A few months ago, Cape George Colony, the private community near Port Townsend where we live, seemed on the verge of imploding. Some members were deeply disgruntled by the manager of our homeowners association, or HOA, and launched a petition to dismiss him over a contested salary increase.
The manager resigned. Two members of the Board of Trustees, including the treasurer, quit in protest. The acting board president tried to manage the problem from his winter place down south. The office manager was working overtime, trying to do her job and the manager’s. It looked grim.
A few miles away, the Kala Point HOA was embroiled in a similar flap over parking on residential streets. Three trustees quit, leaving the board to struggle for a quorum.
In each case, however, most of the HOA members (about 600 homes in each association) were unaware of the problem. They have jobs and families, houses to maintain. Who cares what’s happening at the office?
So it goes in thousands of homeowners associations in the US. In my years covering politics in Seattle, I was only vaguely aware of HOAs, and certainly never lived in one. Reporters had enough trouble covering city hall, never mind all those private neighborhood associations.
But watch out. Homeowners associations are quietly, steadily taking over local governance – especially in the suburbs. In 1970, there were 10,000 HOAs with 700,000 homes in America. By 2000, there were 222,000 associations and 18 million homes. In 2020, there were 355,000 HOAs, with 74 million Americans living in 27.5 million homes.
Today, one in four Americans lives in an HOA – about half of them in condos, the other half in suburban associations ranging from cul-de-sac communities of 10 or 15 homes to mega-associations with thousands of homes. Eighty percent of single-family homes built in new subdivisions are in HOAs. More than 8,000 private companies are in the business of managing smaller associations.
Most of that growth has taken place in the last few decades, fueling or fueled by suburban flight. And there are no signs of any slowing down.
An HOA is a resident-run private organization that governs a neighborhood or condominium primarily to manage common properties such as roads, pools or landscaping. They vary greatly from one to the next. Condominiums focus on buildings they share, top to bottom. HOAs comprised of single-family homes focus more on their common properties, which may include clubhouses, roads and open spaces. In either case, HOA members pay dues and are run by a board of trustees comprised of volunteers who may not understand what they’re getting into.
Life in an HOA has distinct plusses and minuses. Among them:
After nearly two decades, we know our neighbors far better than we did in our Seattle neighborhood. This is partly because we’re mostly retirees, so we have more time and energy to invest in community. It also has to do with small town politics and common interests.
HOAs also affect local government. While the nation struggles to preserve democracy, HOAs practice it on an intensely local scale. Rules are made and enforced by neighbors who serve on the board, vote for budgets and rules, knowing that one vote can and frequently does make a difference.
Along the way, HOA members learn that self-governance isn’t pretty. It’s about mediating conflicting interests, made more difficult when it involves neighbors.
Community can also translate to insularity. When people depend on an HOA for basic things like water and roads, they may be less interested in local and county government – a dynamic that may aggravate political polarization.
We discovered Cape George when we visited a friend, who gave us a brief tour of the community, including the private marina and indoor swimming pool. I was hooked, so we bought a quarter-acre lot and built a comfy little house. Twenty years later, I use the marina and pool daily.
The association also owns and maintains seven miles of asphalt roads, a system of wells, water treatment and a distribution system, a multipurpose clubhouse with kitchen facilities, service buildings, a pickleball court and more. We employ a fulltime manager, office manager and maintenance worker, plus parttime seasonal workers. For all this, we pay about $100 a month – a bargain compared to the national average of $300 a month.
HOAs are based largely on economies of scale. Developers plan and build entire subdivisions, spreading the costs of roads, utilities and other assets. When the infrastructure is in, the developers bank their profits, wash their hands and turn it over to members to make it all work. And it does work, at least for a while. Realtors report that a typical HOA home sells for a higher price than does the same home outside the HOA. So everybody seems to win.
Or not. Whether your government is national or neighborhood, it comes down in large part to what taxpayers are willing to pay for collective goods, so disputes are inevitable. One neighbor favors spending the money to make repairs, but the other does not. In the worst case, deferred maintenance may lead to problems, or a catastrophe like the recent condo collapse in Florida.
Losers may also include nearby municipal governments and utilities, as HOAs may seek ways to escape local taxes or utility fees.
HOAs are organized around rules, many of which regulate how you build and maintain your house and property. And that uniformity is part of what draws people. Dan Kimball, the Kala Point board president, recalls when he and his wife bought a country home in the Blue Ridge Mountains above Washington DC, where they enjoyed quiet, starry nights. Then a neighbor installed motion-activated lights which clicked on whenever a deer wandered by. So the Kimballs sold their place and moved to an HOA, where there are rules against outdoor lighting. They have lived in HOAs ever since.
“It’s about collective assurances,” he told me. “I need to know what’s allowed and what’s not. I need to know the neighborhood is going to continue to look the same, that nobody is going to put a pink flamingo on their front lawn.”
Rules differ vastly from one association to the next. Cape George limits building heights and setbacks and requires people to mow their lawns. That’s about it.
Kala Point, however, is a gated community that regulates what color you paint your house, roofing materials, landscaping, street parking and much more.
When rules are violated, neighbors expect their HOA office to enforce them. Managers and volunteer trustees find themselves trying to resolve neighborhood disputes over barking dogs, speeding on local streets, unkempt lawns or trees.
In Northwest HOAs, trees are always a point of conflict. One owner’s tree is another’s view, a clash of competing goods. It drives managers and volunteer board members crazy, because there is no obvious right or wrong.
The downside of predictability is sameness. And homeowners associations are notoriously homogenous – which is to say white. This was no accident. Early HOAs imposed and enforced rules that specifically excluded Blacks, Jews and other minorities.
Most of those rules were dropped decades ago, but the exclusivity persists. There are some 25 homes on our street, each with white owners, mostly retirees with similar tastes, politics and pets. If Black folks moved in next door, they would be warmly welcomed. But they don’t move in, because today’s segregation is self-selected, driven by economics and small-town culture.
The effect, of course, is the same. Life in most HOAs is indeed highly predictable, encouraging or even requiring some degree of conformity. Some find this monotonous. Please, God, let me talk to a neighbor who does NOT look and think like me!
More broadly, predictable HOAs can turn insular, distanced from the neighboring town and from the region. Gated or not, HOAs become escape pods, where there is ample incentive to pony up for the costs of the community pool or clubhouse, but less incentive to fund nearby schools or parks. I worry that communities like mine inadvertently feed local and national polarization.
But we’re here to stay. For the marina, for the garden-friendly climate, for the fitness room, the community potlucks, the pickleball court, and for the neighbors we know far better than we knew our neighbors back in the city
For all those reasons, it’s safe to assume that HOAs will keep growing by the thousands per year. Along the way, they’re bound to change the political and cultural character of the nation – for better or worse, and probably some combination of both.