by James A. Bacon
Developers hewing to the New Urbanism school of design pay close attention to the arrangement of public spaces, the architectural details of the buildings and the profitability of their projects. Typically, they address the rules for Home Owners Associations (HOAs) as an afterthought. And that can lead to unhappy residents, lawsuits and other complications.
“I wish we’d put half as much effort into the governance design” as to the architectural design, said Robert Davis, developer of Seaside, an iconic and financially successful New Urbanism project on Florida’s Gulf Coast. When he launched the project three decades ago, he adapted boilerplate language from a condominium he’d built previously. If he had it all to do over again, he said, he’d think a lot harder about how to structure a governance system consistent with his vision and ideals.
Davis was just one of the New Urbanism illuminati speaking in Richmond Tuesday at a symposium organized by McGuire Woods on the topic of re-imagining HOAs. Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, founders of the Duany-Plater Zyberk architectural and town-planning firm, and several other figures well known in the neo-traditional town planning movement took part in the free-wheeling panel discussion.
About 20% of Americans live in communities governed by HOAs, whose covenants restrict what home owners can do with their property — and the percentage continues to grow. HOAs maintain commons such as pools, clubs, roads and sidewalks, they enforce architectural standards and they prescribe what homeowners can and cannot do with their property. Local governments often encourage developers to create them because the organizations relieve taxpayers of much of the burden of building and maintaining infrastructure.
“They look like mini-governments but they have very different DNA,” said Doris Goldstein, at attorney who has updated the Seaside covenant and codes. Residents don’t enjoy the same democratic rights they would in a regular city or town. Rules can restrict homeowners, for example, from posting political signs in their yards. “HOAs come with a lot of baggage, very restrictive covenants. How do we keep the good parts and remove the bad parts?”
Duany recounted how he and Goldstein had discussed HOAs when they first met in 1988. At the time, he was enthralled with the idea that developers could, in essence, re-define the relationship between citizens and government. “You mean you’re writing government from scratch?” he asked her. “Mini-constitutions? How cool!”
Since then, he has come to see the flaws in the early HOA agreements. Once they are set up, they are resistant to rule changes. Said Duany: “They don’t evolve.” Once developers complete their projects and turn over the reins to homeowners, most HOAs lack a strong executive capable of initiating change, and many have difficulty solving neighborhood conflicts without recourse to lawyers.
Some people will quarrel over anything, said Davis. At Seaside, homeowners have engaged in epic battles over the barricading of streets and the neutering of feral cats. People who wind up on HOA boards, often because no one else wants the job, have strong ego needs and control issues. They create conflict. and the unpleasantness discourages the best qualified residents from serving on the boards, which creates a competence issue, which in turn results in poor decision-making.
Recognizing that humans are flawed creatures prone to conflict in any institutional setting, the panelists explored ways to improve upon HOAs. There was broad agreement that HOAs should focus on maintaining the commons and should professionalize the management to do so efficiently. Civic functions such as organizing events related to arts, culture and politics could be dished off to separate, voluntary organizations endowed with their own revenue streams.
Duany made the case for “subsidiarity,” the idea that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized authority competent to address an issue. Many issues should be made at the “block face” level rather than the community level, he said. He gave the example of parking, sometimes a contentious issue in New Urban communities that limit parking in order to improve walkability. Centralized solutions are a recipe for unhappiness. The optimal parking solution varies from block to block, he said. Let residents influence decisions affecting their block. Similarly, if someone wants to paint his house Pepto Bismol pink, that’s an aesthetic decision with a highly localized impact, not a city-wide impact. If people want to raise chickens for home-grown eggs, he said, that, too, should be a local decision.
One of the trickiest issues is managing the hand-off of HOA power from the developer to homeowners. Developers like to maintain dictatorial control over design standards while they’re still selling property. Early residents — the “pioneers” — usually buy into the developer’s vision. But latecomers — the “settlers” — often have no sense of the founder’s vision and can take the HOA rules in a very different direction.
“People don’t always understand New Urbanism principles and how the different [land] uses come together,” said Dan Slone, the McGuire Woods attorney who organized the event. Putting the developer’s vision in the HOA documents doesn’t work — nobody reads them. He recommends investing in “storytelling” as a tool to ensure that the founding principles are transmitted after the developer is out of the picture.