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Kennedy School Review

Topic / Cities and Communities

America’s Democracy Shouldn’t Be A Gated Community

American democracy is increasingly more like a Homeowners Association (HOA) than the participatory and empowering system to which we should aspire. Property owners control decision making over the community by virtue of their wealth, excluding those unable to access property and pushing aside those with insufficient resources to participate. What’s more, the whims of long-passed HOA members still dictate daily life in a world they never contemplated. And, the levers for change are nearly impossible to pull. There’s a reason legal scholars commonly refer to HOAs as “private residential governments.”

Upwards of 62 million Americans live in a community with an HOA or something similar. Though these communities come in many names, they share some common governing characteristics. For example, they have their own version of a constitution usually referred to as Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions (CC&Rs). Like the nation’s constitution, these founding documents weren’t formed by a diverse group of residents but rather by a small group of biased parties eager to design a system that sustains their conception of community— a conception that tends to favor homogeneity and exclusivity. Accordingly, CC&Rs often ensure that developers and early residents wield considerable power. New residents commonly have no choice but to comply with rules that dictate everything from the color of their house to the kinds of pets they can own.

Property determines participation and power in both America’s democracy and an HOA. In the latter, votes are specifically allocated by property rather than personhood: typically, that ratio is one lot, one vote. In some cases, the power of property extends even further with votes being determined by the size of the lot or by allocating more votes per lot for original community members. In the United States, homeownership is similarly a proxy for political power. For instance, in California, 67% of likely voters are homeowners. On the flip side, 64% of infrequent voters are renters.

Just as the wealthiest and longest-tenured homeowners dominate HOAs, wealthier and older Americans dictate our democracy. Nearly 50% of likely voters in California have annual household incomes of $80,000 or more; for obvious reasons, higher income individuals are more likely to own houses and larger ones at that. A similar trend appears in Ohio and North Carolina politics, where the effect of homeownership on democratic participation increases with the price of the home purchase, leading the researchers—Andrew Hall and Jesse Yoder—to conclude that “homeowners have special influence in American politics.”

New members of HOAs, like immigrants to America, often prioritize stable housing and find themselves subject to rules that don’t align with their culture. Provisions in an HOA’s founding documents are given additional deference by courts. Whereas rules later added by the community, through the governing board of the HOA, for example, are subject to a “reasonableness” standard, rules set out in the CC&Rs often must be “unreasonable” to be overturned. To some, this prioritization of the original wishes of the community is a benefit—residents know that the core features of the community will likely never change. But to recent residents, this approach may be tough to swallow. New residents have limited hope of courts taking action and even slimmer odds of inciting change through their HOA board; these bodies regularly require substantial supermajorities of voters—sometimes as high as to pass any changes.

“New residents” of America also face substantial hurdles to influencing politics. Again using California as a case study, more than 80% of likely voters were born in the United States. It follows that political outcomes are not shaped by need, wants, or organizational capacity, but instead by the more arbitrary attribute of tenure in the United States. And, just as changing CC&Rs seems nearly impossible, those who want to update America’s constitution for modern life likewise face a task that even Sisyphus would say is too hard.

Homeowners wield greater influence in American politics, in part, because “their ownership motivates them to pay attention and participate.” Based on Hall and Yoder’s finding, how can the rest of us—immigrants, indigent community members, Millennials, and others with low rates of ownership—make up this motivation gap? There’s no single solution. Instead, community organizers and elected officials need to help non-homeowners understand how local and national politics can affect their daily lives. For a homeowner, a new property tax is immediately flagged as a new financial burden that ought to be carefully studied. For those without a home, it may be less clear how policy impacts day-to-day life. Making legislation and policy more understandable and more applicable to the lives of non-homeowners may be one way to motivate greater participation.

HOAs can empower people to make decisions for a community in which they have deep roots and strong connections. But this best-case scenario is not the norm in an HOA nor in America. More frequently, residents with the most wealth and free time call the shots—subjecting new and less financially secure residents to rules they never had a chance to meaningfully review.

America’s democracy should not operate like a gated community. But right now, HOAs—homeowners of America—are calling the shots.

Edited by: Christie Lawrence

Photo by: okchomeseller