Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The tyranny of homeowners associations?

     Occasionally, a local land use controversy breaks through into the national debate.  Such an event occurred this week, as a homeowners association in Florida told the wife of a military serviceman in Iraq to take down her front lawn sign that said “Support Our Troops.”  See the Tampa Tribune, March 9, and March 14.  In such cases, lawyers might argue about whether deed restrictions are completely voluntary contracts (and thus should be enforced) or whether law should consider a homeowners association to be a form of government, thus binding it to respect the constitutional right of free speech. 
     Here are some broader, sociological questions:  Why are homeowners associations’ restrictions typically so much more intrusive of personal autonomy than are local zoning laws?  Beyond cases of constitutional rights, why is it typical for a homeowners association to decree what color paint can be used on a house, what kind of fencing can be used, and how foliage must be trimmed?  It is that homeowners truly prefer such close regulation and thus demand it in the private market?  Is it that close regulation is favored when it is readily enforceable, as it is when the neighbors do the enforcing?  It there something about giving power to the average citizen that brings out a 1984-ish desire to control one's neighbors?  Is there something about the political process that typically dissuades a local government from similarly telling people how to live their lives?

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