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Phil Gulley: Neighborhood Bully

Living under the unblinking eye of a homeowner’s association, I’m starting to think we should have insisted on decency being one of the covenants.

When my wife and I moved into our Danville home 22 years ago, it came with a homeowner’s association and a list of rules governing, among other things, acceptable house colors (earth tones), where you could park your vehicles (not on the street), and whether you could have a garden (don’t even think about it). For our first 21 years, the association officers managed affairs themselves, gently reminding neighbors of violations, paying the bills, and keeping the lights on. Everyone generally complied with the rules, except for the occasional rebel who would leave his truck on the street or build an illegal fence. Nothing big, no one opening a used car lot or brothel, as occasionally happens in some neighborhoods.

For several years, I was the association mediator. When one neighbor took issue with another, rather than hiring a lawyer, we’d sit on my porch, drink iced tea, and work out a compromise. Then the position was eliminated, the lawyers took over, and now there’s an outfit in Carmel we pay to drive through our neighborhood and send letters to people who left out their trash can a few extra days or went on vacation and let their grass get too high. I wasn’t at the meeting when we voted to hire them, so I shouldn’t complain, but since I’m the one receiving some of the letters, I feel a certain liberty to comment.

The first letter I received from the Carmel company expressed its disappointment in me for building an addition on my house without permission. I was ordered to remove the addition or face legal action. It wasn’t a very nice letter, certainly not like any note I had ever sent when I was our mediator, but I guess they do things a little differently in Carmel. I opted to remove the addition, it being the easiest solution since I hadn’t added anything in the first place. A week later, I received a second letter, telling me an error had been made and to ignore the previous letter, which I had already done. In fact, I ignore most of the mail I receive, without adverse effect. If someone wants something from me bad enough, they’ll send another letter, call me on the phone, or come by the house.

Several of my neighbors also received letters, one for stacking firewood in his driveway and another for a mailbox in poor repair. The firewood was moved and the mailbox was painted, which apparently emboldened the company in Carmel because it sent me two more letters, one telling me my mailbox didn’t measure up and the other saying my house needed painting. I admitted the mailbox issue and paid $362.75 to have a new post and box installed, but I wasn’t willing to concede my house needed to be painted. The rules say the exterior should be in “good repair,” a rather ambiguous phrase open to interpretation. I phoned to tell them the paint wasn’t blistered, cracked, flaking, or otherwise compromised. They thought otherwise, so I had my house repainted to the tune of $6,000.

One of my neighbors grumbled about the Carmel company, complaining about power at a distance controlling our lives, likening it to politicians in Washington, D.C., who butt their noses in where they don’t belong. We’ve now spent a year living under the iron fist of our Carmel overseers, on heightened alert every time an unfamiliar car rolls past, the driver slowing to study our homes. This must be what it was like living in the Soviet Union, waiting for the dreaded letter to land in our mailbox, listening for the knock on the door in the middle of the night, reminding our children not to mention the illegal tomato plant behind the garage. The walls have ears, we tell them. Trust no one.

I’m grateful I didn’t grow up under the cloud of a homeowner’s association, since most of the things that made my childhood so much fun would these days violate a whole host of covenants.

For the better part of my life, I’ve gotten along just fine without a homeowner’s association and would cheerfully grab a pitchfork and overthrow this one. Obviously, not everyone agrees with me. The lovers of covenants speak of their benefits, chief among them increased property values. But I’ve noticed the non-association houses in our town sell for about the same amount as ours, since they’re just as desirable, if not more so, than the homes in our neighborhood. Our houses are described by Realtors as stunning, striking, or spacious, but these days people seem to prefer cozy, homey, and charming.

I’m grateful I didn’t grow up under the cloud of a homeowner’s association, since most of the things that made my childhood so much fun would these days violate a whole host of covenants. That’s another reason I dislike the spread of such associations, namely their unbridled power to shoehorn residents into a particular mold from which any deviation is punished. I am also opposed to any arrangement that gives inordinate power to anal-retentive people, who are never satisfied until every jot and tittle of the written word is slavishly followed. There’s nothing worse than a zealot with the weight of law behind him, and every neighborhood has one—the person with no hobbies or interests beyond supervising his neighbors.

While you risk the occasional architectural disaster without covenants, your world opens to interesting, and even pleasant, possibilities. My grandparents’ neighbor, purportedly color-blind, painted his house 30 different colors and spent his retirement cheerfully waving at people who drove past to view it. That could never happen in my neighborhood, and we’re the poorer for it. On a more positive note, my neighbor Bill across the street, who isn’t in our association, has a yellow tractor parked next to his barn, which has considerably enhanced our surroundings.

Vocation-wise, it was much easier being a pastor before covenants squelched individuality. I used to drive unerringly straight to a parishioner’s home, but now a good number of my congregants live in houses that look just like every other house on their street, with nothing to distinguish them except their house number, which I invariably forget, so have to knock on five or six doors before finding the subject of my pastoral concern. One can only do this so many times before the police are phoned.

Recently, I was on Facebook and read a post from a woman complaining about her neighbor, who was terminally ill and hadn’t mowed his yard for three weeks. She reported him to the homeowner’s association, since it obviously didn’t occur to her to be a decent human being and mow her neighbor’s yard. Then the association wrote the man a letter threatening to fine him. People would like their homeowner’s associations a lot more if they stopped sending nasty letters to dying people and mowed their yards instead.

No homeowner’s association in the world can make us better neighbors. The people on my block are wonderful, but the HOA had nothing to do with that. When my parents died, they showed up with food, mowed my yard when I was swamped with grief, then visited the funeral home to pay their respects. If my house isn’t worth a plug nickel when it comes time to sell, I’ll still consider myself a fortunate man.

Philip Gulley is a Quaker pastor, author, and humorist. Back Home Again chronicles his views on life in Indiana.

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