HOAs: A microcosm of what is wrong with American life

Twenty percent of Americans — approximately 63 million people —  live under homeowner’s associations (HOAs), according to the Community Associations Institute. HOAs are basically standards enforcement boards for neighborhoods, ranging in their reach and power, focusing on everything from architectural and landscape design to property maintenance to how many cars are allowed in your driveway. They do this through what are called covenants and deed restrictions. Defenders of HOAs point to their alleged support of property values, neighborhood atmosphere, and security. Detractors disagree on all three. I’m in the later camp, and to me they are one glaring symptom of what is wrong with our American culture. HOAs are about prejudice, exclusion, uniformity, master planning — all incompatible with individuality and a rich, adaptable culture.

One has to look no further than to the origins of the HOA to see the poison in its DNA. Wikipedia says the first HOAs appeared in American life in the mid-19th century but were rare until the 1960s, when a push towards large scale residential development by the Federal Housing Authority and the Urban Land Institute heightened their appeal to developers who tapped them for the financial protection they offered a real estate development through incorporation.  The Wikipedia entry continues, with sources cited.

Early covenants and deed restrictions were exclusionary in origin, and in the first half of the 20th century many were racially motivated.[4] For example, a racial covenant in a Seattle, Washington neighborhood stated, “No part of said property hereby conveyed shall ever be used or occupied by any Hebrew or by any person of the Ethiopian, Malay or any Asiatic race.”[5] In 1948, the United States Supreme Court ruled such covenants unenforceable, in Shelley v. Kraemer. However, private contracts effectively kept them alive until the Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited such discrimination.

The Federal Housing Administration itself has contributed to the problem, in 1963 “authorizing federal home mortgage insurance exclusively for condominiums or for homes in subdivisions where there was a qualifying homeowner association … (effectively diverting) investment from multifamily housing and home construction or renovation in the inner cities, speeding a middle-class exodus to the suburbs and into common-interest housing.”

We all know suburban life is a highly orchestrated experience. Those of us who have lived or are now living in it, thought we knew the tradeoff we were agreeing to in some lost variety for the sake of more affordable space. Most expect inner city living to be very circumscribed and one would likely be hard-pressed to find a city condo experience that did not fall under a strict HOA. But the preponderance of HOAs in suburbia, even entry and mid-level priced neighborhoods, is ridiculous, as is the power-tripping that it encourages in some of the HOA boards. How have we ended up in a place of such disregard for individual freedom and expression that neighborhood members sitting in HOA board chairs feel they have any moral right to threaten one of their neighbors with a fine because they did not seek HOA approval for their house paint color, or for a landscape design, or for a trash can left out in their driveway? Are we so afraid of bad design taste that we have decided we can possibly even agree on what that is?

We don’t seem that far removed from the blob people in the Pixar film, Wall-E, who travel space in a sterile artificial environment with everything fed to them, or the comatose human batteries in The Matrix living out their captive lives with an experience supplied for them. I think the rise of HOAs, a very Orwellian experience for anyone who knows what that means, is muting our ability to appreciate each others’ uniqueness, reducing our patience, closing our minds, and stunting our problem solving instincts. People who are ok with narrowly defining trivial neighborhood standards and choices, and forcing everyone to comply with them, are people who will turn their glance away before the challenges of a militarized and over-reaching police force, excuse an empirical national foreign policy, and remain blind to a growing atmosphere of intolerance and victim mentality.

If we really want to change any of those negative trends, we should start with examining the incredibly flawed idea behind HOAs and begin replacing them with something that embraces and supports individuality, uniqueness, and the powerful and healthy sense of community that naturally blossoms as a result. And for those who really want to live in The Truman Show, go ahead and HOA yourselves to your heart’s content.


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  1. Very well put. I have a HOA that doesn’t want me to park my RV in my own driveway. The president of the HOA has called the police several times already requesting that I move it..
    While othere are permitted to keep there large dump trucks in their driveway. As Bugs Bunny would say, “What a Nimrod.”

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