But I like my HOA
Most people who move into private Homeowners Associations do so because they like the apparent order, the neatness, the seeming peacefulness of the community. It’s only later that they learn how arbitrarily enforced rules and regulations can control almost every aspect of their lives. Not all Homeowners Associations are petty and dictatorial, but absolutely ANY neighborhood can take such a turn with just one local election. Voter apathy is a sad fact of American life. National elections generally attract 40% of the vote in off-year elections and 55% in Presidential elections. State elections see even less involvement by voters. By the time municipal and school levy elections roll around, voter fatigue reaches its zenith with some major funding and electoral decisions made by a tiny handful of voters.
Power is sexy
But imagine the electoral process in a typical Homeowners Association. People generally move into quiet neighborhoods to get away from controversy. They don’t want to be bothered to attend monthly or annual neighborhood meetings. Turnout is generally so low that quorums are extremely difficult to come by. A prospective board member with even a small amount of motivation can circulate through the neighborhood gathering proxy ballots to be used in an upcoming election of board members. Homeowners who sign proxy ballots often have no interest in the direction of neighborhood affairs, or in who gets elected, or what the current neighborhood controversies are. Proxies are signed on the doorstep just to make a visitor go away. It’s not hard to understand how a prospective board member with the most nefarious motivations can gain a position of power. Power is a pretty addictive aphrodisiac for some people, especially those who’ve never before held any positions of responsibility.
The loss of Constitutional Rights
In American jurisprudence abuse of power is generally stifled by the U.S. Constitution and to a lesser degree State Constitutions and city and county charters. Homeowners Associations all have what appear to be charters or governing documents but with a huge difference. Traditional government regulations must generally abide by what most Americans understand are their Constitutional Rights. Not so, the typical Homeowners Association. Restrictive covenants which all HOA members agree to sign essentially force the homeowner to give up an amazing number of traditional rights. The right to free speech? In case after case, courts have ruled that HOA members have given up their right to speak, to campaign, to express an opinion. The right of free association? There are cases around the country where homeowners cannot hold home Bible studies or have unapproved gatherings in their homes. The right to bear arms? Many HOAs have passed restrictions against gun ownership by residents. The right to unwarranted search and seizure? This gets even more bizarre, but in certain neighborhoods inspection committees are going into private homes to try to seek out hoarders. What’s the legal definition of hoarding? It doesn’t matter. My collection of books might be someone else’s definition of hoarding. A Mormon’s five-year supply of emergency food supplies might be construed as hoarding.
But you can begin to see the bottom line in this conversation. In a typical Homeowners Association, the law is whatever the HOA says it is. It’s not governed by Constitutional principles, but only the will of the majority. And in an apathetic neighborhood that majority can in fact be a majority of one. Remember that prospective board member who knocked on your door to ask for your proxy? That single person can tip the balance of power in a single board election and change a formerly peaceful neighborhood into a fascist regime.
If you’re naive enough to believe it doesn’t happen, try some creative searches on the World Wide Web. You’ll begin to understand what’s becoming a national scandal.
Neighbors At War: The Creepy Case Against Your Homeowners Association