After its founding in 1890, Hyde Park went for more than eight decades without a neighborhood association. HPNA was formed in 1974 in the face of an existential threat from developers who wanted to tear down existing homes and put student apartments in their place.
Now that the neighborhood is secure, some say a new threat has arisen: unkempt property and problematic neighbors. An ad hoc committee has been formed at HPNA called Keep It Spiffy (KIS), whose goal would be to bring up the standards of Hyde Park properties, and deal decisively with such problems as incessantly barking dogs or garish house paint.
George Mareski, organizer of KIS, explained his thinking at the February meeting of the HPNA Long-Range Planning Committee. “I spent big bucks buying and remodeling and landscaping my house. Most of my neighbors have done the same. It just takes one person who lets his yard or his house go to pot to bring down the whole block. That’s not fair.”
What Mareski and his members seek is the transformation of the neighborhood association into a homeowners association (HOA). He said that such an association is governed by a neighborhood council. The group writes its own bylaws, determines fees and writes policies. “It’s totally democratic,” he said.
Some 80 HOAs already exist in Austin, including one at the new Mueller neighborhood. “An HOA might be a little scary to some; but once in, residents are so grateful to have that protection,” Mareski said.
In the case of an offending property whose owner refuses to correct the situation, an HOA might get bids on cleaning it up, have the work done, and send the bill to the owner. If the owner does not pay, the HOA can impose a mechanic’s lien on the property. In extreme cases, foreclosure is a possibility. “That’s the impressive thing about HOAs,” Mareski said. “They have the power to get things done.”
Committee member Katherine Goolsby said it was this very power that is terrifying. ”I’ve lived in an HOA, and they can be tyrannical. They were coming around measuring the height of the grass. We lived in fear. It was North Korea without the starvation.”
She recalled the story from the fall of 2012 of the single mother whose son made a small crawl space in the boxwood hedge separating the driveways of the townhouses in Summerwod, a development off Steck. “He lined it with sticks and pieces of firewood and called it his ‘fort.’ You could scarcely see it from the street, even if you were looking for it,” recalled Goolsby.
But the HOA came down hard, demanding the sticks and firewood be removed or the mother would be charged to have it done. The mother decided to stick by her son. The case became a cause célèbre, picked up by UPI as well as the Austin American-Statesman. Goolsby said she visited the mother, who showed her a pack of mean-spirited letters left on her door step. “She was being bullied, plain and simple,” Goolsby said, noting the mother moved away as soon as she could.
This story touched off the most vitriolic exchange in the memory of most committee members. Epithets such as “snob,” “loser,” “fascist,” and “riff-raff” were exchanged freely until a halt in the discussion was called by committee chairman Forrest Gruben.
In the weeks since, a number of HOA supporters and an equal number of HOA opponents were interviewed. The idea was to discover the roots of this divisive issue. Although there are many exceptions, there did seem to be a difference in the two groups.
Most HOA opponents have lived in Hyde Park for more than 10 years. In general, they paid less for their houses than HOA supporters. They grew up in easygoing families with little or no corporal punishment. As adolescents, they said they generally kept sloppy rooms; in college they pursued degrees in the liberal arts or social sciences. Their motto for the neighborhood seems to be, “Live and let live.”
Most HOA supporters, on the other hand, have lived in the neighborhood a much shorter time, many less than five years. They grew up in relatively strict families. They reported that their rooms as adolescents were tidy; according to several, the tidiness alienated some of their peers. In college, a majority majored in business, especially accounting, finance and management. Their motto for Hyde Park seems to be, “The way of the transgressor is hard.”
Both groups seemed to have a goodly number of team players, which perhaps explains why Hyde Park functions as well as it does. HOA opponents tended to like dogs; supporters favored cats, although there were plenty of exceptions.
Kevin Duderstadt, a KIS supporter, said his group will make a presentation at the May meeting of HPNA. Several members of Austin HOAs will be available for questions. In the meantime, he and his group are canvassing residents. If there is interest, a KIS member makes a home visit. “The momentum is growing, it’s really there,” he said. “Once neighbors learn the details, they want in. I think we will have a majority of neighbors on board within 5-7 months.”