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Thursday, April 18, 2024

America’s Most Boring Association Is Fighting the Planet

Outside every front door, life reigns. The air teems with pollen and spores. Bacteria the weight of a cow multiplies underneath a half-acre of soil. Studies in North Carolina and Pennsylvania have turned up hundreds of millions of insects per acre on samples five inches deep. The larger fauna might be more visible, but they still stay out of sight to the homeowners that host them: bobcats in Dallas, bears in Aspen, and coyotes as far north as Alaska. This biodiversity thrives with little effort from caretakers, as long as they don’t actively work against it—as they have been doing since the invention of the lawn. 

By “lawn” here, I mean a monoculture of grass cut less than two inches high, kept green with staggering resources and force of will. This landscaping choice originated with the British gentry and then proliferated by a mass advertising campaign that convinced Americans that having the leisure and money to maintain a uniformly green yard was aspirational. 

In recent years, the lawn has been losing its grip on the American psyche, especially in areas where rivers are drying up and water bills are rising. For many years, the city of Las Vegas has been paying people to rip up their lawns and replace them with more regionally appropriate plants, and last year the state of Nevada started banning lawns outright. Water agencies around the Colorado River have taken pledges to stop pouring their gallons into decorative grass. The Million Pollinator Garden Challenge, which registers bird- and insect-friendly spaces, surpassed its million-registration goal in 2019. 

Replacing a life-sucking, arbitrary landscaping option with a more sustainable and bustling garden might seem like an obvious win for homeowners, wildlife, and city governments. But there’s another organization that budding environmentalists might forget to consult: an unpaid pseudo-government of neighbors, otherwise known as homeowners associations. 

Homeowners associations began in the early 20th century and gained power from the 1960s onward as local governments lost tax revenue and loosened zoning restrictions. Developers stepped in to provide services that would normally be the responsibility of the city, such as streets, security, landscaping, and public pools, according to Paula A. Franzese, a law professor at Seton Hall Law. Once the people who build the homes sell them off, they pass responsibility to either volunteers, hired contractors, or management companies, which are more prominent in large, wealthy neighborhoods that have a lot of services to maintain. 

Homeowners may join or create a common interest community because they find the local laws and ordinances lacking. But they also have a strong financial interest in preserving the value of their homes, which is “arguably the single most significant investment that a person will make in the course of a lifetime,” says Franzese. The common understanding that homeowners associations defend property values is true, according to Rachel Meltzer, a professor of planning and urban economics at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design. “If you took two homes, and one’s in an HOA and one isn't, and they’re otherwise very similar, the evidence does show that the price is higher for that HOA home.” It’s easy to see why homeowners both initially join and then bristle at the restrictions and privileges of a common-interest community. “My point of view is that homeowners associations bring substantial benefits to the people who reside there,” says Korngold. “At the same time, occasionally, there can be difficulties with sorting out individual wishes with that of the community.” 

This almost-government can create rules that our legal system will sometimes enforce, but they are usually not beholden to the constitution. For example: No city, state, or federal law can prevent you from putting a political sign in your yard, because that’s protected by the constitution as free speech. But a homeowners association can, says Gerald Korngold, professor of law and director for real estate studies at New York Law School. “It is a private government,” he says. “But it's a private government operating simply based on the rules that they have agreed to,” though the courts can decide that some homeowners association covenants are unenforceable by the legal system. 

Today, those who want to join the happy trend of welcoming butterflies, birds, and bees into their yard while also reducing their water, pesticide, and fertilizer usage could be breaking rules if they live in the more than 50 percent of houses in the US managed by a homeowners association or other “common-interest community,” such as cooperative and condominium. People living in newer buildings are more likely to have homeowners associations; more than 80 percent of people in homes built in 2021 report to an organization like this. 

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To figure out how common it is for homeowners associations to have landscaping rules that involve lawns, I carried out an unscientific survey in which I looked at the covenants of 15 homeowners associations from five randomly chosen cities in the US. Of the 13 that had outdoor spaces under control of the members, six mentioned lawn requirements explicitly, one had mowing rules, one said yards had to be “weed-free,” one specified they had to be “neat,” one provided a list of plants that included lawns among other options. Some did not mention landscaping requirements at all. Only one, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, encouraged “natural” landscaping with regionally appropriate plants. 

Meanwhile, common-interest communities have also tried to ban electric vehicle charging stations, although there’s some state laws about that now. Michael Gerrard, law professor at Columbia Law School and director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, said his law group represented a man who wanted to put solar panels on his roof but was prevented by his homeowner’s association.

Those who resist the orders to cut their plants down can encounter a morass of fines and legal threats. Homeowners associations can gatekeep access to the shared facilities, like pools or golf courses, and ultimately put a lien on the home of the violator. If someone’s house is liened, they don’t control the title until the debt is cleared. This might affect their credit score and ability to sell the house, therefore tying together the homeowner and the association they are feuding with. In order to enforce these penalties, the homeowners association could go sue. 

As long as we live in a country where cities can’t afford to build streets and implement basic zoning regulations, homeowners associations are inevitable. But their opaque political structures are not covered in any high school or college government course. So homeowners are left to figure it out themselves. 

In dealing with these bureaucracies, as with most issues in life, overcommunication is probably a better option than silence. Though reaching out to your neighbors and changing the bylaws within the organization is time- and effort-consuming, it’s probably less so than fighting your homeowners association in court. And it will be less costly. One couple sued their homeowners association and changed the law in Maryland, so that homeowners associations in the state can no longer ban reasonable, environmentally friendly yards.  They spent $60,000 in the process, an admirable use of abundant resources which is obviously not feasible for most people.  

A common-interest community is more bite-sized than a city or state government, so there are fewer people to reach out to and (hopefully) fewer steps to changing the rules. Imagine you never read this article or knew anything about the benefits of having many different regionally appropriate plants instead of a grass monoculture. Your next-door neighbor starts removing their lawn suddenly. That would probably alarm you more than if they made a presentation at the homeowners association meeting teaching people about responsible yard stewardship and laying out a deliberate plan for a more environmentally friendly (but still neat) yard. From my experience, people will often agree to what you’re proposing so that they can move on with their day, with a minimum of goodwill lost. And about a quarter of people in a group need to initiate a social trend before it becomes a norm, according to a 2018 paper in the journal Science. In other words, you probably won’t need to convince your most aesthetically conservative neighbor to spark change. 

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Dealing with an actual government can ultimately be even more of a headache. Homeowners Val Weston and J. Brandon spent months trying to deal with a citation after a neighbor complained about their yard in Silver City, New Mexico. They were not only liable for fines but also faced criminal charges. 

Weston and Brandon, both self-employed, have been restoring a previously derelict house since 2021. Weston has a background as a certified naturalist and has been working with the Gila Native Plant Society and nonprofit Wild Ones to create the yard and then defend it. The couple say they’re motivated by their appreciation of the natural flora. “I’m just in love with these grasses,” says Weston. The couple says they have noticed hundreds of birds, including many species of hummingbirds, Spotted TowheeWestern KingbirdWoodhouse’s Scrub-Jay, three kinds of doves, Lesser GoldfinchBullock’s Oriole, and an owl. But their renovations, work, and trips to visit family for the holiday were put on hold while they dealt with the citation. The citation was dismissed, but Weston and Brandon still worry about future legal action against them

In many situations, the leaders of homeowners associations do put in time and effort to make sure they are enforcing environmentally appropriate landscaping. Camille Singaraju, who participates in a homeowners association in New Mexico, recently updated the plant list. She has a deep familiarity with the ecological history of the region and spoke to a researcher at the University of New Mexico and the Native Plant Society of New Mexico to make sure the choices were fire-resistant and environmentally responsible. She says that people who move in from out of state sometimes question her choices initially, then become the most passionate defenders of the list once they become more familiar with the dire environmental challenges the area faces. 

All three of the property lawyers I spoke to said that if they wanted to plant a pollinator garden and their homeowners association had a rule against it, their next step would be to talk to their neighbors about the issue. Ultimately, the office of the New York Attorney General confirms: “Remember that members of HOA boards are usually other owners who are serving without pay. They generally want to resolve problems and keep peace in the community.” Doug Tallamy, author of Nature’s Best Hope and creator of the homegrown national park program, also agrees: “I have been encouraging people to join their homeowners association,” he says. “You know, they are run by people.”

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