Friday, July 1, 2011

You mean we could just fix this?

This last week of June saw a webcast organized by the Urban Institute in Washington DC, designed to focus attention on the new publication Beyond Privatopia: Rethinking Residential Private Government. Titled “Private community associations: boon or bane for local governance?”, the event brought together Evan McKenzie, professor of political science and law at the University of Illinois at Chicago (and the author of Beyond Privatopia) and Robert Nelson, who is a public policy professor at the University of Maryland, College Park and the author of Private Neighborhoods and the Transformation of Local Government (also published by Urban Institute Press, in 2005). The discussion was nimbly moderated by Rolf Pendall, director of the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center.
Although the actual title of the debate is enough to encourage torpor (and it was apparently not well attended) the issue of governance is central to the urban future. And the way in which ‘public versus private’ plays out in planning and governance will be at the core of the manner in which many cities develop economically and how they deal with the challenges of climate change adaptation in the next fifty years (a point I’ll return to below).
As I have argued at length elsewhere, Home Owner Associations (HOAs) get a bad rap, both in the popular press and within the academy. Evan McKenzie is perhaps the most thoughtful of the academic critics and his commentary can be traced back to 1994, before the issue of privatization was on most people’s radar. Still, his critique is what one would expect from an individual who has a self-identified interest in what he describes as the “gross imbalance” of power between HOAs and their members (p. xii of Beyond Privatopia). In his presentation, he argued against HOAs on the grounds that residents lack choice, do not know what they are signing when they enter into the home owner contract, and that many HOAs are in a financial hole. He also argued that the principles of common interest developments (CIDs) were developed in the past by, and for, richer and, by implication, smarter people than those who now find themselves in HOAs; and that CIDs are a way for developers to increase residential densities. The first of these suggestions seems more than a little condescending; the second is unusual insofar as most critics of suburban housing regimes are usually keen to increase residential densities by any means possible.
Robert Nelson took a different approach, on which more in a moment. His work (exemplified by his 2005 book) is an extremely thoughtful dissection of the failures of the municipality and the need to move toward more responsive polities—such as the neighborhood association. As he points out, for example, illegal immigrants and those with second homes have no voting rights in places where they live and pay property taxes, but they do have a say in their neighborhood. His optimism for the progressive possibilities of neighborhood associations is truly innovative.
Nelson also said one thing that almost caused me to fall from my chair during his presentation—“you make improvements, when there are problems”. In other words, if HOAs are prone to fiscal challenges, or if residents do not understand their obligations, then these are fixable. They don’t negate the entire system.
This is a breathtaking observation because it flies in the face of most academic thinking, (and increasingly, much popular thought). In short, if a phenomenon—gated communities, say—can be assailed on various counts, then an ironclad case has been made against all gated communities for all time, and they can be added to the list of the world’s evils (and in that line of idiotic argument, gated communities have actually been compared in print to concentration camps). So it is an astonishing sideways leap to hear the alternative: if things are not working, we don’t get rid of everything, we don’t legislate something out of existence—we just fix things.
            As I observed above, this is important because it goes to the heart of how we approach the urban future. For at least a decade, for instance, we have been told that climate change must be tackled via mitigation strategies; authors who have advocated for adaptation strategies have been roundly criticized for their Quisling attitudes. Yet this is another example of absolutist thinking: if carbon production is bad, then it must be stopped—even if that does nothing to prepare our cities for the impacts of climate change already being felt. Robert Nelson provides us with the alternative: when there are problems, find ways to fix them.

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