The rise of residential private governance may be the most extensive and dramatic privatization of public life in U.S. history. Private communities, often called common interest developments, are now home to almost one-fifth of the U.S. population—indeed, many localities have mandated that all new development be encompassed in a CID governed in a homeowners association (HOA). The ubiquity of private communities has changed the nature of local governance. Residents may like closer control of neighborhood services but may also find themselves contending with intrusions an elected government would not be allowed to make, like a ban on pets or yard decorations. And if things go wrong, the contracts residents must sign to purchase within the community give them little legal recourse.
In Beyond Privatopia: Rethinking Residential Private Government, attorney and political science scholar Evan McKenzie explores emerging trends in private governments and competing schools of thought on how to operate them, from state oversight to laissez-faire libertarianism. The most common analyses see CIDs from a neoclassical economic, positive point of view. HOAs, this strain of analysis maintains, are more efficient and frugal than municipalities. And what could be more democratic than government of the neighbors, by the neighbors? But scholars coming from institutional analysis, communitarian, and critical urban theory frameworks see possible repercussions. These include a development’s failure leaving residents on the hook for crippling sums, capture or extension of the local state, and convergence of public and private local governments.
“This is a human institution that involves millions of people, so we need to think about not just what it is but how it functions in our system of social organization,” McKenzie writes. Acknowledging the tug between regulating CIDs to prevent abuses and leaving them alone to ease burdens on neighborhood volunteer governance, McKenzie evaluates proposed reforms and thinks through their implications.