Going Private

Q and A

An expert on community associations shows why micro governments is a mega issue

Q & A - - Robert H. Nelson


Since the United States was founded, the tiers of governments have been pretty stable - from the nation to the state to the county to the city or town or village. Each has certain powers and responsibilities.

For a surprisingly large - and growing - number of Americans, there is a new layer in that hierarchy - the community association. That's the subject of Private Neighborhoods and the Transformation of Local Government, a recent book by Robert H. Nelson, a professor in the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, College Park.

These private community associations, which can be found in suburban sprawl and city condominiums, are now for many the most basic form of local government.

Though they are private, they have some of the same powers as governments - effective taxation through mandatory dues and enforcement of covenants - and perform some of the same functions, maintaining public property, sometimes trash pickup and police and security measures. Two of the largest community associations in the nation are in this area: Columbia and Reston, Va.

A graduate of Brandeis University with a Ph.D. in economics from Princeton, Nelson spent almost two decades working in the policy section of the Department of the Interior before coming to the University of Maryland in 1993. He recently discussed his new book with The Sun.

Are community associations a growing phenomenon?

Let's take a look at a few basic numbers. In 1970, less than 1 percent of Americans lived in community associations. Now that number is 18 percent, or about 55 million Americans. Between 1980 and 2000, half of the housing units in the United States that were newly built were included in community associations. This is obviously a very major social trend. In fact, it is changing the whole character of local government.

How is that?

It is doing several things. One is, it is creating governments at a neighborhood level on a more widespread basis than has ever been seen before. An association can be a single building of condominium units or a city as large as Columbia. In general, they are more of a neighborhood size, typically 500 to 1,000 people who are now getting their own government, but it is a private government.

These governments are taking the place of what used to be small municipalities. Some of the country's older cities, like Cleveland or Chicago or Philadelphia, are surrounded by hundreds of municipalities, each with its own government. But if you look at a place like Phoenix, there are only about 30. In the whole state of Arizona, there are 87 municipal governments. In Pennsylvania, there are over 1,000. The micro services that used to be handled by these small municipalities are now handled on the neighborhood level by these associations.

Community associations are most prominent in places like Arizona, or Florida, Texas, California, Nevada, where there is rapid new development. Almost all major new developments these days involve community associations. While they are taking over the functions of local government on the small level, you still have local governments doing arterial highways, water, sewer, any kind of macro functions.

How about police?

That's where you see the divide. Community associations will often have private security services, but if you have to investigate a murder, that's done in the public sector. Even giving out a speeding ticket, anything where the courts have final authority, where you could be put in prison, those kind of things are in the public sector.

When and where did these community associations start showing up?

In many cases they started out in condominiums, which did not exist as a legal arrangement in the United States until 1961. But in one form or another, they have been around for some time, back to the 19th century. One of the early attempts was in Baltimore, in Roland Park, an early planned community that was quite famous at the time as the developer attempted to exert this kind of control through restrictions in the deeds. The difficulty there is enforcement. There is no central authority. It is a matter of one individual taking another to court.

When people started living in higher densities in these new developments - either in townhouses or subdivisions - they wanted tighter control over the actions of their neighbors, things like placement of shrubbery or the color of houses or how high the grass should get before it has to be mowed. People were willing to give up some of their autonomy in return for tighter control of their neighbors.

That's one facet. Another is that new developments have increasingly included amenities like swimming pools, golf courses, parks and other public lands, and they need a mechanism to administer these. The developer doesn't want to hang around and care for them, so he hands it over to the community association.

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