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History of Homeowners Associations

In the nineteenth century, the United States began to transform itself from a primarily agricultural society to an industrial society. A growing number of people took jobs in cities, but most cities were overcrowded, dusty, and noisy. The advent of commuter rail lines allowed people to work in the city and live outside the city. A series of "railroad communities" grew up along rail stations. Usually these communities were populated by middle-class families.

The twentieth century made people even more mobile, thanks to the automobile. This led to a series of planned communities around the country. In some, the houses would look essentially the same; in others, several designs would be built. These communities attracted more affluent families; there were few restrictions, but people who lived in these communities generally shared common ideas of how streetscapes should look. Homeowners associations as we know them today did not really exist; if similar associations existed in any of these early communities, their purpose was often to restrict residency based on race or religion.

Levittown Breaks New Ground

The first modern planned development was Levittown, built on the site of a potato field on Long Island, off the coast of New York. Builder William Levitt constructed a series of inexpensive but attractive homes that veterans could purchase with low-interest loans guaranteed by the federal government under the Servicemen's Readjustment Bill of 1944 (better known as the GI Bill). Between 1947 and 1951 more than 17,000 houses were built in and around the original Long Island community. Although Levittown residents were subject to restrictive covenants in their deeds, prohibiting such items as laundry lines in front yards, there was no formal homeowners association.

As suburban living continued to become a more attractive option, other developments were built, albeit on a smaller scale than Levittown. These developments were often more self-contained than the large-scale communities in that they maintained stricter standards regarding the appearance of the homes (both the structures and the landscaping). The general idea was that people who were looking for certain amenities (whether restrictions on pets or rules governing hedge planting) would be drawn to these communities; those who sought other amenities would look at other developments. Despite the logic behind this, it is not uncommon for residents of a common interest development (CID) to find themselves in disputes with other neighbors, or with the homeowners association, over seemingly minor infractions of the rules.

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