Thanksgiving and private property rights

By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities


Sometimes I agree with John Stossel, and sometimes I don’t. But this Thanksgiving video explaining the “tragedy of the commons” with regard to Pilgrim settlers is right on.

Watch this brief video first, then see my additional commentary below.

Now think about the “tragedy of the commons” as it applies to the modern association-governed community.

In any common interest community, two or more homeowners (or shareholders in a cooperative) share common land or common infrastructure. It could be an apartment style building, private roads, a storm water retention pond, a community pool, park, or tennis courts, walking trails, and much more.

Ironically, some of the newest common interest communities are agrihoods, built around a communal farm.

And, guess what? All over the U.S., the majority of homeowner, condo, and cooperative associations face serious financial challenges, because their collective communities have failed to save money and invest in their own commons. In fact, many maturing communities have fallen into a serious state of disrepair. An increasing number of communities, especially condominium associations, face functional obsolescence.

In association-governed communities that are still functioning, a very common complaint is that a handful of residents do all the hard work, and most owners and residents are apathetic. The reality is that, almost always, a few association members wield the lion’s share of the power, and impose their rules, preferences, and financial priorities upon all of their neighbors.

When a crisis hits, and money is needed for maintenance and repair of common property, the fierce infighting and blame-shifting begins. When a dozen homes flood every time it rains, ten dozen other homeowners – unaffected by dysfunctional storm drainage – will stubbornly refuse to fund needed repairs. If the roof of a 6-story condominium leaks, the only owners interested in paying for a new roof are the ones living on the 6th floor. The rest of condo owners often vote to delay expensive roof replacement indefinitely.

The same principle applies to any proposal to renovate or improve the community. Families with children are in favor of renovating the pool. Seniors that never use the pool would rather spend communal cash on converting the tennis courts for a pickle ball league. Consensus is nearly impossible and exceedingly rare.

Eerie, isn’t it?

Private vs. communal vs. public – the big picture

By now, it should be obvious that U.S. housing policy has gone astray by eroding private property ownership in favor of common interest development.

It’s common sense. Private property owners who have a personal stake in public services are more likely to support their hometowns. In a city or town with a variety of homeowners who are not governed by restrictive covenants and mandatory associations, roads, parks, and storm drains are well-maintained. Neighborhoods remain safe and attractive. Parents support good schools. Crime rates remain low.

Conversely, when misguided public policy pushes private property owners out of town and into HOAs and common interest developments, when home ownership becomes unaffordable, what is the result?

Usually, it creates conditions where entire neighborhoods are effectively owned by landlords, and where homes and apartments are inhabited mainly by tenants or struggling homeowners who cannot afford to move out or improve their lives.

The resulting public disinvestment makes municipal decline inevitable.


What makes or breaks communities?

Centuries ago, the Pilgrims learned the value of dividing plots of land into privately owned lots, where each individual or household could take pride in ownership and gain control of their own destiny. Early American settlers also recognized the value of private business ownership, not to mention division of labor, for the very same reasons.

And then, roughly 50 years ago, a small group of influential housing and financial policy makers decided to destroy more than 200 years of historical progress by re-instituting communal property ownership.

To make matters worse, the HOA then became the norm for the majority of new construction, privatizing both governmental services and power.

In doing so, policymakers threw cities, the public interest, and private property rights under the bus.

Policymakers and some unenlightened Americans  seem to have missed the history lesson of the “tragedy of the commons.” Early American Pilgrims discovered that a community is actually stronger when individual property rights are valued and respected.

How’s that for some Thanksgiving food for thought?


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