Friday, December 07, 2007

HOAs? Friend or Foe?

I've written two opinion columns that touched on HOAs. The first was "HOAs as good as those who serve", from 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.

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.

The second was the column "People Behaving Badly", from May 3rd of this year. I just briefly mentioned that my HOA had sent me a nice letter telling me they didn't like a dead tree in my yard:

That got me thinking about things other people do without any thought of others. While some people are simply selfish, most don't mean to be; they just don't realize what they are doing. For example, nobody told me they didn't like my tree; I found out when the Homeowners Association sent me a nice letter asking me to make it disappear.

I do not currently serve on the board. HOAs are like most government, they have good points and bad points, and the more power they wield, the worse they generally are. And certainly they prove the adage that power corrupts.