Monday, May 23, 2011

Rebooting The HOA

This is a guest post by Richard W. Boyd, who's exploring how Yatown can be a tool to help bring his neighborhood together in Buda, Texas, a suburb just outside Austin famous for its lighthearted annual Buda Wiener Dog Races.

(photo credit: ©Travis Witt, CC-BY-SA 3.0)
This post originally appeared on my own blog. It is reprinted here under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported License.

I attended my first Homeowner’s Association a few days ago and came away underwhelmed and overbored (thank you Kurt). Before we get too far into this post you need to know that I used to be in the U.S. Army not too long ago and that it has altered my expectations for being welcomed into a new place. The Army way is to go where one is ordered, be that Korea, Texas, Germany, or scenic Iraq. It’s common for a family to migrate every few years to a new state or even a new continent. As such, units place a premium on integrating both the soldier and his or her family into a new environment. Units send welcome packets ahead of time showing the location, things to do, and points of contact for services and organizations. Usually an incoming family is sponsored by another family already at the unit that acts as a support structure to help integrate the spouse and any children into a whole new societal structure which can include anything from a new school to learning a new cultural custom.

Post Army I’ve gone through three normal moves (normal being those that don’t involve trips to Iraq or Afghanistan for extended camping trips). Each time the process has been remarkably similar: show up, look around, sign paperwork, receive packet of spectacular discounts and fun places to visit, then proceed with unpacking all the things you’ve decided that you can’t live without. The first two moves were to apartments / condominiums and I felt that this was a normal introduction to my new habitat. Why? Because an places that aren’t houses are generally thought of as being without roots. In other words you are more likely to be renting than owning and the company that maintains and markets the building / complex is accustomed to people coming and going.
“What we have done, unconsciously, is outsource the idea of community to the private sector”
Which brings me, circuitously, to my current residential circumstance. My wife and I have embarked on chasing the American dream: we added massive debt in the form of a mortgage on a nice little house in the suburbs. We figured that since we’re getting married we may as well go all-in and have our own house built from the numerous (ten to be exact) models that were available. We met with the builder several times, stopped by the house daily during the build to take pictures (which everyone should do) and did our final inspections. And then … nothing.
No neighbors bringing over cake / pie / cupcakes / casserole to welcome us to the neighborhood. No kids driving by on their new bicycles waving at us with a father / mother in tow to come over and say “howdy neighbor.” The only person, from the time we moved in late last year to this week, that I’ve actually met is the neighbor across the road from me; we happen to be the only two houses in our area which is one of two new sections in the community. Isolation encourages familiarity when you’re on an island like ours. So, it was with great aplomb that I marked down the Annual Community meeting on my calendar. Finally, a chance to meet my neighbors and the board and find out what’s been going on here for the past few months. The reality failed to meet my expectations.
The president of the board stood on stage with the HOA lead and rattled off financial data and future plans. The comment section went on much longer than anticipated and revealed several cracks under the orderly facade of suburban life, flaws that I feel have been exacerbated by the growth of social networks. More on that in a second. What I want you to know is that most of the problems seemed based on communication between residents and the board or residents and the HOA, going both directions. Residents submitted requests for lights to be fixed or easements to be mowed that either received no action or devolved into an endless game of phone tag. The various committees had slowed their active engagement with residents. Throughout all this the board was focused more on getting builders in than really getting hands-on with the residents. It became apparent that not only had their been a massive communication breakdown but there also seemed to be a community breakdown too.
My philosopher-with-club narrative at this point revolves around two unrelated trends that seem to exaggerate the flaws in each other: suburban community developments since 1980 and the rise of social networks within the last decade. In most large cities there are still vestiges of the original “residential” area. Typically you find tracts of smaller homes in a grid pattern near large employers or arteries in the landscape. With the infrastructure investments of the last century coupled with the normalization of car ownership residential areas became decoupled with being near employment hubs. As an aside, in the latter part of the 19th century it was seen as a sign of status to not have to live near a factory or major employer. So, there is also a sociological precedent, however latent it may be.
“.. an electronic outlet for friendships [gives you] forced isolation and lack of civic skills ...”
What we have done, unconsciously, is outsource the idea of community to the private sector in the guise of Homeowner Associations and housing developments. Now we don’t have to live near our place of employment or even within the city limits; we can simply drive to work or drive to the shopping district then retreat to our little suburban enclave. These suburban clusters of houses and manicured lawns act like cities in that a group of people live there and have a common set of rules (i.e. the Homeowners Association by-laws) and perhaps a token committee or two made up of citizens, but no real democracy, no election of leaders, and no sense of the shared bond of collectively deciding our governance that is democracy. We have every economic reason to choose where to live but no reason to form civic bonds.
The suburbanization of America is a fertile ground for social connections to friends and loved ones, maybe even people that share the same interest. Now that we are freed from our normal civic and geographic bonds we can find friends that may not be within our physical vicinity due to our increasing isolation enabled by a lack of civic bonds or community. Adding friends becomes a button click instead of talking to a total stranger or meeting someone new at the office. Our bar for what passes as a social connection is lowered.
Imagine, if you will, a collection of people living in the same couple of square miles that lack a common income, a common employer, a common trade, a common political view, without a social center within walking or biking district. But give them an electronic outlet for friendships and you get the forced isolation and lack of civic skills that today’s suburb environment breeds.
In the end, the Homeowner’s Association Meeting felt like an exercise in complaint-management and the flaws in the suburban model of development were laid bare. Thus began my search for a solution to this problem. Right now I’m taking part in a social networking site called Yatown which takes the social networking capabilities of other sites but gears it towards building the missing social bonds that are absent in today’s suburban landscape. My hope is to try and get this site adopted by my little suburb as a starting point towards fixing little spot south of Austin where I hang my hat.

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