Why won’t Libertarian advocacy groups speak out against HOA abuse?

An Opinion By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities

Last month, IAC published a post comparing cities and HOAs that rely heavily on fining their residents to generate cash for their communities. Today’s post follows up with an important question.

Why do Libertarian-leaning think tanks express contempt and outrage about local government’s Eighth Amendment violations against its residents, yet completely ignore the same behavior committed by HOAs against its residents?

 

City fines homeowner $30K, files for foreclosure for having grass that’s too long

For example John Stossel’s commentary in Rasmussen Reports highlights the City of Dunedin (FL), a city whose officials fined Jim Ficken $30,000 for having grass that is too long.

Stossel also explains that the city imposed $34,000 in fines on its residents 11 years ago. But by last year, Dunedin collected fines totaling $1.3 million.

That’s quite a jump, isn’t it? Despite PR attempts to deny it, does anyone actually believe that the City Of Dunedin is not using fines to generate revenue?

If the city really isn’t after the money, then why does it move forward with foreclosing on homes for outrageously high unpaid fines?

Stossel, the Institute for Justice, and Katherine Timpf of National Review all agree that Dunedin is violating Ficken’s Eighth Amendment protections against “excessive fines” and “cruel and unusual punishment.”

After all, no one should lose their home over long grass.

But notice that none of these noted Libertarian thinkers acknowledge the fact that HOAs abuse their power to fine homeowners in the same way as Dunedin is abusing its power to fine Jim Ficken and others residents.

What’s up with that?

 

Balance of power scales of justice with people (Pixabay.com free image)

Want more evidence of similarities between city government and homeowners associations?

Jenn W., a regular reader of IAC, emailed me with some interesting information from the city of Dunedin.

Take a look, and see the striking resemblance to HOA-industry doctrine in favor of punishing homeowners and residents for disobeying restrictions and rules.

Let’s begin with this public relations statement from the City of Dunedin Regarding Code Enforcement Actions, dated May 24, 2019.

The statement starts off by accusing Jim Ficken of being a “repeat offender,” stating that the city had to “intervene” on 12 occasions since 2007. (That’s an average of one time each year.) That, they agreed, gave the Dunedin Code Enforcement Board (DCEB) the right to fine Ficken $500 per day for having long grass at his property.

Dunedin accuses Ficken of not maintaining the grass and brush on his properties (he owns more than one) up to the City’s standards, even after multiple warnings. That, they insist, gives the government the right to take his home in foreclosure — to recover accumulated fines of $30,000, for a property that is worth far more.

If Ficken cannot afford to pay $30,000 to the City of Dunedin, then that’s too darn bad, say officials. They’re willing to take his home instead.

Sounds extremely familiar to the HOA fine-and-foreclose abuse of power scheme, doesn’t it?

In fact, Dunedin’s PR news release reads exactly like the HOA-industry trade group playbook — built on the foundation of protecting property values at the expense of common sense human values.

For example:

The primary purpose of code enforcement is to maintain the appropriate high standards that make Dunedin such a special place, and to maintain property values and the quality of life that our residents expect and deserve. The broad goal of any code enforcement action is to compel property owners to meet the same unified standard as their neighbors – and to bring their property into compliance, as the rest of the community cooperatively and consistently does.

Curiously, Ficken owns “several” properties in Dunedin. So, if all of them are unkempt, why is the city choosing to focus its enforcement effort and foreclose on one particular home?

 

Rules restrictions hand written (Pixabay.com free image)

Dunedin Code Enforcement Board (DCEB)

Now let’s look at Dunedin’s Code Enforcement Division, for more insight into the city government’s agenda.

Here are a few nuggets, taken directly from Dunedin government’s website:

The Code Enforcement Division addresses a variety of property issues in order to maintain and better the quality of life for our residents.  Violations of the City’s code, Florida Building Code and International Property Maintenance Code affect the community’s health, safety, environment and property values.

REPORT A VIOLATION:  You can report a violation online.  When reporting a violation, please give as much detail as possible, including the address of the violation and nature of the problem.

Note the reference to “property values” and a call for residents to “report a violation” online.

Of course, Dunedin isn’t telling residents how much money it’s generating by collecting fines for alleged violations — no matter how petty the offense. Instead, the city wants residents to believe that their “quality of life” is under attack if their neighbor’s home isn’t pristine at all times.

This is precisely the same rhetoric and rules enforcement playbook used every day in HOA-ville!

Dunedin code enforcement division screen shot
Dunedin code enforcement division (Screen capture July 17, 2019)

To any reasonable person, it’s crystal clear that cities like Dunedin and most HOAs in America are cut from the same cloth.

So where is the Libertarian outrage and call for protection of Eighth Amendment rights for 70 million residents of HOAs?

 

 

My theory: HOA’s are all about privatizing power

Previously, several experts and academics have written about HOAs as “private government.” (See Evan McKenzie and George Staropoli references below)

By the early 1970s, U.S. government at all levels (local, state, and federal) bought into the idea of shifting the hard work and cost of maintaining community housing and planned communities to “private” entities that we call HOAs.

HOAs were seen as the gold standard, money saving community governance model — essentially a double taxation cash cow for local government. Cities and counties have continued to collect ever higher property taxes, even as they have mandated that virtually all new residential development be governed by a mandatory-membership HOA.

But, folks, this HOA game is not just about the money. It’s also about shifting power by restricting property and Constitutional rights of individuals.

 

HOA power hungry bully

Why would so many government leaders agree to a “parallel” but unofficial form of “private” governance?

There’s one ominous conclusion that we can draw from this sad state of affairs in the U.S.

Looking back on recent history, it certainly appears that government enabled, then later mandated, HOAs not just for the fiscal benefits of double taxation.

Some leaders in local government also craved more oppressive ways to “legally” keep their residents in line, without getting their own hands dirty.

This thirst for power should come as no surprise. The writers of the U.S. Constitution had intimate knowledge that power and corruption go hand in hand. It’s why the founders of this country built in several layers of checks and balances to keep government accountable to the people.

But that didn’t stop the power-hungry from trying to increase their sphere of control.  And, in recent decades, power-mongering has intensified at the local government level.

By handing over code enforcement to privately-governed HOAs, through the use of deed restrictions and covenants, local government managed to relieve itself of its own civic duty to responsibly enforce local codes.

And, as a bonus, by promoting the incorporation of most “modern” HOAs, local governments across the country have successfully delegated enforcement of codes that are far more strict and onerous than government could ever dream of.

And now, here we are, 40-50 years later. Apparently some local government leaders believe that people of America have become desensitized to HOA rule enforcement & abuse.

As a result, some leaders in real local government have decided to behave in the same way as their HOA minions. Only with even MORE power to abuse, up to and including criminal sanctions and jail time for violating local property maintenance codes.

 

Libertarian denial?

Ironically, Libertarians were the primary creators of the HOA-as-private-corporation-not-subject-to-the-Constitution model for governance of common interest communities.

The intent of those early Libertarian-leaning think tanks is not entirely clear.

Either they intended to create a fourth layer of unaccountable private governance in the HOA, or they naively believed that HOAs would govern more responsibly than the government they so despise.

Perhaps that’s why status quo Libertarians don’t dare utter the words homeowners association and government in the same sentence, and why we’ve rarely heard any of them speak out against the HOA monster their predecessors helped to create. ♦

 

Editorial References:

Government Bullies
A Commentary By John Stossel | Rasmussen Report | July 10, 2019

Government Trying to Take Man’s Home over Overgrown Grass By KATHERINE TIMPF | National Review | July 12, 2019 11:01 AM

Links for Dunedin City Government:

City of Dunedin — who’s in charge

Agendas and Meeting Minutes 2019

DCEBoard Agendas and Minutes.

Further reading:

Privatopia
Homeowner Associations and the Rise of Residential Private Government
Evan McKenzie (Yale University Press, 1996)

Citizens for Constitutional Local Government | George Staropoli