Hostile HOAs: Exploring discrimination & wildness through private communities

By: Emma Henry

Introduction:

Homeowners Associations (HOAs) are a byproduct of the evolution of gated communities throughout global history. HOA neighborhoods are typically private, suburban neighborhoods that help maintain property values, ensure various standards are met, and provide various services such as landscaping, building maintenance, and operation of shared spaces.  Edward Blakely and Mary Gail Snyder’s examination of gated communities in the United States starts with a history of European class divisions and later manifests as the privatization of community spaces and the creation of suburban neighborhoods. Blakely and Snyder argue that HOA communities now act as a form of micro-governance, avoiding access to public resources and creating a specific level of control that is chosen by the people who live there.

206 Wisteria Lane, last sold for $730,000

Walking through the private, HOA community of Wisteria Lane in Media, Pennsylvania, I was curious as to how the perfection of this neighborhood was ultimately created, and what it might say about the area in which I grew up. My home is a five-minute drive from this place, but I had never experienced such pristine, intentional landscaping and architecture throughout an entire neighborhood before. Wisteria Lane’s HOA is operated by CAMCO Management, a firm created to “enhance community life.” The neighborhood is part of the larger community of Jordan Estates, a 42-home area with an average real estate price of $780,000 and $500 in HOA fees. Needless to say, I was curious as to how this neighborhood came to exist, and what it might say about my larger community and its perspectives on environmentality, wildness, and accessibility.

A Brief History of HOAs:

University of Maryland professor Dr. Robert H. Nelson  attributes the rise of the HOA  to the use of zoning and the rise of suburban neighborhoods in the 1920s. In the 1970s, HOAs began increasing steadily, creating a “system of neighborhood governance.”

“As legally private entities, the new neighborhood governments could discriminate in some areas forbidden to public governments, facilitating the creation, for example, of age-restricted communities that are now common across the United States.” – Dr. Robert Nelson

Private communities have a complex global history, with some of the earliest gated communities built by the Romans. Fortresses, castles, and various systems of walls later contributed to class division. Blakely and Snyder mention that London had no police force until the 18th century, so protection was often in the form of private, gated land. In the 19th century United States, affluent residents of cities built gated communities, and later in the 20th century, private communities were extended to the development of retirement homes. The authors of this paper also mention that the rise of the gated community built out of fear has been on the rise as recently as the 1980s, though it could be argued that the building of walls or privatization of property has always had an element of fear associated with it. Lastly, they mention Nelson’s point regarding the rise of zoning, however, they emphasize that zoning and city planning were a form of social and economic segregation — they create a barrier to access and a suburban utopia for affluent or middle-class residents.

Today, there are almost 400,000 HOAs in the United States with 53% of homeowners living in HOA communities.  One report  from this past October mentioned that over 80% of all homes sold in 2021 were part of HOA communities, with thousands more forming every year. In Pennsylvania, roughly 10% of the state population lives in an HOA community with over  20 HOAs  existing in Media, PA.

HOA Discrimination:

Evan McKenzie’s book,  Privatopia:  Homeowner Associations and the Rise of Residential Private Government, mentions that federally insured suburbanization through the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) was initially intended to keep minorities out of certain neighborhoods. This philosophy was partially based on the belief that minorities would threaten property values, and that neighborhoods should be kept racially homogenous.

“FHA adopted the industry’s idea that restrictive covenants, enforced by homeowner associations, were one way to preserve those property values, and it set about promoting the creation of “homogenous” neighborhoods, using racial covenants to exclude minorities.” -Evan McKenzie

Aerial View of Levittown, 1950s

HOAs have a complicated history of racism, classism, and elitism, tied particularly to the development of private communities and property. As I walked through Wisteria Lane, I noticed the manifestation of whiteness and elitism solely through the residents I saw walking around as well as the traditionalist suburban architecture that each home replicated. Every yard contained a mixture of magnolia trees, spruce trees, and various boxwood shrubs — all plants that are, notably, not native to Pennsylvania. Every yard blended into the next, with pristine landscaping making sure there was nothing obviously out of place. It reminded me of 1950s-style suburbia — neighborhoods and communities that began thriving in postwar America.

This neighborhood separation was reminiscent of Robert Kaplan’s  “The Coming Anarchy”  in which he believes that the degradation of the environment has set off a downward spiral of social disintegration. He makes the issue of ethnic conflict a central part of his article, arguing that security can only truly be accomplished through containment and exclusion. Kaplan’s ethnocentrism and alarmist attitudes toward subsistence shortages are prevalent in the existence of HOA communities. HOAs, by existence, ensure that a certain demographic of people are unable to live in specific neighborhoods due to cost and living requirements. HOA fees can be from $300 to over $500 a month, along with rising real estate prices and taxes.

In his 2013 book, “Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies, ” Seth Holmes reinforces the idea of symbolic violence.” In it, he mentions that society has begun to misrecognize oppression as natural because it “fits” into observed bodily schemata within society. This concept, however, is one I also thought about while walking around Wisteria Lane. Holmes specifically mentions the concept of dirt as disorder — that “whiteness” is not just about color, but about smell and appearance. Society justifies the living conditions of various people because they assume it is normal, or that they are not deserving of a certain status until they assimilate into norms associated with “whiteness.”


Wisteria Lane’s seemingly pristine landscape and image from the outside seemed to reject all forms of dirt, disorder, wildness, and difference in any form. Granted, my small observation is limited in its capacity to recognize who actually lived in these homes, what their lives were like, and whether or not they were as controlled as it seemed from the outside. My knowledge of real estate prices and the historical basis of HOA communities provides some bias in these descriptions, as I am under the assumption that a majority of these homes are owned by white, affluent, suburban citizens. I also know, however, that the incredible increase in HOA-controlled communities has risen so much that avoiding one of these neighborhoods in the future seems nearly impossible. There is a difference between choosing to live in an HOA community versus being forced to reside in one.

An Opposition to Wildness:

Outside of critiques of HOA communities, my trip to Wisteria Lane also made me rethink my opinion of pristine landscaping. It was too easy for me to say that the way these homes were maintained equated to elitism and control. Maybe, along with these factors, there was also an element of wilderness. At first, this private community seemed completely opposed to wilderness or uniqueness in any form. I was shocked at the lack of individuality that was prevalent on my walk. I noticed, however, that my own judgments and personal opinions of architecture, private communities, and landscaping were altering my observation. This community had the potential and history to be severely critiqued, but maybe there was something else to be analyzed too — how we view nature within the suburbs as well as what biases we hold.

Appreciation for Our Backyards:

I began to think about Arun Agrawal’s book: “Environmentality: Technologies of Government and the Making of Subjects.” Agrawal explains that “environmentality,” a combination of “governmentality” and “environment,” gives local communities the ability to regulate natural spaces, giving power to smaller groups of people. He specifically mentions the existence of forest councils in India, however, I began to reimagine how smaller communities around the world regulate their own environments and related it to my observation of Wisteria Lane. Some of the issues that Agrawal discusses, such as the lack of representation for certain voices in local government, can be found in private communities as well, but I began to rethink what I knew about community governance. Maybe the creation of an “intimate government” allows communities to become more tight-knit, and increases appreciation for the local community. Maybe we begin to appreciate our own homes, backyards, and neighborhoods (the “ordinary”) when we are able to contribute to our local ethics and beliefs.

William Cronon’s article,  “The Trouble with Wilderness,” also questioned the assumptions of my observation. In it, he rethinks traditional concepts of wilderness, walking the reader through the history of wilderness — the frontier, the sublime, religious experiences of nature, and class privilege through recreation. At the end of his piece, Cronon argues for the appreciation of nature outside of the sublime. If we learn to recognize the otherness in things that are unfamiliar to us, we can also recognize it in things and places that seem ordinary. In this way, we can learn to create a responsible environmental ethic that honors the wild and practices gratitude as well as recognizes wildness in every place, even in our own backyards.

“What I celebrate about such places is not just their wildness, though that certainly is among their most important qualities; what I celebrate even more is that they remind us of the wildness in our own backyards, of the nature that is all around us if we only have the eyes to see it.” -William Cronon

Reflections:

Through my observation of Wisteria Lane, I concluded an array of things. I realized I had plenty of critiques related to private communities as a whole, as well as the way they presented themselves through architecture and landscaping. I also realized that I had extreme biases based on what I knew about the history of HOAs as well as my assumptions about who lives in private communities. Once I realized this, I began to think about what I could learn about the environment and the way humans perceive it through private community landscaping. Cronon’s conclusions about finding wilderness in our backyards spoke to me as I wandered around the neighborhood — maybe there was an element of beauty and wilderness here.


Even if I have assumptions, and even if I am able to critique the existence of these neighborhoods, I am also able to extend gratitude and respect to the way this place portrays natural spaces. I also recognize, now, that there is still work to be done in suburban, private spaces. Hopefully, there are ways we can begin to create HOA communities that are not exclusive or inaccessible, so a variety of people from all walks of life can experience wilderness anywhere, and find joyful communities without suffering from elitism, discrimination, racism, and classism in their own spaces.

Sources:

Agrawal, Arun. Environmentality: Technologies of Government and the Making of Subjects. Duke University Press, New Haven, Connecticut, 2005.

Blakely, Edward, and Mary G. Snyder. Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States. Brookings Institution Press, Washington, D.C., 1997.

Cronon, William. “The Trouble with Wilderness: Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” Environmental History, vol. 1, no. 1, 1996, pp. 7–28. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/3985059.

Nelson, Robert H. “Homeowners Associations in Historical Perspective.” Public Administration Review, vol. 71, no. 4, 2011, pp. 546–49. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23017462. Accessed 8 Dec. 2022.

“HOA Statistics.”, Oct 9, 2022, https://ipropertymanagement.com/research/hoa-statistics.

Holmes, Seth. Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies : Migrant Farmworkers in the United States. University of California Press, Berkeley, California, 2013.

“Homeowners Associations Media, PA.”, https://hoa-community.com/location/pa/media-pa/.

Kaplan, Robert. “The Coming Anarchy.” The Atlantic, Feb, 1994, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1994/02/the-coming-anarchy/304670/.

McKenzie, Evan. Privatopia:  Homeowner Associations and the Rise of Residential Private Government. Vail-Ballou Press, Yale University, Binghamton, New York, 1994.

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