Tuesday, April 5, 2016

homeowners associations

One of the striking ways in which my views have changed since (say) I turned 30 is that I'm a lot more pessimistic about local government in practice than I used to be.  The principle of subsidiarity still has great theoretical appeal to me, however, and I've had some ideas in the past several ideas, many of which have other features I found unattractive when I was in my twenties as well, to try to mitigate the problems that local governments often face.

While not exactly a local "government", homeowners associations are of particular interest in this context in that there are certain sorts of problems to which they seem like obvious and even necessary solutions, and yet I think they often highlight the worst of local government.  A large part of the problem is sort of an averse selection or "attractive nuisance" feature they have, which is tied to the fact that the knowledge that someone is interested in serving on the homeowners' association tends to imply that that is not a person you would want to serve on the homeowners' association; they may attract some people who have a sense of duty that is not entirely misplaced, but they also draw anyone with an inclination toward officiousness, a certain kind of status-seeking, or peculiar axes to grind.  The equilibrium here is that they be held in check by the constraint that normal civic-minded people find the prospect of getting elected, attending the meetings, and providing whatever other service is entailed slightly more obnoxious than putting up with the current board, which thereby consists primarily of people with at least slightly antisocial motivations.

One solution is something akin to Athenian democracy: part of your "homeowners association dues" is the obligation to occasionally serve on the board, which consists of a somewhat random sample of homeowners, which, as I noted, is likely to result in a majority that is at least less pathological than the group that would volunteer.  I don't hate that solution, but I have in mind another set of solutions, driven by the same idea that what one needs is a system for attracting candidates for office who are motivated more strongly by something other than telling their neighbors what to do.  What's particularly interesting is how squarely these three solutions fly in the face of the sort of thing that various progressive (in the best-preserved century-old sense of the term) and "good government" forces would tend to put forward:
  1. Allow, encourage, and maybe require that some of the board members come from outside the community;
  2. Circumscribe the job such that actually performing it is as unburdensome as is possible while getting the actually needed tasks handled
  3. Provide a salary for the job at a level that is at least on the brink of ridiculously generous.
The latter two points should be clear in light of the preceding commentary; money may not be the motivation you would have as your first choice, but it's likely to be less malign than many intrinsic motivations, and, provided that it's sufficient to draw enough candidates to have a competitive election, is ultimately not insuperable. These provisions make the job more attractive to normal people, and hopefully enough normal people that the winning candidates are somewhat representative of the people electing them, rather than the people who were motivated enough to volunteer. The first provision is not there with the expectation that the average person from outside the community is a better candidate than the average person in the community, but simply the expectation that there are more of them; inducing forces to draw candidates from outside of petty neighborly disputes is part of it, but this provision, too, is more concerned with drawing enough candidates to get a competitive race from which the homeowners can meaningfully elect a proper subset.

So there's my advice: turn it into a well-paid sinecure open to outsiders in order that it best serve the electorate.

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