Thursday, October 10, 2013

Strategies for Dealing with HOAs

When I talk with people about my experiences being a suburban homesteader, one of the first and most oft asked questions has to do with HOAs or Home Owners Associations. I have to admit that the neighborhood I live in is a very old suburb. In fact, my road is one of the oldest roads on this side of town, and it was, originally, a driveway. There is a draft of a subdivision plan that was submitted way back, probably around the same time that the Saco Drive-In theatre was being built (it celebrated its 75th anniversary this year), but it was never approved, because the road was never improved.

In short, my neighborhood is really too old to be one of those kinds of suburbs, although there is a subdivision across the main road, and they do have some form of HOA. There's another subdivision closer to town that has an HOA, also. In both cases, the HOA was formed for one, very simple, purpose - to ensure that the roads stayed plowed and maintained, and so the HOA exists only collect an annual fee for things like road plowing, or when culvert work needs to be done, or things like that. As far as dictating to the homeowners any rigid standards, neither neighborhood covenant seems to do that.

Since I don't live in an HOA, but that's a question I get asked a lot, I started doing some research and discussing with other people their experiences in HOA neighborhoods. What I've found is that some HOAs (like the one in the suburb across the road from my little dead-end street) exist not to tell people how to live, but to accomplish a very practical need and to ensure that every homeowner pays his/her fair share.

Others, while more restrictive aren't, necessarily, evil incarnate, and while I would not want to live in some of the HOA neighborhoods I've come across, the rules were set for reasons that the first property owners felt were necessary.

One of the most oft restrictions has to do with clotheslines, and those living in HOA communities seem to really take issue with the clothesline. I guess I understand. My own clothesline is framed by my very lush garden, and personally, I think both look beautiful, but I do understand that clothes hanging outside on a sagging line can look sloppy and unappealing - from an aesthetic point-of-view. Perhaps there is also the class issue (one of the reasons the suburbs exist at all, in fact) with the idea that people who can afford to live in the suburbs can also afford to either have someone else do their laundry, or have that laundry cleaned and dried by machine - out of view (and mind) of their neighbors. I don't have to agree to understand the thought process behind it. Clotheslines strung between buildings in alleyways of poorer urban neighborhoods does, kind of, look unkempt, and if I were the kind of person who really cared what my neighbors' homes look like, it might bother me to have their laundry airing where we all can see it.

Other restrictions and guidelines were, likely, framed for similar reasons. I read one person discussing HOAs who said, in effect, that she didn't wish to live in a neighborhood where abutting yards looked like something out of the 1970s hit comedy Sanford and Son (for those who don't know the reference, Sanford was a junkyard owner). The thought might be that those homes reduce the property values, or it could be the notion that junk sitting in a yard attracts animals like rats and skunks, or it could just be that people don't want to look at that when they look out their windows. In a local neighborhood, where there are no HOA restrictions, a woman (classified as a "hoarder") was ordered by the city to clean up her yard, as her collection was deemed a safety hazard and a fire trap. It's very likely that people who buy into these well manicured neighborhoods do so in an effort not to live next door to that person.

While people are very quick to malign suburban HOAs as all bad, the fact is that some communities have laws and ordinances that are just as restrictive. I live on a quarter acre, but the minimum size for a residential lot on my side of town is a half acre. My lot is grandfathered, because it was as it is before the law was passed. Unfortunately, I am still limited by the set-backs, which require 25 feet from property lines and 50 feet from roads. My entire lot has road frontage on one side, and at its widest, my lot is only 50' wide. Which means, basically, that I can't build anything - including a storage shed - because I wouldn't meet the minimum set back requirements.

And most of us have heard of Julie Bass, who was ordered by her community to raze her urban garden, because somebody in the planning department decided it violated some building or use code. There have been several others, too, who've ended up in court battling their town or city governments for the right to have a garden. The good news is that, for the most part, they are winning the right to have their gardens and even livestock.

In short, HOAs don't have a monopoly on being anti-homesteading for those who live in non-rural areas. It's a pain, but we're learning to do what we can with what we have where we are.

Which brings me to the point: what does one do if one lives in one of those kinds of neighborhoods, where the rules limit and/or restrict certain activities?

Based on talking with other people and doing some reading up on HOAs, I have a few guidelines.
  • 1. If there are no rules specifically prohibiting an action, and I mean in writing, not just anecdotal, then it's not against the rules. Don't ask if it's okay. When we first looked into getting chickens, I couldn't find any rules restricting them in my town. There were ordinances that governed agriculture-based businesses, but I had (and still have) no intention of selling my eggs or my chickens. I'm not a business. So, the rules that my town does have governing having chickens, do not apply to my situation. I didn't ask if it was okay for me to have chickens. I asked what the ordinance said, and since it didn't say no, I have them.
  • 2. Be willing to look for alternatives. If there is a restriction regarding chickens, don't assume that means you can't have any birds. There are a lot more options than just chickens. In fact, someone at my presentation in Pennsylvania said that her neighborhood prohibited chickens, but not ducks, and there are even quackless ducks, which are actually quite large and can be dual purpose - eggs and meat. Quail can also be an option. They take up very little space, especially as compared to chickens, they're very quiet, and with right male/female ratio, they are self-perpetuating - that is, the purchase of new chicks each spring becomes unnecessary, because they can be bred to keep a continual supply of both meat and eggs.

  • 3. Compromise. If the rules say no clotheslines, comply, but comply with exactly what it says. If it says no clotheslines consider that a drying rack on your back patio isn't the same thing as a clothesline. If the rules say that you can have gardens that are x, y, or z, considering filling those gardens with edibles instead of ornamentals. Often the edibles, especially perennial edibles, are just as pretty and will serve the same function as the ornamentals, but they have the added bonus that you can eat them. If the rules say nothing can be planted in the ground, except grass, don't plant your garden on the ground. Use containers. If you put the containers in a wagon, you can even move them around the yard, and back into your garage at night, which would have the added benefit of giving you some season extension (because the plants would be inside when the temps dropped below freezing at night, and you could put them back outside during the day). A food garden doesn't have to be rows of food or even raised beds. It can look just like a landscaped bed. It's not the style of the garden, but what's in it that matters.
  • 4. Get involved. If there are rules you don't like and that you simply can not live with, join the Board. If you're on the Board, you will be in a position to change the rules. Maybe you'll be successful, and maybe you won't, but doing nothing is a form of failure.

The bottom line is that we really can have what we want, if we're willing to look differently at how to attain our goals. We can homestead, even on a quarter of an acre, even when the rules try to limit what we want to do, if we're willing to look at creative solutions.

If all else fails, as Deus Ex Machina has said on several occasions, it's easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission. If you don't ask, they can't tell you no, but if you do ask, and they say no, and you do it anyway, you will get into trouble. Better to not ask, do what you want, and then, make corrections, if necessary.

1 comment:

  1. We live in an HOA in SW FL. We chose to live here for several reasons:
    proximity to shopping & medical
    proximity to I-75 in case we need to
    evacuate for a hurricane, a real
    backing on a greenway, or actually a
    large drainage ditch the HOA mows
    very reasonable rules which are in
    force to keep the neighborhood neat
    allows vegetable gardens, fences,
    clotheslines, yard sales but not
    livestock which the county does
    not allow
    and, most importantly, the HOA makes
    sure the vacant lots, of which there are many, stay mowed which prevents snakes, armadillos, fruit rats, etc from making homes and becoming major pests