A Placemaking Journal
Zoning Our Way to HOA Insanity
I’m big on local. Not because I hate Walmart and 3,000 mile Caesar salads but because, as I see it, communities built on human-scaled, interdependent systems are better suited to taking on the challenges and opportunities presented by time.
That’s why, when it comes to the decisions that most directly impact day-to-day quality of life, I tend to advocate for smaller, more local, more responsive increments of control. Things like neighborhoods, NPUs, districts, and towns.
The world around us, whatever form it takes, comes to reflect the priorities of the people setting policy, making rules, and allocating funds. The more those people understand the nuances of context and maintain a shared stake in the outcome, the better things tend to be.
Here’s where my belief system gets challenged because, perhaps the smallest, most local form of governance — one that over 60 million Americans routinely submit themselves to — is the home owners association (HOA). And generally speaking, HOAs don’t get a whole lot of good press in our collective efforts to build a better world.
Like the whimsy of chalk drawings on the sidewalk? Your HOA doesn’t. Want to make a show of patriotism? Take it somewhere else, rabble rouser. Got a hankerin’ for fresh veggies or just like to spend some time tending the garden? No can do.
So what happens? Ironically, we end up appealing to higher forms of government, just so we can gain permission to hang the clothes out to dry.
That’s not the way strong, resilient communities get built.
To be fair, the links presented here are cherry picked to make a point. Spend some time on Google and you could surely come up with equally satire-worthy dust-ups where the city, rather than an HOA, is the villain. But HOAs, more than any other form of governance, are comprised of neighbors. Literally. And historically, a neighbor was someone who could help you through tough times.
So what happened? Basic agreements over neighborhood standards aside, why are we so concerned with such minutiae?
The answer, at least to me, seems rooted in the legacy of separated-use Euclidian zoning. Originally conceived to move noxious and dangerous activities away from where people live, its application has evolved over time to now separate all of life’s daily activities — living, working, shopping, going to church, and educating our children — no matter how benign. Today, such policies have added up to countless places where the blind pursuit of two defining characteristics reigns: simplicity and predictability.
Unfortunately, real life is neither. But, for an HOA, the charge becomes clear: Maintain that standard.
By reducing our neighborhoods to subdivisions defined by price point, we’ve created a world where, at the most local levels, decision makers no longer have to contend with complexity. They don’t need to balance the needs of the less affluent with those who have more. Or the needs of the old with those of the young. Or single family concerns with those in duplexes and apartment buildings.
Or any of these with the needs of a local business community.
As a standalone entity, built out according to plan, they need not concern themselves with developing a vision for what they hope to one day become. All they need to do is: Ensure that things stay as they are.
And that’s a death knell for viable, resilient local community.
The way back
Communities best positioned to thrive in an ever-changing world are those where governance is an exercise in balancing complexity. In contending with reality. That’s because, in the day-to-day life of a traditional city or town, people are forced to acknowledge and contend with others unlike themselves. It happens two people at a time as ideas are debated and alliances formed. It happens through a process of negotiation where diverse individuals concede their need for one another and explore equitable common ground from which to interact and collectively advance.
It happens in a million messy ways. But the one way it doesn’t happen is on the pleasantly manicured streets of an HOA-regulated single-use subdivision.
HOAs pursue consistency in an ever-evolving world, an unsustainable proposition if ever there was one. And it’s not because they’re evil, or local, or undemocratic, but because, through our embrace of static, single-use zoning, they’ve been given an unsustainable charge.
Curb HOA madness where you live. Put this most local form of governance in the service of better outcomes by changing their context. One way to start might be coding your way to a more diverse, walkable, mixed-use city or town.
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