Taste police or neighborhood protectors?
In Houston, to think of the comforts of home sometimes causes people to ask: Is my neighbor’s home making me uncomfortable?
In our famed city of no zoning laws, it’s a valid question. It can be the real estate wild west out there. Some revel in the chaos, but there are a few instruments of order to hold it back: City ordinances, deed restrictions, homeowners associations.
The latter sometimes make me wary. Texas allows homeowners associations enormous power, including the right to foreclose on owners who are behind in their HOA dues. Just this summer, one case of an HOA board foreclosing on the Texas home of a Army National Guard Captain serving in Iraq made national news and provided one more story to reenforce that negative HOA image.
My first run-in with a homeowners association came several years ago, when I was helping a relative move into a townhouse complex. The management company informed us that workers, included movers, weren’t allowed in the complex after 6 p.m. and threatened to call the constable. The truck was out by 6:30 and no one arrived to arrest us for getting that last box of dishes in 30 minutes late, but the whole incident left me with a wariness about HOAs and management companies.
Yet today, somehow, I am the president of my condo HOA board.
When I bought a home of my own, I wanted to attend HOA meetings to be active about pushing the board to not be so active, to use my voice for fewer rules, not more. I didn’t have much to worry about as, our homeowners association is small and our homeowners almost apathetic.
My proudest accomplishment as a homeowner came when the board drew up pool rules solely because they had just bought a pool rule sign. They got to the hours line, ready to Sharpie in a closing time, when I asked why we needed set hours as long as people were quiet. All politics begins locally, and locally, I sometimes like to swim at night.
My transition from meeting attendee to HOA board member began with my hatred of the color orange.
The previous year the homeowners had voted first to commit to a special assessment for painting the exterior of our little development and then a second vote for colors. The winning pale green was not especially hideous, but we weren’t allowed a second vote for a front and garage door color. I never learned if the board and manager had simply tired of collecting votes or if one board member in particular really liked orange. The decree came down from on high: If we picked green, the doors had to be orange. Ever after we had no need for additional Halloween decorations. People have tried to assure me that the color is actually a nice brick or rust color and I have politely assured these people right back that they're colorblind.
So later when every member of the board wanted to retire, I volunteered, hoping to right the orange-haters’ disenfranchisement. I became the VP and a year later, president.
I admit I’m not presidential material. Politically I’m socially liberal, fiscally moderate, but when it comes to HOAs, I’m a raving libertarian.
Want to paint your front door purple with yellow poke a dots? I’m sure that will be lovely.
Want to plant a blooming corpse flower in the communal flower bed? Great excuse to invite a certain celebrity horticulturist over for tea.
Solar panels on your roof? We should all go green.
Of course, none of these fun issues have actually come up; instead, I know more than I ever wanted to know about wood fence caps, skylight sealants, security gates intercoms, shingle warranties, and parking influx patterns during the nearby, monthly roller derby tournaments.
Now, almost five years after I said yes to becoming a board member, as the homeowner who never attends meetings stops me to complain for 15 minutes about a dying hibiscus plant in a communal bed, I have two thoughts:
1) All I wanted was to make sure I could do laps in the pool after 10.
2) I’m not getting paid for this shit.
I’ve tried to retire gracefully, but even when we bribe homeowners with dinner at the annual meeting, we still can’t get a quorum to vote me out. So I continue to serve and have developed my own reluctant-president philosophy.
I don’t think HOA’s should be the taste police. I love this city. It’s big, loud, eclectic, international, vibrant, and alive, ugly one minute and truly beautiful the next. But tasteful and restraint? Hardly ever.
The tasteful ship sailed a long time ago, probably around 1836, after dropping off the Allen brothers at their landing. And fining neighbors for their excessive use of garden gnomes is not going to bring that ship back. We can’t control much about our environment in Houston, but that’s no reason to become despots over tacky lawn fountains. We need to learn to live with each others’ bad taste and stop evoking the god of property values for every minor aesthetic disagreement.
I do think HOAs can be forces for community when people use them to ban together if a giant discount store, ugly parking lot, or feral hogs invade the neighborhood. Even if the associations can’t do much about those invaders, which in the end they many times can’t, perhaps just the attempt helps neighbors feel that sense of community, that we can all be in this together. Take comfort in each others’ support, while resigning yourself to the knowledge that your neighbor is a color-blind, gnome-loving, uncultured barbarian, but he's your barbarian.
And yes, my damn garage door is still orange.