Aug. 7, 2016
By ADAM B. SUMMERS / Staff Columnist
In an extensive exposé on “HOAs from hell,” the Kansas City Star details a number of cases of homeowners associations harassing and impoverishing residents, oftentimes over minor violations of community covenants, but there is a much greater threat facing residents, namely, government.
The Star piece offers many examples of community associations chastising residents, imposing fines and threatening lawsuits over such grand offenses as putting up a small birdhouse or not moving trash cans quickly enough or far enough out of sight after pickup. One family was harassed for taking down the blinds in their three-year-old daughter’s bedroom and replacing them with curtains after the girl became entangled in the cord of the blinds and nearly choked to death.
And a family in Lee’s Summit, Mo., near Kansas City, received threats of daily fines and even jail time over the swing set and playhouse it had erected in the backyard, which had been stained purple to make it more “girly” for its two young girls. They ultimately won in court, but it cost them $4,000 in legal fees.
To be sure, such examples are petty and even absurd, and the HOAs responsible for implementing and enforcing them are well-deserving of public shaming, but, fortunately, these horror stories tend to be exceptional cases. When these intolerable situations do occur, at least residents have the option of moving to more reasonable communities nearby. But what if that HOA from hell had authority over an entire city, so that you could not escape its meddlesome edicts?
Pagedale, Mo., provides a case in point. The 1.2-square-mile town of about 3,300 residents in St. Louis County has gained notoriety for assessing a multitude of fines for the most minor of transgressions. After the state of Missouri lowered the limit on the portion of municipal revenue that could come from traffic tickets, the number of non-traffic-related tickets issued in Pagedale rose nearly 500 percent. The city issued citations and fines for offenses such as sporting mismatched curtains, walking on the left-hand side of a crosswalk and having weeds in one’s yard higher than seven inches.
Though perhaps not as extreme as Pagedale, most cities are similarly guilty of needless micromanagement, particularly through zoning laws. This was not always the case, but the use of zoning regulations has exploded over the past century.
In 1922, a U.S. Commerce Department advisory committee drafted model legislation for states to adopt called A Standard State Zoning Enabling Act. “For the purpose of promoting health, safety, morals or the general welfare of the community,” it read, “the legislative body of cities and incorporated villages is hereby empowered to regulate and restrict the height, number of stories and size of buildings and other structures, the percentage of the lot that may be occupied, the size of yards, courts and other open spaces, the density of population and the location and use of buildings, structures and land for trade, industry, residence or other purposes.”
“It is hard to imagine much broader power,” Pepperdine University economics professor Gary M. Galles observed in a recent Newsday column.
State and local governments across the country eagerly jumped at the chance to expand their power. By 1925, 19 states had passed versions of the Zoning Enabling Act, and by 1926 there were at least 425 zoned municipalities – nearly 10 times the 48 cities and towns with zoning just five years prior. Now, zoning is ubiquitous – and getting increasingly onerous. A growing number of cities are even requiring voter approval of new construction projects, effectively transferring property rights from individuals to “the community.”
Governments now harass those with home-based businesses, require permission (and the requisite fees to support the bureaucracy, of course) to make basic renovations and improvements to one’s property, ban people from renting out their own homes through services such as Airbnb and dictate where a home or a business may be located and how much of a community’s housing must be “affordable” (i.e., below market rates, which they have already inflated through substantial development fees, zoning laws that restrict the supply of housing and unnecessary and burdensome environmental and building code regulations).
This erosion of property rights is alarming. There will always people like the wannabe dictator with an inflated ego and sense of importance, the nosy busybody or the know-it-all who is certain he has all the answers to how the community should look and how its residents should behave who make their way onto HOA boards, but their realms are small and their subjects know one another and have close ties, which generally makes it fairly easy to weed out the unreasonable and otherwise bad actors.
When these same people are elected to public office and oversee a large, disconnected population, the results are far more devastating. It is time to recognize that legislators and urban planners do not have the perfect knowledge or foresight to determine the best use of a given piece of land, or the right to tell someone who has acquired his property legally what he can or cannot do with it. Evict government from private property decisions.