In the 1990s, just about the only site amenity that most suburban developments offered was a fancy entrance monument. Usually, there were no other additions beyond ordinance minimums and even those weren’t generally elaborate. Some of these monuments did cost millions, but once past the gilded gates, the seduction ended, and residents were greeted by familiar monotonous cookie cutter subdivisions.
As neighborhood planners, we educate our developer clients regarding the virtues of building site amenities that improve Quality of Life (trails, gazebos, decorative ponds and fountains, etc). You would think these amenities were an easy sell to the cities approving the developments. After all, great developments create a great city, right? It’s not that simple, because all of these amenities require maintenance, and that places a burden on tax payers. No city wants to create a tax burden for all, when the likely benefit accrues to the few within the development.
The solution to that problem was simple: The Home Owners Association. We are not talking about the type of Stepford-like association where lifestyles and flower plantings are strictly dictated, but the more limited type that adds a small monthly fee to service the common outdoor site amenities. In other words, only those extra amenities are cared for. Private yards still remain the financial burden of the individual homeowners. In the North, with snow removal, these neighborhood association fees are likely to be higher if the trails and walks are cleared. Since these Associations do not have to maintain private yards or address maintenance of buildings typical of townhome projects, the monthly fees are minimal. Some associations were formed in the North that did give options for snow removal on private driveways, at a very reasonable cost (after all, why not clear a few extra driveways while you are out clearing the trails?).
The developer could now offer a much higher living standard and create more valuable lots that would be easier to sell. The majority of the neighborhoods we designed in the late 1990s through 2006 (the recession) offered the advantages that these minimal cost Associations could provide. We encouraged developers to spend less on elaborate entrance monuments and instead spread real value through the development where people lived.
How HOAs May Be At Risk The recession has not just brought about massive foreclosures and reduced home prices. It has escalated real-estate taxes (the home value may be 40% less but the tax remains at pre-recession rates) and put the very idea of a Home Owners Association at risk. With failed development, there are often also failed Associations. With little or no maintenance of a development that was once cared for by private funding, cities may have to take over the burden until the economy recovers, and in some areas, if it recovers. Comprehensive associations that maintain all of the grounds (where there are no privately maintained yards),including the building exteriors and rooftops, as well as the streets, are at the greatest risk. The limited Associations that were typical of the neighborhoods we designed are not as much of a problem, but could easily be lumped into “all Associations are bad news” category in the minds of those approving future developments, after the economy returns.
This affects all types of residential development.
Developments that exceed minimum standards typically offer site amenities to make the development more enticing. Someone must maintain these extras. Fear of HOA failures will certainly be more on the minds of cities after the recession, but without HOAs, who will maintain the amenities? A two million dollar entrance monument does not make a neighborhood sustainable. Spreading value through the neighborhood with features that enhance quality of life, is a better investment. The Homeowners Association must not fall victim to the recession.