private dimension.
Its chieftains are the 1.25 million men and women on the boards of
Questions: Does the modern trend towards living in community associations reflect the vitality of American political values or their decline? (Hint: It is possible that some values may be doing well while others are not.)