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Home > Feature Articles > Municipality Strategies for Sustainable Community Best Practices

Common interest housing faces oversight problems

Does it seem as though your subdivision is ruled by despots? Is your condo association a kleptocracy?

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Nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population resides in private communities otherwise known as common interest developments, yet a slow collapse of the entire system is underway, according to the author of a new book on homeowner associations.

Common interest housing has become part of the intergovernmental system, says Evan McKenzie, an urban politics scholar and associate professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

"We are all increasingly reliant on it, but there are serious problems with the viability of these residential private governments," he said.

A lack of governmental oversight is one of the reasons that community and homeowner associations don't function as intended, said McKenzie, who wrote "Beyond Privatopia: Rethinking Residential Private Government."

"The key to effective privatization is maintaining accountability to government standards," he said. "The current system needs clear operational standards, required training in housing association management for affiliated volunteers and professionals, and efficient low-cost grievance procedures."

The new book, published by Urban Institute Press, explores the latest issues and trends in common interest developments and opposing viewpoints as to how they should be managed.

A development's control of neighborhood services is often a selling point to potential buyers, but McKenzie points out that the law of common interest communities can often impinge on civil liberties.

"Residents often contend with intrusions an elected government would not be able to make, like a ban on pets or yard decorations," he said. "If things go wrong, the contracts residents must sign to purchase within the community give them little legal recourse."

McKenzie said over the past four decades private government has come to dominate new housing because it serves as a "cash cow" for developers and municipalities.

"Developers use it to cram more people onto less land, thus increasing density," he said. "Municipalities get more property tax payers without having to build or maintain services and infrastructure for them."

Municipalities can help the situation by restoring choice to the housing market by ceasing requirements that all new housing be in common interest developments, said McKenzie, who is an attorney. He recommends that state governments follow the lead of Nevada, Florida, and Virginia by establishing an intermediary office to handle residents' complaints.

"Beyond Privatopia" is a follow-up to McKenzie's award-winning 1994 book, "Privatopia: Homeowner Associations and the Rise of Residential Private Government," from Yale University Press.

Homeowner and condominium associations, land use, and urban politics and policy are among McKenzie's areas of research interest. He also works on related matters as an attorney, consultant, and expert witness. In 2006, his testimony was cited in the first ruling by a federal court that said private homeowners associations must follow constitutional protections such as freedom of speech.

McKenzie practiced law for 10 years in California, including four years as a deputy district attorney for San Diego County and six years in civil litigation practice representing homeowner associations. He received his doctorate in political science from the University of Southern California and his J.D. from the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law.



Edited by Carolyn Allen, owner/editor of California Green Solutions
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