Cities and suburbs, real and imaginary.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

thinking about cities 2....

“Little boxes made of ticy-tacky”

Homeowner Associations (HOA) often appear in the news negatively, but people who love their HOA, along with people who are mildly disinterested in theirs but vaguely positive, seem to outnumber the people who would abolish their HOAs at a moment’s notice, if given the chance. With current drought conditions all over the country, including neighborhoods under the stewardship of HOAs, have competing goals. Goal 1) Conserve water. Goal 2) Keep up appearances. Along with the latter goal, homeowners who have been lax in keeping their lawn green have recieved ominous and threatening letters from their HOA boards about keeping up appearances. Maintaining property value is the goal of an HOA, and the way to achieve that is to make sure that neighborhoods have a sameness, as if the houses are sitting on a shelf in a store waiting to be purchased and personalized, slightly, within the strict boundaries permitted by the HOA.
The original goal of a “covenant community” was to separate and push back from the poor and lower-classes, to create the kind of gated suburbia that only the few and the select could ever achieve. But, we’re not quite there, yet. First, let us consider the process of the creation of a new homeowners association, to understand how these things continue to dominate even as they often make the news, and as many of these organizations struggle to find people willing to sit on their boards, at all.
First, new home builders choose a plot of land that is ripe for development. In Texas, this generally means finding a place that is sort of within half an hour of a major employer of some sort, though it is currently empty land or an aging, fallow farm. This area is stripped bare, all trees removed, and giant holes are dug for pipes and electrical wiring. The ground is surveyed. The land is checked. The land has been checked and checked again. Then, construction happens and houses go up. Along with the first houses, a corporation forms strictly to manage the property through the home builder, and it is the birth of a new HOA.
Anyone looking to buy new houses in large swaths of the country are practically required to join in to an HOA of some sort. These organizations exist to keep up appearances, and make sure - initially - that the homebuilder has some control over what the first residents do until all the houses are sold. At the time when the home builder is done building houses, the management corporation of the HOA is handed over to residents, unless 75% of the residents want to get rid of the HOA. (Good luck going door-to-door to get 75% of a neighborhood to sign any petition whatsoever, on any subject.)
The new HOA enforces policies, strictly or loosely, that attempt to create a series of standards for the community, nominally to ensure the value of homes in that community remain high.
The idea of landownership, homeownership is one where the owner of the property can do whatever they want to do, on their land, and as long as zoning isn’t impacted. Right, it’s your land. Make your mark on it, if you can.
Here’s a question for every homeowner in the audience: What are the names of the people on your street? Generally, what happens in these neighborhoods is this: People come home from work and pull into their garage and barely know anyone in their neighborhood. [need source about isolation of suburbs like Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam...]
Free from the shackles of urban decay, people live alone and lonely in little boxes, and everything looks the same. The community is judged by its appearance, which feeds the property values, which feed the tax revenue, not by anything that measures the robustness of a community to face a crisis, and not by the ability of the community to weather climate change, and not by the happiness of the people therein. What the people have done, by planting a few landscape trees and having a fenced in yard for a dog, or perhaps children, is create a miniature castle in the hills, fortified by picket fencing and security lighting. And, everyone is watching everyone else’s castle for signs of decay. We fled out here to get away from it, to protect the value of the home requires protecting ourselves from decay. Any sign of decay, unkempt and messy, means the value of our homes goes down, which means the HOA must do something..
Most of these constructions, push out the urban community, spreading away from the center of the city, lengthening commutes, and building into zones at higher risk of natural disasters - wildfires, floods, mudslides - because the federal dollars that fight against these fears are not connected to the tax revenue that the city generates through property taxes. The local city council has every reason to approve new construction in disaster-prone areas. Homeowners move there by choice, after all, and the risk of an occasional disaster can be factored into homeowner’s insurance rates which are, again, a choice. The expanded tax revenue creates an incentive, locally, to permit the new construction.
People, then, have much longer to drive to get to work. How much time does anyone have in a day? The amount of time it takes to cook a meal and clean up after a meal is relatively fixed. Let’s say, an efficient home kitchen cook with a microwave and some frozen foods can get a meal on the table and clean up from the meal in half an hour. For many, that half-an-hour is stolen by the long commute past numerous take-out and eat-in options. That’s time in a fitness center lost to a commute. That’s time with kids doing homework lost to a commute.
Time and health, and their interactive exchange, are, in fact, the only resources humans actually have. Everything else is ephemeral. Trading time for this mythic dream of land, space, and room away from urban decay creates a system where we are chasing our own lonely, sickly death far from the communities where we spend the most time of our days.
Again, the question becomes: What are we running from?

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