No need for HOA in the future’s driverless suburban utopia

By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities

Here’s some news that’s not really news. The vast majority of Americans prefer living in the suburbs rather than urban centers in crowded, expensive cities.


Here at IAC, several previous posts have pointed out that Census data and home builder surveys indicate that most Americans choose suburban living over vibrant, gentrified downtowns.

The truth is, most of us are priced out of living in the heart of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, Seattle, and Manhattan, cities where gleaming glass towers full of mostly empty condos and office suites cast dark shadows over the masses on the sidewalks below, packed with mostly common folk caught in the grind of long daily commutes, struggling just to make ends meet.



People gravitate toward the suburbs because that’s where they can afford to pay the rent, and where young families can afford to purchase a home in an unrestricted child-friendly neighborhood with a backyard and decent schools nearby.

Bonuses: suburban neighborhoods are quieter, traffic is lighter, and crime rates are much lower.

Census data are indisputable. Millennials represent the largest share of new household formation. And, just like previous generations, when they marry and have children, they move to the suburbs.

But even as the demand for suburban locales heats up, some major transformations are underway.

According to this 2016 demographic study by the Urban Land Institute, the hot new trend is something they call the “surban” community — a suburban area with commercial development creating new walkable Main Streets that reduce dependence on cars by bringing city conveniences to the towns where people live.

Where People Will Want to Be: “Surban” Communities

By Trisha Riggs
October 19, 2016

“Surban” communities—suburban neighborhoods offering the most desired features of urban and suburban living—will attract the most households in the United States over the next ten years, according to a new ULI report, Demographic Strategies for Real Estate. Many people will choose to rent rather than own homes, pushing up demand for single-family rentals.

Despite the continued revival of urban downtowns, the suburbs will draw at least 80 percent of the coming wave of new households as younger families seek urban amenities combined with more kid-friendly housing and good schools typically associated with the suburbs, says the report, prepared for ULI’s Terwilliger Center for Housing by John Burns Real Estate Consulting (which coined the term surban).


There’s plenty of interesting analysis of Census data in the “Surban” report. However, the reader may want to remember the political mindset and economic goals of its authors.

Decades of predictions of urban renewal and strong investment in cities by urban planning elites have failed to herd the majority of the populace into dense urban cores, to live in highrise apartments and condos perched atop restaurants, bars, and retail shops.

The mixed use concept has produced mixed results. For many housing consumers, there is a desire to be close to conveniences and amenities, but not too close.

It seems like common sense to Baby Boomers. Renting an apartment within earshot of the neighborhood bar or nightclub is going to make it difficult to get a good night’s sleep. A condo above an Asian restaurant cannot escape the fumes of curry and stir fried rice. When the indie book store or home-made candle shop goes out of business, and commercial properties in the mixed use condo association stand vacant for months or years, condo assessments of residential owners must rise to cover the deficit in the operating budget. Tenants cover those costs in the form of rising rent.


Time for change ( free image)



Will the creation of mixed use (residential with commercial) walkable downtowns, albeit on a smaller scale in the suburbs, fare any better than their urban ancestors?

It’s doubtful.

However, mixing different types of commercial uses in a “surban” center, while still offering some separation from residential housing, would probably be a welcome change from currently isolated, far-flung bedroom communities.

As the next article points out, home buying consumers are demanding single family detached housing rather than stacked condominiums or townhouses.

After years of apartment living with noisy neighbors and fights over parking and pets, many of today’s home buyers desire privacy, elbow room, and personal green spaces. This is not surprising.

Unfortunately, National Association of Realtors is still trying to sell the American public on mixed use planned communities (known as Planned Unit Developments or PUDs in industry lingo). And nearly all of them come with burdens of common interest ownership for recreational amenities, as well as a homeowners association.


Suzanne Gantner Williamson County Realtors Association President
12:00 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017 Local News

In a 2013 Community Preference Survey by the National Association of Realtors, respondents noted that while the size of the property does matter, consumers are willing to compromise size for their preferred neighborhood and less commuting.

When asked to identify their ideal community, the most popular choice was a suburban neighborhood with a mix of houses, shops and businesses. The least popular was a suburban neighborhood with just houses.

The National Association of Realtors survey showed a majority of Americans prefer houses with small yards and easy walks to schools, stores and restaurants, over houses with large yards that require owners to drive to stores or businesses. An even larger majority prefer a house with a smaller yard and a shorter commute to work, over houses with larger yards and a longer commute.

While Americans say they prefer walkable communities, it seems they do so only to a certain point. The survey found a majority of consumers responded they prefer communities where it is easier to walk and their commute is shorter. But when comparing a detached single-family house to an apartment or townhouse, the detached home wins out — even with a longer commute and more driving.

We are starting to see this all over Central Texas and Williamson County. Most of the new neighborhoods have large amenity centers, gyms, pools, biking trails and an active homeowners association for activities within the neighborhood.


But the real estate industry tends to ignore the psychosocial realities of one’s desire to own a home.

Circle of hands ( free image)

To the millennial home buyer, mass-produced PUD housing in a planned community is about as appealing as a box of GMO corn flakes. First time home buyers who value organic produce, free range eggs, and grass fed beef want their neighborhoods to be more organic, too.

The “cookie cutter” home lacks appeal. Granite counters and huge soaker tubs in the master bath don’t grab today’s more socially conscious, technologically savvy homebuyers.

First-time home buyers are looking for cozy, flexible spaces they can customize and modify as their needs change. Older adults seeking to downsize prefer one-level living and easy maintenance, but still want to maintain their independence.

The vast majority of home buyers of any age value the ability to express their individual tastes in their own personal havens.

It’s no secret that HOAs are notorious for stifling individual control over the use of one’s home. Trade group Community Associations Institute (CAI) has reported that use restrictions are the most common sources of conflict between owners and their HOAs.

In a 2016 survey, residents of association governed communities rated the following as the “worst aspects” of community association living:

18% dislike restrictions on exterior home improvements

8% hate the rules in general

6% don’t like restrictions on parking

5% say they can’t deal with restrictions on landscaping

As, as for paying dues, 15% of residents say this is the worst part about living in an association-governed community, up from 10% in 2009.

Again, this is no surprise, given widespread recent media coverage of rising HOA assessments and costly “surprise” special assessments in communities of all types and sizes across the U.S.

In particular, the “affordable” exurban or suburban condo has become an oxymoron, even as it has been redesigned and repackaged as a townhouse with a postage stamp sized yard. Consumers are getting the message: investing in a condo is about as smart as buying stock in JC Penney, Sears, or Macy’s.

Furthermore, only 27% of residents responding to the CAI survey there is “nothing bad” about their association, down from 37% of residents who felt the same way in 2009.

But it’s hard to blame NAR for trying to sell homebuyers on the PUD, when that’s about the only type of residential development approved in the past 3 or 4 decades, especially in the fastest growing housing markets across the nation.

As my grandmother used to say, “you can’t sell from an empty wagon.” There just aren’t enough non-HOA communities in some markets to satisfy demand. So the industry keeps selling an inherently flawed, super-regulated housing product that most consumers would rather avoid.

Photo by Don Ross III on Unsplash

A the same time, sleepy-town suburbia is rebuilding its former downtown hub, tearing down obsolete and largely abandoned shopping malls and big box stores.

Some demographic experts say that, for people living solo, including young singles and older Americans, there’s a great desire for smaller housing with smaller yards, or modern apartments offering truly maintenance free lifestyles — as long as these new, smaller suburban homes are located within a short jaunt to a lively town center.

They say that the new “quiet revolution” harkens back to towns and cities of yesteryear.




Suburbs first gained popularity for being everything a big city wasn’t. Now they want to be just like downtown.

Mixed-use developments like these are becoming kind of a cliché in American metropolitan areas — but that doesn’t make them any less revolutionary. After decades offering themselves as safer, quieter alternatives to cities, suburbs are refashioning themselves to become more like them. Development built around cars, with zoning restrictions that strictly segregate housing from office space and shopping, is giving way to the desire to create new downtowns, bubbling with all kinds of activity, and create them largely from scratch. “We’re starting to see some competition even between these comparable types of developments, as consumers and even businesses are looking to have a different atmosphere,” says Julie Palakovich Carr, a member of the city council in Rockville, Md.

the new approach in suburbia is really a return to form. For centuries, people congregated within compact areas, doing all their trading and socializing, as well as interacting with government officials, in cities. The concept of suburbs dates back to Roman times, but the modern American suburb — which amounted to a barracks where people could sleep separate from all their other activities — represented a break from historic norms. Today’s suburbs represent an attempt to recapture a very old style of living, with commerce and community all mixed in together.



Are these urban planning experts onto something big? Perhaps.

But, in this author’s opinion, only if common ownership and privatized governance — and its numerous attendant liabilities — is rejected in favor of taxpayer and industry supported public spaces.

Remember, the association-governed community was not the norm prior to its explosion of growth between 1970 – 2000. To really harken back to the traditional wisdom of yesterday, we need a return to civic minded community development.


Photo by Dakota Corbin on Unsplash

And finally, the tech revolution promises to drastically change the way we live in the future.

Without a doubt, the biggest buzz among urban planners and tech nerds: driverless vehicles, also known as “autonomous cars.”

As you read the final reference article today, allow yourself to daydream.

Imagine a new world where your electric-powered vehicle does the driving, while you spend your time working, chatting, or meeting remotely with coworkers or business clients by way of your electronic device. Or taking a cat nap. Or simply enjoying the ride.

In fact, maybe you don’t need to own a car at all. Just summon an autonomous vehicle whenever you need one — just like a taxi or Uber — only without a human driver.

No more mass transit inconveniences: the overcrowded rush hour trains and buses, frequent stopping and service delays, standing with someone’s backpack in your face and someone else’s armit way too close to your nose. Instead of taking round about routes with transfers, the autonomous car takes you directly where you need to go.

You can repurpose your two-car garage as a one-car garage, or, if you ditch the car altogether, extra living space for your family. Go ahead and tear up most of the driveway, and add some greenery or a new outdoor patio in its place.

And since the new suburbs will be small towns and mini-cities with their own grocers, farm markets, medical centers, schools, and satellite work centers to supplement the work-at-home crowd, long daily commutes and traffic congestion will disappear.

Just like magic.

The “smart growth” crowd hates this concept, because its anti-density approach to development reduces demand for urban centers with high cost-per-square-foot real estate. It makes office parks and commercial centers obsolete. Transit oriented developments are likely to become deserted ghost towns — not that many of them have ever actually lived up to their full potential.

Quality of life and housing affordability are likely to flourish in greener, friendlier suburbs, where residents can plant gardens, let their kids and pets play outdoors, and gain easier access to fresh food and medical care in a low-stress living environment.

At least, that’s the new suburban utopia dream.


Autonomous Cars Are About To Transform The Suburbs

I cover demographic, social and economic trends around the world.

By Joel Kotkin and Alan M. Berger

Suburbs have largely been dismissed by environmentalists and urban planners as bad for the planet, a form that needed to be eliminated to make way for a bright urban future. Yet, after a few years of demographic stultification amid the Great Recession, Americans are again heading to the suburbs in large numbers, particularly millennials.

So rather than fight the tide and treat suburbanization as an evil to be squeezed out, perhaps a better approach would be to modify the suburban form in ways that address its most glaring environmental weakness: dependence on gas-powered automobiles. The rise of ride-sharing, electric cars and ultimately the self-driving automobile seem likely to alter this paradigm. In most other ways, suburbs are at the least no more damaging than dense cities, and they are superior in terms of air quality, maintaining biodiversity, carbon sequestration and stormwater management.

We may well be on the verge of evolving a new kind of highly sustainable, near–zero carbon form, one linked by technology, and economically (and increasingly culturally) self-sufficient. Autonomous cars will remotely park in solar-charged sheds off-site, to be called to the home through handheld devices, thus eliminating the need for garages and driveways. With safer vehicles that can see and react to situations better, roadways will be designed with much less paving to mitigate stormwater runoff and flooding. Homes will have drone delivery ports built in, greatly reducing the number of daily household trips and congestion. With much less redundant paving and more undisturbed land, autonomous suburbs will expand parks, bike trails and farms, and reduce forest fragmentation. Some of the next generation of suburbs will be anchored by main street districts, some of them restored, while others will be built from scratch, as we have seen in places like the Woodlands outside Houston and Valencia north of Los Angeles.

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1 thought on “No need for HOA in the future’s driverless suburban utopia

  1. A few months ago, I received in the mail an extensive survey – seemingly on behalf of a commercial real estate interest – about what I had been looking for when I recently bought my house. The questions were about my preferences regarding everything from main-level masters to neighborhood schools. I read the whole thing, then wrote in fat red marker across the front page, “I had but one overriding consideration when I bought my house: NO HOA,” and then I mailed it back. The survey had asked about everything imaginable except: Is the property association governed?

    Buying a house in an HOA was one of the greatest mistakes I have ever made. I became the target of organized predators whose motivations had NOTHING to do with maintaining property values, and certainly had nothing to do with common sense or human decency. When I came to understand my utter vulnerability, and that I was unprotected by governmental entities of every sort and at every level, I orchestrated a clandestine escape as best as I could. The monsters had it in for me so bad that, if I had attempted a traditional sale, I was certain that they would have ratcheted up their deliberate torment of me via their gratuitous weaponization of the CC&Rs – and there was nothing to stop them from doing so. It was terrifying, and the protracted ordeal caused me great psychological, physical, and financial harm.

    Donie Vanitzian called it “hunter and hunted” and explained that titleholders are “human capital” ( She was absolutely correct, and it is sickening. Collectively and over time, our unaccountable legislators, administrators, and judiciaries have sold us out to the ever-burgeoning HOA industry that feeds itself on unsuspecting “titleholders” who never imagined that the honorable accomplishment of buying a home to live in would turn into Pyongyang, American style.

    I recently found myself talking on the phone to a very nice tech-support guy in India who told me he had read our Declaration of Independence at least 15 times. While he was fixing my computer remotely, I warned him that the USA is not the haven of freedom with justice for all that our cheap slogans have proclaimed it to be. I explained the totalitarianism of HOAs to him, while acknowledging that it is hard to believe that that hundreds of millions of American residential property dwellers are hung out to dry under the wholesale rationale of the supposed sanctity of a one-sided and ever-mutating contract. While I was raised to be patriotic and told I was lucky to have been born in in the United States of America, I now find myself disenfranchised from a country that repudiated slavery 150 years ago, then proceeded to invent a $100-billion-plus-plus-a-year industry based on exploitation and extortion of good-faith homeowners under the guise of so-called professional management and the false front of a not-for-profit corporation. I pray that the Millennials will comprehend and reject the table that has been set to devour them.

    While I am here, I would like to add that calling assessments “dues” is misleading and inaccurate. Can we-who-know-better agree that the proper term is “fees,” not “dues”? Also, my 2 cents on autonomous vehicles looming in our future is that I am glad I will be dead before the pleasure and convenience of driving my own vehicle becomes a relic of the unenlightened.

    Last, bless you, Deborah, for the competence and thoroughness of your invaluable blog.

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