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The HOA Role in Housing Segregation

By Q Redmond

Masters of the Environment Candidate, University of Colorado and Intern with CAP Management Sustainability Department

Homeowners Associations (HOAs) are a private form of collective ownership. As such, they face an inherent tension between individual values and shared space. Many people, including myself, believe that people should have the ability to determine the qualities and quality of their homes and neighborhood. However, the qualities, attributes, and features of a neighborhood that are believed to improve its quality and value can be a detriment to the overall health and happiness of the larger environment the neighborhood resides in.

Currently, a common feature of HOA properties that is getting a lot of attention is turf lawns. There is ecological harm done by replacing diverse ecosystems with landscapes of one type of grass (Kentucky Bluegrass), and there is a growing movement of people and institutions who are recognizing the benefits to ecosystems and themselves of replacing this with water-wise polycultures of plants.

High angle shot of suburban neighborhood.

But another feature that played a major role in the development of American cities and suburbs is segregation. As turf lawns replace a bustling ecosystem with a monoculture, segregation replaces a multicultural social scape with a white one, pushing “undesirable” populations to economically, socially and environmentally undesirable lands. Both turf and segregation are put in place as a way to maintain or improve property values through exclusivity and homogeneity, one of the primary functions of an HOA.

The base rules of an HOA are written into its founding documents and the deeds to each of the units within it as a set of covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&Rs). One type of covenant that quickly became popular in early HOAs was racially restrictive covenants, which forbade the sale or rental of properties to minorities (primarily Black people).

While racially restrictive zoning by municipalities was outlawed in 1917, (although zoning still plays a role in segregation and unsustainable urban design), racially restrictive covenants were made unenforceable in 1948, and only outlawed in 1968. This meant that for over half a century, racially restrictive covenants were the primary mode of residential segregation, pushing minorities into cramped properties in polluted areas far from amenities.

It became a self-fulfilling prophecy; one that would ensure a correlation between Blackness and low housing quality that endures to this day. Black people and other minorities were pushed to low value properties and now blackness is implicitly and unconsciously associated with low property values, especially for real estate professionals and mortgage lenders, who perpetuate the cycle. One report found that “a square foot of residential real-estate is worth 23 percent less in neighborhoods where half the population is Black compared to neighborhoods with few or no Black residents, even after adjusting for housing quality and neighborhood quality.”

Aerial image of suburban sprawl

Racially restrictive covenants were not limited to neighborhoods with HOAs, but HOAs became an important vehicle for maintaining these covenants. As Phil Wheeler, a former city planner who maps these covenants, puts it, “These covenants had no value at all, unless they involved a neighborhood. You didn’t become an exclusive house, you had to have the whole neighborhood.”

Many housing deeds and HOA covenants across the United States still contain these covenants, even though they are legally inert. While many people are working on removing these covenants, I think the bigger focus should be on fixing active, not explicitly racial, restrictive covenants. While people in the early to mid 20th century did not hesitate to lay out their racial biases directly, many HOA covenants designed to determine the character of the neighborhood were made with an implicit bias against marginalized and low-class people.

When analyzing and interpreting HOAs CCRs, by-laws, it helps to look at it from an intersectional perspective, trying to find how the race, class, gender, sexuality, disability status and other identities of the creators biased them in favor of certain CCRs and against others. Discard race-neutral policies for race-conscious ones that recognize the overlap between race, class and gender and the uphill battle towards integration.

A broad range of institutions need to improve to end segregation, including real estate professionals, mortgage lenders and urban planners, but leaders within neighborhoods have a role to play as well. Just as biodiversity enables sustainability for ecosystems, cultural diversity enables sustainability for social systems. Less segregated cities and neighborhoods are less politically divided and have better health and economic indicators. Students who go to more diverse schools tend to have higher earnings as adults, are less likely to be incarcerated, and are more likely to attend college. Diversity is the bedrock of sustainability and resilience, but like a quality native landscape, it needs to be fostered and maintained in order to thrive.