A Brief History of HOAs: Part IV

The concept of the common interest development (CID) was an outgrowth of the urban planning movement which traces its roots to the beginning of the 20th Century. Among the more notable influences on this new discipline was Sir Ebenezer Howard, an English gent who published the book, To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform in 1898; and a significantly revised edition of the book called Garden Cities of To-morrow which was published in 1902.

Mr. Howard’s vision of a planned community in which residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural activities were neatly integrated into new real estate developments came to be known as the “garden city movement” due in large part to his focus on bringing the residents of these communities into greater contact with nature through the inclusion of green spaces, gardens and agricultural plots within the community setting.

The planned community movement gained little traction in America during the first half of the 20th Century but in the 1960s things started to change. As a result of sustained demand for new housing which had been growing since the end of World War II, many of the planning concepts first introduced by Howard and others began to gain acceptance among the urban planning profession and perhaps more importantly, among government officials in many of the fastest growing regions of the country.

A growing concern among these bureaucrats was the expanding suburban landscape and the attendant infrastructure that was required to service these new developments. One the one hand, local governments embraced the idea of residential development as it expanded the tax base within their communities and as we all know government officials tend to love anything that generates tax revenues. On the other hand, there was a considerable financial burden imposed on these communities due to the cost of maintaining all of this new infrastructure.

Among the planning concepts that emerged at the time were two ideas in particular which have come to influence fifty years of planning policy perhaps more than any other. First and foremost was the notion of common area spaces that would be shared by the residents of these planned communities. The idea of shared use spaces was among Ebenezer Howard’s contributions to the planning profession and while it had been a long road, it seemed that by the late 1960s and early 1970s one of Howard’s most cherished ideas had finally found a home in the planning profession.

Although Howard’s garden city concept in its purest form never did materialize, what did gain almost universal acceptance in the U.S. was the idea of shared or common interest spaces within planned residential developments. This notion of common interest space then gave rise to the second planning principle which has come to dominate residential real estate development, the privatization of these common area spaces as opposed to having them owned and managed by local governments. In turn, this privatization of the commons has given rise to the homeowners association (HOA), a form of privatized residential government under which some 60 million Americans now find themselves living.

During the early decades of the common interest development era (1960s, 70s and 80s) the most prevalent form of residential development was the PUD or planned unit development. These developments were typically comprised of singe-family detached homes located on individually owned lots which shared recreational amenities, open spaces and in some instances infrastructure components such as roads and community water systems.

By the 1990s a second form of CID began to gain broader market appeal due to a confluence of events ranging from the aging baby-boomer population to increasing land prices and ever-increasing commute times for residents of communities that were far from the central business district of many major cities. This combination of market forces quickly gave rise to condominiums and other attached housing schemes which had previously been concentrated in relatively few areas of the country but by the mid-1990s were quickly becoming the dominant form of residential development in many of the larger urban areas of the country.

Although both forms of CIDs are based on the same principle of shared ownership of common areas and a privatized governance council to manage these commonly owned assets and enforce community-wide rules, there are also significant differences between the two types of development. The increased density of any attached housing scheme is an obvious issue, particularly in a culture where people had been raised to believe that their “home is their castle.” However, by the late 1990s a significant portion of the population of many large cities had been exposed to apartment living and perhaps because of this exposure to high density residential development, the idea of living cheek to jowl with their neighbors in a condominium didn’t seem that unusual. Fast-forward another ten years or so and by 2012 condominiums and other forms of attached housing had become the predominant form of residential development in many areas of the country.

Condominiums in particular represent a  very different form of property ownership that is not well understood by many Americans. The issue of unit boundaries, verses those areas within the development that are commonly owned and/or maintained by the HOA, is much more complex in a condominium development than it is in a PUD that consists of single-family homes on individually owned lots. The rules and regulations established by the HOA, which are the equivalent of civil laws in a municipal setting, are generally much more restrictive in a condominium than they are in a PUD; often times dictating behaviors within the confines of one’s home, leading many critics to ask, whether the home is still one’s castle or not?

All of these issues have combined to create a much more complex home ownership experience than anything our parents or grandparents ever experienced. While your mother may have been annoyed by the nosy neighbor Mrs. Jones, who spent her time gossiping across the back yard fence, in the 21st century housing paradigm Mrs. Jones could end up being the chairman of a non-profit corporation (HOA) that dictates many aspects of your life and how your property may be used.

In future installments we will continue our examination of common interest developments in the U.S.