Monday, June 5, 2000

Week of 06/05/2000

Covenant Neighborhoods - Passive Socialism
- by David Matthews 2

"All greatness of character is dependent on individuality. The man who has no other existence than that which he partakes in common with all around him, will never have any other than an existence of mediocrity" - James Fenimore Cooper

Ah, home sweet home! The great American dream.

There is no greater indicator of stability than to own a home. No more apartment dwellings. No more living in a building with walls so paper-thin that you could hear your neighbors as they breathe. No more being limited to the maintenance schedules of the superintendent. Your own home, with your own mailbox at the end of the driveway, and your own yard for you manage as you see fit.

One of the key indicators of economic stability is the sale of existing houses and the construction of new ones. New homes mean more people moving into a community. It means there are jobs available in the area. More homes mean more stores, more schools, and more services.

In the greater Atlanta area, growth was explosive during the years just before the 1996 Olympic games. It was not uncommon to drive down a stretch of road, and in just one month return there and see it clear-cut, with several hundred homes put up. The growth of subdivisions in the area actually moved faster than the growth of kudzu. One minute there is a patch of woods, the next minute there are fifty identical-looking homes.

And the people lapped up these homes! Who wouldn’t? Men and women who work good jobs and are paid well for their work can afford to take out a home mortgage. They all want that dream of living in their own homes and doing what they want to on their own property.

But is it really their property? Is the home they live in really theirs to do with as they wish?

Not in many instances.

Quite often those homeowners are living in enclaves called "covenant neighborhoods." Oh, they’ll have different names for it, the most popular being "homeowner’s association", but the game is still the same.

Covenant neighborhoods have been around for several decades. They’re popular with real estate developers, relators, and banks because for them it guarantees property values will remain constant.

Many owners, however, don’t even realize what they’re really getting into when they buy a house in a covenant neighborhood. Some aren’t even told they’re in a covenant neighborhood until the last minute of closing. Pete Whaley of Lawrenceville, Georgia, was ready to renege on his closing when he realized what was involved in living in a covenant neighborhood. He probably would have called the whole thing off if he and his family hadn’t already moved out of the apartment and were ready to move in that day.

So what is it that people get into with these covenant neighborhoods? Well, on the surface, you’d think pretty common sense stuff. You agree to keep the lawn mowed and the exterior of the house nice. No junk cars on cinder blocks or beat-up sofas on the porch, or painting the house bright neon colors. Pretty reasonable, right?

Well, if that was the case, there wouldn’t be so many problems with covenant neighborhoods.

Many covenants have more than just a few no-nonsense rules. Some get extremely anal-retentive and downright tyrannical.

Let’s look at some of the rules in Mr. Whaley’s neighborhood. People living in the Towne Park subdivision must keep their garage doors closed at all times, and park their cars "perpendicular" to the street in their driveway. Want to put in a new flower bed? Well, you must first submit a "landscaping plan" to the "Architectural Control Committee" and get their blessings. As a matter of fact, just about any change in the exterior of your house must first get their approval.

How about your lawn? Well in Towne Park, it’s not just important to keep your lawn mowed, but you HAVE to make sure your lawn is the same as everyone else. If your neighbors have Bermuda sod, you have Bermuda sod on your lawn. If your lawn is green in the winter while everyone else has a brown lawn, you get punished.

Pretty anal-retentive rules, don’t you think?

And guess who makes most of these rules? Well, not the homeowners, that’s for sure. In most instances, it is the developers and real estate lawyers who craft the rules, although if the homeowners want to they could remove some of the restrictions if they can get the support of three-fourths of the residents.

So let’s suppose you say "Screw them! This is my house and my property, and I’m going to do whatever I want to on my property! Besides, what are they going to do to me?"

Well, for starters, you get fined. The local homeowners association can assess fines of $25 per day for each infraction they see. And don’t think for a moment that the neighbors won’t complain. Local writer Jerilyn DePete thought the same way once, until her homeowners association decided to slip a notice in her mailbox simply because her lawn had patches of brown from a particular stain of Bermuda sod that turned green late.

Don’t pay the fine? Well, after a while the tab increases. Then they put a lien on your house. Essentially they could force you out of your own house.

So let’s get brutally honest here.. do you really own your own home if it is in a covenant neighborhood?

No, you don’t. Essentially you’re just leasing the home, maintaining it for the sake of the relators and the builders and your neighbors. This is the message of a covenant neighborhood: "We will let you live here, but you must keep the property looking nice for us. You will have to maintain it for us, at your own cost, and you won’t be able to make any changes to your property without our permission. You will essentially have to do everything you normally do if you still lived in an apartment, except you will also have to pay the property taxes as well."

The end result is you are not taking care of your own property for your reasons. You are simply there to take care of the property for other people. For the relators, for the lawyers, and for the neighbors, so their property will look just as good as yours. It’s not a matter of keeping up with the Joneses, but rather forcing the Joneses to keep up with everyone else.

There is a word to describe this kind of existence: socialism.

So I’m sure you’re thinking that it’s up to the homeowners to decide whether or not to live in such a neighborhood. After all, they chose to live there, right? They knew what was required of them to live in that neighborhood. That’s what the real estate lawyers and the local socialist committees are saying, and I would tend to agree with that argument… if there really is a choice in the matter.

In some communities, however, there is no choice. Goaded on by relators and developers, some towns and suburbs in America are requiring all subdivisions to be under covenant, to essentially FORCE socialism on new homeowners. This is not only wrong, but contrary to every shred of freedom America is supposed to represent.

Lawyers and covenant advocates say that the alternative would be to live in the "wild, wild west"; that without their precious, constipated rules, the community would descend into anarchy. I would strongly disagree with that argument. I seriously do not think homeowners who don’t live in a covenant neighborhood are eager to paint their homes neon green, or lay down Astroturf in their front yard. The people who want to take care of their homes do so not because of some contract set up by lawyers eager for a quick buck and developers looking for buyers for their cookie-cutter homes. They take care of their own property because they are responsible individuals.

If someone wants to live in a socialist neighborhood, that is their decision. But the knowledge that a prospective home is a covenant one should be made up front, way before closing is even an option, so they can weigh that choice with other options. It would also help if the real estate lawyers got out of writing covenants. Have the homeowners decide for themselves which rules should and should not be applied. That would certainly make covenants easier to comply with, and cut down on many of the conflicts that currently arise today.

People don’t buy homes to appease developers, banks, lawyers, or relators. They buy homes for themselves and for their family. Somewhere in all that money and paperwork, that little fact of life has been forgotten.

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