Friday, August 10, 2012

Homeowners' Associations: Euvoluntary?

I live in Northern Virginia. More specifically, I own a home in Northern Virginia, which means that like it or not, I am also a member of a homeowners' association. I have a few guesses about why HOAs are so popular in NOVA, but they're all just-so stories. My favorite tale right now is that the HOA system is a way to coordinate political transients with the permanent bureaucratic class. Every few years, there's a regime change with the elected officials and there's a key swap with the outgoing elites. This gives the carpetbagging element an incentive to personalize their temporary dwellings with their potentially tacky imported local flavor, wrecking the aesthetic of the area. Career bureaucrats, Beltway Bandits and other locals guard against this by forming stable coalitions. The HOA offers some basic services in exchange for a fee and an enforceable pledge of conformity. 

Is this a euvoluntary exchange?

I might be a little close to this question to answer it objectively. I think I should first point out that I'm pretty happy with my HOA. Apart from some rocky billing issues early on, I haven't had any run-ins with them. My neighborhood is reasonably attractive, property values are fairly stable, and the pool is clean. No complaints. However, it does occur to me that even though I'm happy with the ex post outcome, my exchange with my HOA isn't euvoluntary. Why?

Because unattractive alternatives, that's why. My choices are the following:
  1. Buy a house with an HOA at a normal market price (which may or may not be eye-popping for those not familiar with the real estate market here) and get a decent place to live.
  2. Continue to rent and keep flushing a grand a month down the toilet.
  3. Move further west, thereby enduring morning I-66 traffic between Manassas and Fairfax, which may be marginally better than driving in Italy, but not by much.
  4. Find alternative living arrangement, like my car or a refrigerator box or a university basement.
  5. Worst of all, move to Maryland.
I could pay the premium to do any of these, but I could also turn down a $10 bag of ice after a hurricane or refuse to pay $1000 for a bottle of water off a taco truck in the desert. Despite the ugly BATNA, I don't know for sure if people feel ripped off when they move here. I've lived a lot of places in the US, and I think I'm comfortable saying that as far as regions go, Northern Virginia holds its own against most contenders. In other words, even if the terms of trade are circumstantially coercive, the quality of the product being exchanged admirably makes up for the lack of decent outside options. 

I sort of wonder if there's a more general point in there. If there's a good balance between value generated on both sides of a trade, I don't think people cry exploitation even if there is some violation of another condition of EE. Naturally, this is a matter of perception, and people tend to be pretty bad about donning the shoes of sellers, if even they try. Could it be that HOAs aren't so bad because new arrivals to the DC area have a pretty clear counterfactual picture in their mind already, but if you take those same folks to a factory in Bangladesh, they don't have the appropriate snapshot ready?

What do you think? Do you think people get worked up more over the preconditions for euvoluntary exchange or over the immediate terms of trade? Does moral ire change vary based on near vs far bias? Where else in the world might HOA-type arrangements prove sustainable?

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?