When a home isn't your castle
HOMES: Groups maintain streets, save cities money

By Jim Wasserman
Published Sunday, July 13, 2003

GOLD RIVER -- As the war in Iraq grew imminent, emergency room doctor and Vietnam veteran Bill Durston protested by taking down his American flag and raising a United Nations flag. 

Citing its rules, his neighborhood homeowners association told him to take it down. Citing the Constitution, Durston refused. 

The flag remains, as does the dispute between Durston and the association. It's one of many in the growing conflict between a fast-growing way of living inside a homeowners association and traditions of liberty and free speech. 

In a country founded on private property rights, homeowners associations increasingly dictate the nation's home colors, landscaping, pet sizes and placement of satellite dishes. They also restrict many forms of political expression Americans take for granted. 

Experts call this still-accelerating trend one of the most stunning transformations in how Americans live, rent and buy homes; an estimated 50million people live in homeowners associations. 

Especially prevalent in the Sunbelt, homeowners associations with corporate-style rules that limit traditional town hall democracy and keep closed financial records govern 80 percent of the nation's new housing and neighborhoods, said a trade group. A style of life originally designed for the wealthy few has exploded during the last decade into a mass phenomenon, with 249,000 homeowners associations reported nationally, and up to 8,000 new ones created every year. 

This year, bills are moving through the California Legislature to override association bans on political signs and give residents rights to see how their dues are spent. Nearly one- fourth of the state's 35million residents live in its 36,214 privately governed neighborhoods, reports the Congress of California Seniors and the Oakland accounting firm, Levy and Co. 

Nationally, an estimated 1.25million Americans serve on homeowner association boards, according to the Virginia-based Community Associations Institute. By contrast, the United States has about 200,000 city council members, said the National League of Cities. 

This soaring growth of private government fits America's mobile society, where many consider property values and a quick home sale more important than small individual liberties, said Robert Lang, author of "Edgeless Cities' and director of Virginia Tech's Metropolitan Institute. 

"This is a perfect mechanism for maintaining your house values and predicting peoples' behaviors,' Lang said. Homeowners increasingly fear "the neighbor from hell' and crave a uniformity that assures neighbors will mow their lawns, won't paint the house yellow or put a car on blocks in the driveway. 

"The total brake on that is the homeowners association,' he said. 

Experts say the movement is also driven by revenue-strapped city halls that love neighborhoods that build and maintain their own streets and parks while providing a new pool of property taxes for city streets elsewhere. Developers are equally fond, saying it puts more people comfortably on less space and sharing amenities such as pools and tennis courts they couldn't afford individually. Indeed, growth management activists say association-governed neighborhoods have become the nation's best examples of efficient land use. 

But the phenomenon has spun off lampoon-worthy side effects. During California's energy crisis two years ago, "Doonesbury' cartoons mocked association bans on outdoor clotheslines. The television comedy "Seinfeld' skewered Florida condominium politics with episodes about a board president's impeachment after his son bought him a Cadillac. During last summer's drought in Colorado, newspapers criticized association rules requiring green lawns. 

In his 1994 book, "Privatopia,' about the rise of homeowners associations, University of Illinois political science professor Evan McKenzie cited a resident forced to leave when he married a woman three years younger than the neighborhood's minimum age. Other associations banned a U.S. Army veteran from flying an American flag on Flag Day and took a woman to court because her dog weighed more than 30 pounds. 

But those are extremes, said Robert Browning, a national board member of the Community Associations Institute, which helps associations observe professional standards. 

"Unfortunately, there are millions of people living in these communities you never hear about,' Browning said. "It's just that once you start talking life, country, liberty, property and you get one voice with a sound bite you make a lot of noise that these are dysfunctional. But they're not.' 

While McKenzie agrees that most associations don't have these problems, the sheer number of associations can lead to some "authoritarian, oppressive situations.' 

State legislatures have begun taking steps to curb some excesses. In Arizona, lawmakers responded to the practice of boards meeting outside the state an attempt to keep members from voting by passing a bill requiring those gatherings to be held in Arizona. 

California lawmakers, trying to defuse incidents like Durston's U.N. flag, are considering a bill that allows political signs and "free speech traditionally associated with private residential property.' Another bill lets residents inspect and copy association financial records. A third proposes wholesale reforms for rules that govern associations, including written notices to homeowners before rules change and letting residents overturn rules. 

Browning accuses California legislators of "significant micromanagement.' People who buy into association-governed neighborhoods for uniformity expect sign controls, he said, while those who want financial records are often seeking disruption. 

Such disagreements reveal the fine line between uniformity and one-at-a-time exceptions that can lead to yellow houses and 14- foot flagpoles. Boards pressured to overlook violations such as a U.N. flag can also be sued for not enforcing rules. 

"The rules are established to benefit and maintain the value of a property,' said William Calvo, who chairs the Gold River rules committee dealing with Durston's flag. 

It's fine for Durston to oppose President Bush's policies, Calvo said, but that's not why the board got involved. 

"But where do you stop?' he asks. "People might say we have only five colors of homes. But at the same time, homes sell quickly here and keep their values and people have chosen to do that.' 

On the Net: Homeowner association Web sites: http://dmoz.org/Home/ Homeowners 

News articles about homeowner association conflicts: www.ccfj.net/HOAartmain.htm