The Effect of Homeowners Associations on Sustainability

4 minute read

The concept of an Homeowners Association, or HOA, isn’t one that typically comes to mind when most people think of sustainability. We see more and more horror stories in the news nowadays of homeowners slapped with hefty fines for growing gardens on their own property, or even thrown in jail for daring to keep a cistern in their backyard.

The thought of another level of bureaucracy telling us what we can and can’t do with our properties doesn’t intuitively lend itself to sustainable living. But HOAs aren’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future, so our best plan is to be aware of their influence, and understand how they can be used as a tool (rather than a roadblock) for a more sustainable environment.

HOAs are Here to Stay

The prevalence of HOAs in our communities has exploded over the past four decades. Association-governed communities have grown from 10,000 (with 2.1 million residents) in 1970 to a massive 323,600 (with 63.4 million residents) in 2012. A little more than half of those represent HOAs. If people continue to flee from cities to suburbs, that number should only increase. And with that comes the increased control HOAs have over our living and green spaces.

One of the biggest problems with HOAs is that they are typically formed and put in place by a developer, before any lots are sold. Although ostensibly there to maintain the appearance and uniformity of a community, at its heart an HOA is put in place to secure and increase the developers’ investment in their property. Sometimes this benefits the homeowner. Sometimes it doesn’t.

This can affect more than just the type of hedges you’re allowed to grow in the side yard. This can also put restrictions on building materials, often with a focus on appearance over environmental impact. Although there’s little you can do about this once the property has been built, it’s an important thing to be aware of when considering a new home purchase. Do some reading on the HOA’s developer, and see what kind of reputation they have.

The Pros and Cons

HOAs can have both a positive and negative effect on your efforts toward sustainable living. For example, many place restrictions on what you can do with your property’s exterior. While a neatly-kept vegetable garden, modest solar paneling and a small coop for laying hens may be your idea of a beautiful home, the same might not hold true for the HOA board.

Before you start tilling the flowerbeds, read the HOA bylaws. You may be able to get away with a backyard garden in raised planters, or even a small garden that’s regularly weeded and mulched over in the dormant season. Healthy communication is the key to getting what you want without breaking the rules.

At the same time, HOAs offer some benefits toward sustainable living. They can be very good at organizing a neighborhood into an actual community, sharing resources and spreading regional information. Density requirements can help preserve areas of green space, and even foster things like community gardens and composting areas. Some HOAs are very good at organizing their members’ recycling efforts, as well. While HOAs can be a burden on the individual level, there are a number of good things they can accomplish at the community level.

What You Can Do

If your HOA doesn’t already have a sustainability committee or covenant, it should. A committee of informed, driven residents can go a long way toward supporting your sustainability efforts in your neighborhood at large, or just in your backyard. A committee can put pressure on builders to use environmentally-friendly materials, as mentioned earlier, educate residents about tax credits and incentives for things like on-site energy generation, and a long list of other benefits.

While HOAs are not known for their friendliness toward the sustainability movement, that can be changed. The more you get involved and take ownership of your own neighborhood, the more HOA boards will begin to wake up. Hopefully they’ll see that the times are demanding a more sustainable lifestyle, and they may follow suit.

Lin Rice is a freelance writer and recovering journalist working out of the central Ohio region. He blogs on real estate issues for Movoto Real Estate, and his work can be found on a number of other sites.

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