Nasty neighbours and the rise of housing tyrants

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
January 2, 2001

Neighbours don’t get along. They fight over parking spaces, they fight over the way their yards are kept, they fight over new additions to their houses and they fight over the rowdy late-night parties their teenagers hold. Neighbours are so fractious, in fact, that a mini book industry exists to help sort out the differences. The latest effort comes from The Lyons Press, a New York publisher, which recently brought out a new edition of Outwitting Neighbors (223 pages, $22.95 in Canada), a book by Bill Adler Jr. first published in 1994.

This book is not intended for policy wonks. It classifies itself as a “home improvement” guide, for the benefit of bookstore staff perplexed about where to display it, but it would also suit the humour section. It is a collection of anecdotes — many of them extreme — about how neighbours treat each other. In St. Louis, Miss., a quarrel over street parking — residents there consider the curb in front of their house their own — ended with a homeowner asserting his “property rights” by sledgehammering his new neighbours’ car windows. In a suburb of Chicago, a homeowner had a bulldozer remove a portion of a neighbour’s driveway that had been built on his lot.

The need to outwit your neighbor, Mr. Adler shows, exists wherever you may live. Those who don’t plan to leave a neighbourhood, he explains, often desire lower, not higher, property values to minimize the taxes they have to pay. Your tony addition translates into a rise in your neighbours’ taxes. In Canada, where property taxes are increasingly collected on the basis of market value assessment, this friction among neighbours can only increase: Property owners will be punished as never before when their neighbourhood gets upgraded, say, by civic-minded citizens who voluntarily plant rosebushes in common spaces.

Mr. Adler dishes out deliciously vicious advice — like putting cat food on the roof of offending vehicles late at night, to let the neighbour awaken to raccoon paw prints on the car’s shiny exterior. Or posting a sign that says, “Warning: Radioactive Waste Buried Here” to discourage neighbours from trying to claim disputed land along a property line.

But he presents these guerrilla warfare gambits in jest. Mr. Adler is, in fact, a peacemaker, and his preferred course, almost invariably, involves giving in for the sake of neighbourhood harmony. Resolve the conflict over parking by changing your work hours so you and your neighbour use the spot at different times. Wait out the troublesome teenagers next door — they’ll move out eventually. If all else fails, maybe you should be the one to move. Mr. Adler presents example upon example of petty conflicts getting out of hand, where the person who’s right in theory ends up the loser in practice.

The advice — bending over backward, having patience, accepting small or even large inconveniences — is sensible in society as we know it today. People have few absolute rights to use their property as they see fit. Almost anything out of the ordinary, even if entirely legal, is subject to being banned by new bylaws if a small group of neighbours is determined enough.

As Mr. Adler points out, this lack of freedom can be most severe in those supposed exemplars of private property rights: gated communities, condominium corporations and other homeowners’ associations. These now govern the lives of some 80 million U.S. citizens, often in the name of maintaining property values by gaining freedom from the vagaries of local governments. In reality, they tend to entrench the status quo and to regulate, regulate, regulate. Explains Mr. Adler: “Much falls under their purview — fences, paint, decorations and house additions — so much that you can hardly make a move without consulting them. You want a pet? Ask first. You want to hang Christmas lights? Submit your plans in writing. You want a new refrigerator? There’s no delivery Tuesdays or Thursdays.”

Rather than being bastions of self-rule and the free enterprise system, as their residents often imagine, community associations most suit those fleeing innovation. As Mr. Adler explains, these people often want to live in a controlled environment: “They crave rules and order — the exact height of hedges, the angle of handrails, and when leaves must be raked — and an association provides that.”

Yet neighbourhood associations, which are becoming common in Canada with suburbanization, may lead only to increased friction among neighbours, as seen by the legions of lawsuits in the United States between these associations and their residents. Anti-association advocates even dispute the associations’ claim to preserving property values. To members of this growing movement, associations are little collectives that are all too easily hijacked by local tyrants with the time to volunteer to sit on the board.

Neighbours will be neighbours, and in the end, the book is less a practical guide than a series of homilies about being a good neighbour. Mr. Adler’s one concrete exception: Avoid neighbourhood associations, which seem to breed intolerance and create conflict. “Frankly, it’s hard for me to fathom why somebody would want to live in a place that has more rules than their state and city.”

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