Is the neighborhood a “unit of change?”

By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities

Several weeks ago, a reader forwarded a link to an opinion written NY Times columnist David Brooks. The gist of the Brooks’ opinion is that positive change can and should happen at the neighborhood level.

Brooks appears to be a fan of neighborhood “self-government” rather than one-size-fits-all public oversight at the state level.

Curiously, Brook cites as an example the voluntary-membership neighborhood group, R.A.G.E., even though the group includes non-residents and stakeholders. (See the R.A.G.E.  brochure for more details)

Even the group’s founders realize that, for change to happen, outside intervention is both desirable and necessary.

The Neighborhood Is the Unit of Change

No, starfish are not saved one by one.

By David Brooks, Opinion Columnist

Oct. 18, 2018


The fact is that human behavior happens in contagious, networked ways. Suicide, obesity and decreasing social mobility spread as contagions.

Thinking in neighborhood terms means radical transformation in how change is done. It means escaping the tyranny of randomized controlled experiments in which one donor funds one program that tries to isolate one leverage point to have “impact.”

It means adjusting the structures of the state so that the neighborhood is an important structure of self-government, rather than imposing blanket programs willy-nilly across neighborhood lines.

The good news is that there are more neighborhood-based programs than there used to be, like the Resident Association of Greater Englewood in Chicago. But we haven’t even begun to sort out the implications of what comes next now that we understand the utter centrality of place.



Gated community gate house condo townhouse
( free image)

Neighborhood controls

Brooks offers an interesting perspective on neighborhood change. But, judging by nearly 300 comments on his column, he certainly misses the point.

It’s not the lack of neighborhood controls that create inequity and social division.

It’s the imposition of the wrong kind of neighborhood controls that actually create or perpetuate selfishness, lack of compassion, and negative social outcomes.

Reading some of the comments below the column, it’s clear that critics don’t agree with Brooks’ worldview.

Many of the comments take a harsh tone toward one political party (the GOP). Others highlight reader contempt for the “upper class.” Not surprising these days.

For instance, a NY Times reader named Steve comments:

David you preface your narrative with ” If you’re trying to improve lives…” That is the problem today, there is little interest in improving lives other than selfishly our own. No one hates the average people living average lives in average neighborhoods let alone poor ones like the Republicans do. They have contempt for neighborhoods other than their own plush gated ones. They don’t care about crumbling infrastructure as they live in pristine surroundings. They will not support living wages so that we don’t have to have dual income families. They don’t support our public schools or universal health care. They don’t support Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid or school programs that help feed hungry poor children so they can focus on their studies and not their empty bellies. So the big question David is just when are you going to come clean and denounce the GOP and join we people who care, trump and his minions don’t and never will. The GOP is evil and decadent, time to change your allegiances.

Another commenter, using the name Lorem Ipsum says:

I wonder if Mr. Brooks’s “neighborhood” is a so-called gated community, walled off from the “community” with a fascist-lite HOA in control. (But hey, there’s a nice pool!)

From a different political perspective, Dave M writes:

No mention of places of worship — churches, synagogues, etc. — as important parts of “social glue”? Libraries are good and all, but they’re nothing compared to churches. The decline of church-going (including by me) is removing a critical pillar of community life, with no clear replacement.

Sue challenges Brooks to see beyond his own neighborhood bubble:

As nice a man as David Brooks may be, I feel he is also a man who rarely leaves his comfortable, upper class life. He may write well and be thoughtful and well read, but he is painfully restricted in his experience of our country (and the world). I think, first, he needs to pack a small bag and get on a Greyhound bus that makes a lot of local stops and crosses the country. Even if he just stayed on the bus and talked to people who got on and off and observed things, this would change his life and he could start writing things worth reading.

And Ed really gets to the heart of the matter:

Not every neighborhood is a community, and not every community is a neighborhood.


townhomes new construction_2
Townhomes under construction, unidentified location ( free image)

Negative impacts of common interest housing development

The American public is starting to see the connection between decades of harmful housing policy and the current decline of our neighborhoods.

Consider this: Most “modern” neighborhoods built and redeveloped since the 1970s are association-governed communities. They primarily include planned communities with homeowners’ associations (HOAs) or multifamily attached housing organized as condominium associations.

More recently, developers have been building new apartments to house a growing class of Americans who cannot afford to own a home. That includes millions displaced by the last housing bust and foreclosure crisis.

More often than not, each new neighborhood or community is designed for buyers or renters of higher than average income level or social status.

It’s no secret. New construction housing tends to be out of reach for most Americans.

Income divisions

However, consumers with more modest household incomes often reside in mature HOA and condo communities.

Think of these older communities as hand-me-down neighborhoods, with their combination of dated 1970s and 1980s homes, property flips, and rental properties.

Unfortunately, a growing number of older planned communities and condo or co-op housing projects suffer from deferred maintenance, and a need to rebuild expensive infrastructure. Attached housing projects are very likely to require replacement of roofs, siding, windows, or plumbing.

Unfortunately, in almost all cases, HOAs bear the sole responsibility for maintaining their communities. Their sole source of income is assessments and fees from homeowners.

Cities and Counties aren’t willing to help a cash-strapped HOA, unless homeowners agree to pay additional tax assessments in exchange for public support.

Owners of more modest homes in older association governed communities often pay much higher HOA or condo assessments than owners of homes in newer community associations.

Relatively speaking, households with higher net worth spend less money on taxes and HOA fees than middle and lower-income Americans spend on taxes plus HOA fees or rent payments.

It’s a total myth that only the wealthy live under “fascist lite” HOA rule.

However, it is true that, in the age of HOA-ville, residents of all income levels tend to view nonmembers of their communities as outsiders to be feared or even avoided.

And, given that most HOA homeowners are, to some extent, doubly taxed for local services, there’s little support for local improvement outside their own little neighborhood bubbles.


Property rights quote

Less freedom = less individual control

Brooks also misses the point by focusing on individual neighborhood control, because in many cases, HOAs significantly limit individual control by restricting property rights.

HOA neighborhood control doesn’t enhance freedom and liberty, it tends to destroy both.

With emphasis on deed restrictions or community rules and regulations, people are more likely to be at odds with one another.

The standard mindset in HOA-ville is to blame one’s neighbor for doing anything that might decrease property values. Minor annoyances can quickly evolve into bitter neighborhood battles.

Non-owners become second-class citizens, especially when the anti-renter faction rules in the homeowner association.

On the opposite end of the issue, investor – landlords sometimes take over association boards, eventually pushing homeowners out of the community.

Of course, none of these common occurrences build a true sense of community, much less safe, nurturing, and cohesive neighborhoods.

Perhaps voluntary membership neighborhood associations could serve such noble purposes.

But the reality is, mandatory membership  homeowners’ associations far outnumber voluntary neighborhood associations with purely civic and social missions.


Vote HOA election scrabble
( free image)

Power imbalance, by design

Another social problem with mandatory membership association-governed communities is that, by design,  political power in the neighborhood is unequal.

A power imbalance is created by tying political power (voting interests) to property ownership, rather than residency in the community.

HOA members do vote to elect the board of directors, to amend governing documents, or to decide on other ballot issues for the association.

But the vote is not democratic.

In planned communities, an owner commonly gets one vote for each house or lot owned. In condominiums, votes are proportional to the size or value of each unit owned.

So, a penthouse condo owner is entitled to greater voting power than the owner of a studio apartment on the third floor. And the owner of more than one home or condo casts more than one vote — accumulating votes for each property owned.

Non-owners rarely have the right to vote, and therefore, they don’t have a voice in their community.

The justification for this model of governance: owners who pay higher association fees feel entitled to greater political clout in their “self-governed” neighborhoods.

Thus, owners or stakeholders with greater wealth also tend to dictate HOA and condo neighborhood policy and budget decisions.

Imagine the outcome of local elections for public office, if city or county government decided to grant multiple votes to owners of more than one property.

Most Americans would be outraged at the very thought.

But more than 60 million residents of association-governed communities live with the consequences of this kind of neighborhood inequity every single day.

So Brooks is right. The neighborhood is the unit of change.

But it certainly is not change for the better.

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