Magazine | May 28, 2018, Issue

Lawn and Order

Most of the homes in my tightly packed, newish, overpriced suburban neighborhood outside of Washington, D.C., feature a quaint piece of Americana in the form of a white picket fence. It’s somewhat of a cliché, but the real problem is that we’re living a lie. In my area, homeowners are compelled to maintain these pristine white fences. It is decreed by an un-American regime that lords over our decisions with vulgarian sensibilities and the meticulousness of a fascist.

Because of the homeowners’ association (HOA), this ornamental white picket fence consumes my life. I am intimately familiar with the integrity of every one of the 196 wooden slats that surround my modest yard — every moisture-related crack and rusting nail. It’s gotten to the point where I’ve developed a weird attachment to planks that have needed little maintenance and an irrational frustration with planks that demand my constant attention (I’m looking at you, No. 83).

Through painful experience, I now know which paint brand works best during which season. I’m a leading expert on all hues of white, whereas once, not very long ago, I was blissfully unaware any existed. And over the years — in sometimes messy, barely legible, often angry cursive — I’ve scribbled a comprehensive plan of action  in a notebook that now sits beside my desk. While its contents might make me appear a bit unhinged, anyone who’s lived under the soul-crushing boot of an HOA would understand.

If I don’t keep up my efforts, they’ll send letters. Okay, I’m kidding. They’ll send letters no matter what I do. So many letters. The letter-writing tyrants offer no quarter, expect complete obedience, and wield their power in ways that would make government officials envious. The first missive I ever received advised me not only that I’d hung a damaged birdhouse (I still maintain it was merely rustic) on an ornamental plum tree but that it was decorated in the wrong color scheme and too close to the sidewalk. Since then, I have been cited so many times you’d think a rusty El Camino was hoisted atop cinder blocks on the lawn in front of my mauve home. I assure you this is mostly not the case.

“Well, you know, you don’t have to live in a neighborhood with an HOA,” people who can afford to hire professional fence painters and send their kids to private school like to tell me. But really, I do. As far as I can tell, virtually every decent suburban community that’s situated outside a major metropolitan area is managed by an HOA. Nearly 69 million Americans live under common-interest communities. According to the collectivists at the Community Associations Institute, over 300,000 of these associations are functioning in America today — or, in other words, there are more HOAs than there are Little League teams or fast-food joints.

Aha! These organizations, my liberal friends might argue, are what happens when we privatize government. And if they mean this is what happens when we create private governments that value submission and conformity over liberty, they’re exactly right. The HOA, after all, has the power to tax you, to fine you, to force you to adhere to a raft of regulations that would make the nanny state seem like a minarchist’s fantasy. If you ignore the HOA, they have the power to force you out of your home or ruin your life for even minimal infractions.

Did I mention that everyone’s garbage cans are the same color? It’s pretty nice.

Now, I’m not one of these people who mock suburban living. Those who escape the cramped and hectic crush of urban life want the harmony of manicured neighborhoods littered with small mansions, open spaces, and responsible homeowners. I get it. Nor do I take umbrage at the notion that we must maintain a basic level of visual cohesion and upkeep that helps preserve not only the integrity and character of a neighborhood but also the home values.

The problem with many HOAs is that they often don’t allow new communities to develop any character in the first place. Suburban living has an inherent sameness to it. This monotony can be mitigated over decades as conscientious homeowners add embellishments that transform once-indistinguishable homes into variations on a theme and antiseptic streets into discernible neighborhoods. HOAs strip the creativity and innovation that make life more interesting.

But perhaps my lament is less about the existence of HOAs and more about the powers they possess. Whereas once local associations might have crafted rudimentary guidelines that prohibited homeowners from letting their yards turn into wilderness or their homes into eyesores, in my community people are nervous about planting illegal flowers. You should not have to consult a manual before gardening. But today’s HOAs follow prefabricated top-down master plans that are prepared by real-estate developers and implemented by stern busybody do-gooders who have, unlike most of us, the time to go to meetings and roam streets and snitch on their neighbors.

In a just world, I would paint my face with a non-HOA-approved blue streak, gather my neighbors in the common area, stand atop my Honda, and unleash a Braveheartian stem-winder about reclaiming our freedom before leading a rake-carrying suburban mob towards the HOA offices so we could take down our oppressors the old-fashioned way. Alas, the headquarters of my HOA are on the other side of the country, and most of my fellow suburbanites seem to value strict aesthetic continuity more than self-determination. So it’s far more likely that I’ll be heading to Home Depot looking for wood putty.

David Harsanyi — David Harsanyi is a senior editor of the Federalist and the author of First Freedom: A Ride through America’s Enduring History with the Gun, From the Revolution to Today

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