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HOA Socialism
March 27, 2019
by William P. Meyers

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Socialism in Miniature

Like many of my fellow Americans, I am thinking about socialism lately. Because there are many varieties of socialism, and there is a profound ignorance of the topic in the United States, there is plenty of room for argument, and for better explanations. I continue to work on giving people an unbiased understanding of socialism. One of my most popular essays at this site is Our Socialist Constitution Framers, and most recently I posted Cheshire Cat Socialism to give a different perspective on the topic.

Yesterday I was reading Memoirs of a Revolutionist by Peter Kropotkin and came across a remarkably clear passage outlining the differences Kropotkin had with socialists of the Bernie Sanders or Marxist stripe. I don't think Bernard is a Marxist, but in the late 1800s when Kropotkin was writing the social democratic trend and the democratic socialist trend were still all mixed up.

I was going to reproduce that, with commentary. But then I thought about my HOA, the Home Owners Association that my ownership of my condominium involves us with. With apologies to those whose money goes down the drain monthly for rent, I think HOA Socialism illustrates a lot of issues in terms that are understandable even it you do not belong to an HOA.

I do hope Republicans don't try to ban condominiums because of this discussion. Single family homes just are not an option for most people in high density cities. And renting sucks.

Allow me to review the setup: what is left to individual homeowners (private aspect) and what is done by the HOA (government or social aspect).

In simplest terms, what is inside the condominium is private. It is important to define inside: the roof and outer walls are outside, but plumbing and electrical wires between the outer wall and the inner wall are considered inside. Each owner pays a monthly HOA fee that is supposed to cover the costs of outside things.

Problems of socialism: choosing a paint color. Inside you can paint your rooms how you like, but the outside painting is paid for by the HOA, and the color scheme is chosen by the HOA. I raise this thorny problem of Socialism because we are having the buildings painted this summer. No one much likes the current color scheme. No one likes the prior color scheme from when the complex was built in the late 1980s. Most residents have left color selection to a small committee of those who care about color. My impression is that the committee is in total disagreement. Yet a color must be picked, and soon. So we are hiring a consultant.

Lesson 1. Socialism will not solve all your problems. Socialism requires cooperation.

Problems of private property: plumbing. If your pipes burst you have to pay to have them repaired, not the HOA. If they leak and rot the timbers of your condominium, you have to pay for the repairs. I say this because this happened to a couple of people in the last few years, with some of the repairs costing multiple thousands of dollars, resulting in crimping of individual's finances.

Lesson 2. HOA Socialism has a private or capitalist component, no different than if you owned your own house.

Problem of every system: Dead Hands. In theory everything is decided democratically. Each housing unit gets a vote. We voted, for instance, to pick a particular painter from the several that bid. But there are also Bylaws and other rules that are hard to change. These were written by people who are no longer owners. In fact, none of the original owners of these condos still live here. Certain decisions are literally set in concrete: the positions of the condominiums and the driveway, for instance.

Problem of every system: Outside Forces. We have no control over utility rates, insurance rates, or changes in the neighborhood that affect us. We don't control the weather. Taxes keep going up. A street near us is going to become a major bus corridor leading to a light rail station, meaning heavier traffic, but perhaps making this a more desirable location for commuters.

An interesting aspect of HOA Socialism is that we tax ourselves. To do this we look (every few years) at anticipated expenses. We have regular expenses we pay through the HOA like trash collection. But we also need to do major and minor repairs. Like the new roof put on 3 years ago, or the paint job for this summer. [Renting does mean you don't need to worry about that kind of thing, but rents rise over time because of it]. This year we raised our monthly HOA payment by 20% because we realized that otherwise we would be in trouble in the not-too-distant future.

Some HOAs are professionally managed. Most big condominium projects are professional managed, with an elected board that consists of a few of the owners. My HOA is small enough to try self-management, but of course some people help more than others.

If you start thinking about socialism in the United States of America, the decision making becomes much, much more complex. I don't want my HOA to tell me what color to paint my interior walls, or what books can be in my library. I don't mind sharing a driveway and expenses for roofing and painting. I like a lot of personal freedom, but do not mind if my government makes plans for roads and keeps them repaired, as long as they are kept repaired.

In the greater world I don't want to be bossed around by either Capitalists or Socialists. I don't mind if Burger King and McDonalds compete because I mostly cook at home. I do mind capitalist bosses who underpay their employees and overcharge their customers, especially when I am one of their employees or customers.

I believe under-regulated capitalism leads to disaster, as happened many times in U.S. history, cumulating in the Great Depression, and recapitulated in the Great Recession.

HOA Socialism is dependent on the owners having enough money to pay their HOA share, which for most of us requires working some job. That makes us dependent on the economy, which we have no control over. It also depends on no one doing anything destructive, like burning their own condo down.

I conclude that HOA Socialism is a reasonable small scale model for learning about governance with mixed social and private components. The reality is we are here, we are housed, and we like having some individual control and some shared burdens. It works because we make it work, not because it automatically produces good results.

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