The Racist History of your Homeowners’ Association

Photo by Breno Assis on Unsplash

If I’m ever lucky enough to be able to afford a house (work reasons have me stuck in a very high cost of living area), I have one rule:

No homeowners’ association. (Condos are a different matter; condos need some arrangement to pay for common areas). And yes, this does mean that it might be a challenge; there are 351,000 HOAs in the United States.

Most people have, or have heard, a plethora of HOA horror stories. This includes pet bans, sign size limits, fights over flags, and in some cases truly stupid rules. Here’s some ridiculous HOA rules I found:

  • Leave your garage door open all day to prove nobody’s living there. Meaning you can’t store stuff in your garage.

All of this is petty, but HOAs have a darker past.

Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash

Homeowners Associations and Keeping out the Riffraff

If you ask most people what the purpose of a HOA is, they’ll say “Keep up property values.”

They probably won’t even think about the implications of that. Of course, ugly house colors deflate everyone’s property values.

In July, 2019, a woman in Florida read through the covenants for the home she was considering buying. Perhaps nobody had read them recently, because the documents, written in the 1930s, still said that only “Caucasians” could live in the neighborhood.

HOAs really came into their own in the 1950s and 1960s…and redlining was the rule, not the exception. Covenants would commonly exclude three groups of people — Jews, Blacks, and Asians. In 1948, the Supreme court ruled that these covenants violated the Civil Rights Act of 1866.

Which meant that people need to come up with other ways to keep out the undesirables. They wanted to make sure that their neighborhood only contained the right (or rather white) kind of people. Outright racist language is illegal; but it’s often still in there. Just because it’s illegal and unenforceable doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a chilling effect when people notice it.

They did this through all kinds of means. One common way was to set a minimum square footage for homes. This, of course, guaranteed that homes were more expensive (some local jurisdictions did this too. To, ya know, increase the property tax base).

Then, of course, there’s the simplest way of all: All those restrictive rules. It’s pretty easy to enforce them only when you feel like it.

In some cases, HOAs will engage in a twisted form of revenue seeking by enforcing the rules only when the person moves out, and then hitting them with violation fees that might go back weeks or months.

But in others, homeowners of color may find themselves fined or harassed for petty violations while worse ones by their white neighbors are ignored. Take the case of Huang and two other Asian residents in a HOA in Flushing, who found themselves fined for putting up safer fences, while ugly chain link put up by white neighbors was ignored. And this is in a majority-Asian neighborhood…but somehow the HOA officers are still all white.

Photo by Julián Gentilezza on Unsplash

Should we Defang HOAs?

Some people like HOAs. They like the rules, the uniformity. They genuinely believe that banning purple paint helps preserve their property values.

Some neighborhoods also need some kind of homeowners’ association. These are developments where there are common amenities that need to be paid for and maintained, such as a fitness center, swimming pool, playground, dog park, etc.

But we need to realize that not only did HOAs start out of redlining (even now, more white people live in HOA neighborhoods than Black ones, by a lot), but that they are, in addition to often petty, a vehicle for racism to continue in the twenty-first century.

My personal opinion is that they should be pared down to what is necessary; managing shared amenities, plowing neighborhood streets when the council is bad at doing so, etc.

The simplest way to do so is to make all restrictive covenants illegal. No more enforcing paint colors or fence designs or lawns in the desert.

And no more ability for Karen to get on the board so she can harass Black people.

Freelance writer, freelance editor, novelist and short story writer. Jack of many trades.

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