Homeowner Associations Can Damage Local Ecosystems

New research suggests that homeowner associations can use their unchecked power to wipe out—or restore—biodiversity in suburban settings.

TYRANNY HAS ITS ADVANTAGES. That's one underlying theme of a new report published in Ecology and Society. The study suggests that homeowner associations, which often operate with little or no state or federal oversight--have the potential to become powerful biodiversity advocates.

Natural Suburbia

Looks Strange, Right? Unlike most U.S. communities, this one in Serbia, free from the influence of Homeowner Associations, has allowed natural plants and wildlife to co-exist with residents. U.S. HOAs will need to change their English garden aesthetic if they're to truly invite biodiversity into their domains.--Photo: Jeff Attaway

About 62 million Americans now live in HOA-managed communities, many of them set in some of the richest, most bio-diverse regions of the country. That's the trouble with human settlement patterns. We like to live where wildlife, soil, flora and fauna are plentiful. But our suburban settlement patterns predictably bulldoze away the very things that attracted us to the area, replacing it with monoculture lawn, impermeable roofs and driveways, invasive plant species, and bird-killing domestic pets.

Although many associate species extinction and biodiversity with large mammals such as polar bears and pandas, most of the species we're losing are less glamorous, less likely to evoke empathy--namely plants and insects. Although biologist E.O. Wilson points out that if these creatures were as large as mammals, some would be quite beautiful, it's unlikely they'll be protected by virtue of their cuteness (sadly, one of the only predictable motivators, according to research, for humans to feel empathy toward other species). Instead, what's needed are systemic, top-down guidelines, boundaries and rules that protect and enhance the delicate habitats of other living things--just the kind of stuff HOAs love to mandate.

HOA Rule Potential Environmental Impact
Restrictions on Wildflowers and Gardens Many HOAs require lawns to be maintained with specific types of grass and may prohibit the planting of wildflowers or native plants. This can limit the diversity of plant life and reduce habitats for pollinators like bees and butterflies.
Short Lawn Standards HOAs often require lawns to be kept short, which can disrupt the natural life cycles of insects and other small creatures that rely on longer grasses for habitat.
Prohibition of Composting Some HOAs may not allow composting, which can limit the ability of homeowners to recycle organic waste and enrich their soil naturally.
Use of Pesticides and Fertilizers HOAs may require homeowners to use certain pesticides or fertilizers to maintain their lawns. These chemicals can run off into local waterways, harming aquatic life and contaminating water sources.
Restrictions on Tree Planting Some HOAs have rules about where and what types of trees can be planted. This can limit the ability to create habitats for birds and other wildlife, and reduce the potential for natural carbon sequestration.

The study's bottom line: "Homeowner associations, with their governance, regulatory structure, relatively large scope of influence, and focus on landscaping practices, present a viable venue for active conservation biologists to ensure that urban ecosystems are not devoid of native diversity."
speciesSweating the Small Stuff. The majority of species under threat are not large mammals, but plants, fish and insects. And in the U.S. some of the areas losing species most rapidly are those under the heel of suburban development.

An HOA Footnote: It's not just environmental damage that sometimes makes Homeowner Associations undesirable. They can also provide a platform for racism and homophobia. For example, in Falmouth, Maine, Brooke Hackett is refusing to remove the Pride flags erected by her child, despite a neighbor's complaint and a directive from her homeowners association. Hackett has been supported by a neighborhood Pride parade arranged by her neighbors. Source: The Portland Press Herald.