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“Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes made of ticky tacky
Little boxes, little boxes, little boxes all the same...”
Little Boxes song by Pete Seeger
Americans frequently pontificate about freedom. Individual liberty is supposedly the foundation of the nation and the highest of aspirations. Yet in practice freedom is often restricted and subordinated to commercial and other interests. Oddly many people blindly accept these contradictions and the restrictions on their freedom.
An example of this is the covenants imposed by Home Owner Associations or HOAs. We recently encountered these strange restrictions on property rights because our daughter wants to buy a new house. The house she wanted was in a “planned community” and had an HOA. Because she is an avid vegetable gardener this was a problem, since she would violate the HOA rules by engaging in this beneficial personal hobby on her own property. The HOA agreement had nine pages of restrictions including having to use Kentucky blue grass in the lawn. Given that most available grass seed is a mixture of species, this illustrates both the ridiculous HOA restrictions and the scientific ignorance of most people.
HOAs are private associations formed by real estate developers to market and sell housing. Anyone buying a condo or house in the development must join, pay association fees, and obey the HOA rules. These rules limit the homeowner’s use of their property and can be quite restrictive. Often normal things like clothes lines, gardens, landscaping, house color, and swing sets or basketball hoops for kids are banned. Building decks, sheds, or fences are restricted or require special permission. Even your freedom of speech, civil liberties, and legal options can be restricted. Many HOAs prohibit displaying candidate yard signs and having a home business.
Proponents of HOAs say the rules are important to protect the common interests of all the property owners. Uniformity and controlling unsightly activities maintains property values by preventing unkempt yards and cars on blocks. This may be true but this is at the expense of individual liberty. In the past HOAs were used to keep out minorities and ethnic groups. This discrimination is no longer allowed. But the purpose of HOAs remains excluding people who are different. They keep out the individuals who garden, hang clothes on the line, or support democracy with yard signs.
It seems to me both odd and interesting how contradictions between freedom and conformity play out in our society. We say we prize freedom yet willingly conform. Pop culture guides our lifestyles. Staring like zombies at portable screens, we are oblivious to the world around us. We are manipulated by advertising and fashion to buy what we can’t afford and don’t need. We allow searches at the airport in the vain effort to feel safe. Our personal information, emails, telephone calls, and purchasing habits are spied on by big tech and the government.
It is interesting that the anti-government, anti-tax crowd are not raging against these restrictions on individual liberty. HOAs function as and are essentially another layer of government with taxing and enforcement authority. But because they are legally “private associations,” HOAs are not bound by individual constitutional rights that apply to actual government. Participating in the HOA governance is based on property ownership and not citizenship. It is not democratic despite a veneer of community participation.
If protecting “common interests” in housing developments is fine why shouldn’t the same principle apply at work? Conservatives support “right to work” laws that allow freeloaders to receive the benefits of a unionized workplace without contributing to the cost of negotiating the labor agreement. The courts have upheld mandatory HOA dues and restricting property rights. But unions collecting dues from all represented employees is a violation of the anti-union employees’ constitutional rights.
The cost of these HOAs is not cheap. They typically run $200 to $400 per month and can be much higher in upscale or gated communities. This may be worth it in situations with common use facilities or where exterior building and grounds maintenance are done by the HOA. But I suspect this is a real money maker for developers, landlords, or owners of the maintenance companies. These fees are similar in size to property taxes AND home owners still have to pay property taxes. So again it is odd that this double taxation is not decried by the anti-tax fanatics.
But being philosophically consistent, or fair, is not a conservative practice. Conservatives support individual liberty when it involves making money and protecting business rights. But allowing real freedom and a functioning democracy for the average person is not on their agenda. Ordinary people are suppose to conform, follow the rules, mindlessly buy, wave the flag, and not make trouble. No individual freedoms for them.
Homo sapiens is a tribal species and we seek protection in groups similar to ourselves. This is not a bad thing as it has allowed up to survive as a species. But there needs to be balance. In nature, and financial investing, diversity is strength. In business management and problem solving broad input creates better decisions. In food and in culture, variety is the spice of life.
Mathew Ford in Sweet Honey Bitter Lemons, writes about the loss of local ethnic restaurants in a global economy. He says,
“It is one of the abiding ironies of an unregulated commercial sector that it produces a uniformity almost as drab, tedious, and limited as the state control of communism.”
Although he was writing about food, his thoughts apply to our propensity to accept conformity.
We don’t have to accept being manipulated and we can balance freedom with necessary conformity for the common good. But we have to use our power as consumers. This is exactly what our daughter did. She did not buy the house.