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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