HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns
August 13, 2007, Herald Journal

Trading liberty for conformity

By IVAN RACONTEUR

I recently put in an appearance at a local business to check the pulse of commerce.

While I was there, the proprietress regaled me with a story about an elderly man who lives in one of those developments where people try to look and act exactly like their neighbors.

Witnesses say the old gent had hauled his Hoover out on the lawn and was vacuuming grass clippings from the sidewalk.

In the unlikely event that my lifestyle permits me to attain an advanced age, I have no intention of spending my golden years vacuuming the sidewalks.

The story, while sad, did provoke me to take a moment to think about the kind of development that would inspire this sort of behavior.

After doing some research, I realized that things have become much worse than I feared.

From the time the colonists scribbled their signatures on the Declaration of Independence, good men and women have died in defense of liberty.

Today, however, it seems that many people are willing to give up their liberty without a fight.

Since the mid-1960s, an insidious brand of tyrant has been taking over the country, one housing development at a time.

The tyrants in question are homeowners associations.

Nearly one in five Americans lives under the control of these associations.

For the pleasure of living in developments governed by a homeowners association, residents give up control of their property, their freedom of expression, and in some cases, their homes.

The associations start out by restricting parking and the color residents can paint their homes, but they don’t stop there.

Homeowners associations control such subversive activities as the display of American flags and Christmas lights, the use of clotheslines, and the type and quantity of flowers residents can plant.

These tyrannical associations rule their monochromatic fiefdoms with a level of cruelty and fanaticism that would put the average South American dictatorship to shame.

Any resident who demonstrates the smallest spark of creativity or individuality will find the new Gestapo on his doorstep.

Put your trash receptacle out at the wrong time, and it will be confiscated. Place a pink flamingo lawn ornament in your yard, and you will be fined (this has happened).

Maybe the people who sign these agreements don’t realize how restrictive they are. Perhaps they assume that common sense and fairness will determine how the rules will be enforced.

Maybe these people foolishly assume that when they spend a quarter of a million dollars for a house, they will be free to use it as they wish.

If so, they are wrong.

It turns out that the boards of homeowners associations are often run by petty, vindictive, power-hungry little people who aren’t competent to run a bath, much less an association.

The board members might be paranoid and secretive, and once they are in place, it is nearly impossible to get rid of them.

In one case in New Jersey, a board voted to make the project developer president of the homeowners association for life. The board then amended the association’s bylaws to ban recall elections, removing any chance to get rid of the scoundrel, even if the majority of the residents want him removed from office.

Association boards wield a huge amount of power, and they do so capriciously.

They operate like mini-governments, except that there is no transparency or accountability, and there are no checks or balances.

Old Joe Stalin would be proud of the way some of these yahoos conduct their business.

They discourage homeowners from participating in association meetings, and if a property owner does manage to figure out where a meeting is being conducted and turn up for the event, the association president will often refuse to recognize him.

In some cases, the boards use association funds to further their own political agendas, and actively restrict the ability of others to campaign for a seat on the board.

I once took a Russian studies class that dealt with the realities of life in the Soviet Union.

I was somewhat surprised by the conditions endured by people in Russia at that time, but I am even more surprised that people voluntarily subject themselves to similar conditions in this country today.

The spread of homeowners associations is linked to the spread of common interest developments (CIDs). These are developments where property owners (theoretically) save money by sharing amenities such as parks and swimming pools.

There were about 500 CIDs in the US in 1965. By 1970, the number had grown to 10,000, and today, there are more than 231,000.

It is difficult to understand why so many people are willing to buy property in these places, especially when the very agreements they must sign can result in the homeowners losing their homes.

Residents are at a distinct disadvantage if they dispute fines or other decisions of an association.

Many associations seem to be even more litigious than the rest of society (no easy task), and homeowners often end up paying not only fines, but the association’s legal fees as well.

Some cases that have started as simple disputes over trivial matters such as flowers have ultimately resulted in huge fines and tens of thousands of dollars in fines, and the association placing a lien against the property, and the homeowner facing foreclosure.

As bad as this sounds, things are getting worse. Some associations have gone from controlling what property owners can do outside of their homes to trying to control behavior inside their homes.

In one extreme case, an association demanded that a property owner submit to an internal inspection. It then demanded that the owner “clear his bed of all papers and books.”

In effect, the association told a senior citizen who suffered from Hodgkins disease that he could no longer read in his own bed.

It may be time for us to stop preaching to the rest of the world about liberty until we can ensure freedom for people in our own country.

It is true that property owners enter into these contracts voluntarily, but allowing such egregious assaults on justice in the name of conformity threatens liberty for all of us.

Buyers beware; if you are not careful, you could end up Hoovering your yard to keep the secret lawn police off your back.