HOAs and the Changing Nature of Neighborliness

Not long ago my daughter and I were walking our dog when I noticed an elderly woman in my neighbor’s front yard. I immediately recognized her long black frock and headscarf as the religious dress of a devout Muslim—a strange and altogether unexpected sight in my provincial Southern Utah town. My dog wandered over to her and decided to make friends. My daughter and I followed.

As soon as it was clear that she couldn’t speak any English, I ventured a question in Arabic. No response. “Pakistan,” she said with a smile, gesturing toward the house. “…New Yersi, Pakistan,” which I interpreted to mean, “I live in New Jersey, but I’m originally from Pakistan, and I’m here visiting my relatives.” Or something like that. As soon as she caught sight of my daughter, she began stroking her blonde hair and hugging her close in the same sweet and familiar way I’d grown accustomed to when we had lived in Jordan.

With my attention absorbed in this curious interaction, I failed to notice that my dog—the world’s friendliest shih-tzu—had wandered around the side of another house. Suddenly, I heard someone yelling. “Excuse me!” Looking up I recognized my neighbor standing beside her home, arms folded tightly across her chest. “Is this your dog?” she shouted, watching as he trotted lazily back toward me. “People around here don’t appreciate it when dogs aren’t on a leash!” she huffed, disappearing before I could even apologize. I quickly snapped on my dog’s leash. My brief reverie about what it had been like to walk the streets of the warm, tight-knit communities we lived in during our six years in the Middle East ended abruptly. My daughter and I said goodbye to our new friend, and hurried home. I was mortified.

But by the time I got inside my house I was more than embarrassed; I was angry. This wasn’t just some faceless person whom I’d never seen nor talked to. It was my neighbor, who lived three houses down from me on a tiny circle of just twenty-four homes. My daughter trick-or-treated at her house. I know she knew my name, because I’d delivered homemade treats to her at Christmas, and she’d responded with a handwritten thank-you note. She knew that was my dog—the same one I walk right past her door twice a day. Why had she reacted as if I were a complete stranger? And what “people” was she referring to?

I was genuinely hurt by the accusatory, confrontational, and impersonal nature of the interaction. But what bothered me about it most was how typical I knew it was of the chilling new norms of neighborliness that have taken hold in communities across America. As psychologists Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz documented in their 2009 book, The Lonely American, the very word “neighborliness” has shifted from the midcentury meaning of actively reaching out to, caring for, and involving oneself in the lives of neighbors, to the modern norm of keeping one’s distance, keeping noise and nuisances to a minimum, and respecting the privacy of those with whom we share hallways or sidewalks.

Hard as it may be to believe, my run-in with a disgruntled neighbor was one of the more civilized interactions of its type, which play out in American communities every single day. “Civilized” because it unfolded, at very least, face-to-face. More and more, anonymous, legalistic, and punitive interactions are coming to replace the communicating, negotiating, and compromise that have defined community living since the dawn of civilization. And part of the explanation for this phenomenon is the precipitous rise of homeowners’ associations (HOAs). These days, especially where I live, neighbors often stand by and watch while another does something they don’t like, then lodge a written complaint with their HOA in the hope that a third party will mete out punishment in the form of citations and fines.

An HOA is a nongovernmental body most often run by a volunteer board of directors, which wields authority over what happens in a private neighborhood or building. Membership is usually mandatory for homeowners within its geographical purview, and involves paying dues. What an HOA does in exchange for those dues ranges from drafting and enforcing neighborhood “covenants”—dictating everything from what color you can paint your house to how high you can grow your rose bushes—to overseeing landscaping, or running shared amenities such as swimming pools and exercise rooms. Accordingly, dues can range from a hundred dollars a month to thousands. Which makes it big business—especially when boards outsource their duties to third-party companies, or when disputes result in enormous legal bills.

According to 2017 data gathered by the Community Associations Institute, 61% of new housing built for sale in America is governed by a “community association,” a catchall phrase that takes in HOAs, co-op boards, and condo associations. In 1970, just 2.1 million Americans lived in association-governed communities, but now the number is upwards of 70 million—it is estimated that some 24 percent of Americans now live under some form of an HOA, paying some $90 billion in dues annually.

In most cases, using the terms “community” and “association” to describe these largely legalistic, fee-for-service entities is a stretch. When you ask people about their experience living in an HOA-governed community, more often than not the responses have to do with whether the sprinklers got fixed in a timely manner, or how often the grass gets cut. And when you talk to those who have served on HOA boards, they invariably tell unbelievable stories about neighbors who outright refuse to obey rules and respond to citations on the one hand, and those who make everyone else’s life miserable by nitpicking their neighbors to death on the other. Speaking about her husband, who served as an HOA president for several years, a friend of mine said, “after a while he just couldn’t take it anymore. It was awful.” Just google “HOA horror stories” and you’ll get a sense of what she means. Scores of Americans lose their homes and livelihoods every year as a result of actions taken by HOAs.

Even though my minor interaction with an angry neighbor never turned into a citation from the HOA, what surprised and frightened me as I looked back on it is how angry the confrontation had made me. I fumed for days. I found myself doing a close reading of my neighborhood’s “covenants,” looking for references to dogs and leashes, then ruminating about how it was my right to leave my dog off the leash if I felt like it. This is America! I thought. Geez.

All of which, in my more lucid moments, I’ll admit is completely ridiculous. Animals really shouldn’t be wandering into other people’s backyards—a fact which I would have readily admitted and corrected if I’d been asked to do so in a friendly, personal way. And there really was a rule about it in our community, which I had tacitly agreed to upon moving in. But what was an honest mistake that could have been resolved quickly and amicably turned into a mutual fit of rage and an emotional wedge I just can’t seem to dislodge.

By elevating rules over relationships in our communities, and turning to third parties to resolve our disputes, we’re unwittingly turning the pro-social concept of neighborliness on its head. Neighbors are supposed to be our support system, an extension of our family, those to whom we turn in times of need. But instead they are becoming the enemy—to be avoided and resented at best, and fought off with lawyers at worst.

I often look back wistfully to my time living in Middle Eastern neighborhoods. Though they were certainly warmer than your average American community is today, the truth is they were often just as punitive. In a collectivistic culture a person can be ruined when family honor and reputation are besmirched, so behavior within neighborhoods is policed by gossip and social ostracization. In the individualistic culture of America, by contrast, our weapons of choice are economic penalties, civil suits, and walls. Both ends of the spectrum banish the better angels of our natures as we seek impersonal means to enforce the boundaries of what we believe “community” to mean.

But what if there were a better way? A middle road between these two cultural poles that might have some hope of leading us to higher moral ground? I believe relationalism, a new word for a very old concept, is just such a third way. At its most challenging, relationalism means loving our enemies and realizing that often the aggression we see all around us is more than anything a symptom of bankrupt cultural norms, rampant loneliness, and private pain. At its most elemental, it is treating others as human beings who, given the chance, might be willing to disarm disputes and resolve differences in the name of achieving the feeling of connection we all crave.

After taking a few weeks to cool off, I decided to pay a visit to the neighbor who had yelled at me and reintroduce myself. I apologized for my dog having bothered her, and for not taking the time to get to know her better, or sooner. She was surprisingly kind—and understanding. She still wants me to keep my dog leashed, and I’ve agreed to do so, even though I still wish I didn’t have to. Resolving the breach was as simple as reaching out, and we achieved a compromise—that age-old form of a “covenant” that has held communities together for as long as they’ve existed.

It’s time to rethink what creeping cultural and economic trends such as HOA-governed communities are doing to our neighborhoods, and ourselves. If you have a dispute with your neighbor, attempt to resolve it face-to-face, and try to appeal to reason and relationship, rather than a disembodied set of rules. But even before that happens, go across the street and introduce yourself to your neighbor. Thank them for being a part of your community. Ask them if there’s anything you can do to make their life easier or better. Build a bridge before one more rupture occurs, or wall goes up. The future of our fragile and fraying social fabric depends upon it.

I'm a writer who's spending 2019 engaging in a yearlong personal journey back to community, connection, and relationship. It's called Project Reconnect. Join me!

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