This is another in my occasional series on creating suburbs that will remain successful over the long haul. To recap, I consider the suburban decay facing inner ring suburbs across America, especially those of the 60’s and 70’s vintage built on a modern suburban pattern, as one of the key challenges facing urban leaders over the coming decades. I outlined a lot of the case in my review of the book “Retrofitting Suburbia”. This series looks at ways to keep this same decay from happening to tomorrow’s suburbs.
The Market Urbanism blog recently ran a post called “Covenants as a Substitute for Euclidean Zoning.” As its name implies, this blog prefers free market type solutions to urban problems rather than government ones. In this case, they’d like to see voluntary restrictive covenants as a substitute for zoning in many cases. I tend to see covenants as a generally bad way to go.
I’m not sure when these really took off, but today it seems like basically every new subdivision comes with various restrictive covenants. These can restrict things like the types of materials or even paint colors allowed on houses, rules about where cars can be parked, the types of decorations that are allowed, banning fences, or even who can live in the house. The idea of these is to protect property values by making sure neighbors can’t do obnoxious things to their homes.
Part of the problem though is that unlike with zoning or other matters of purely public policy, restrictive covenants can be difficult or impossible to change over time. As someone who went through the process of amending his condo association incorporation declarations for something like this, I can attest to its difficulty. This tends to create a situation where it is difficult for the housing stock to evolve over time to meet changing needs, particularly when a development runs into trouble. It seems unlikely, for example, that the paint colors that are in fashion today will still be as fashionable 30 years from now.
Retrofitting Suburbia did a nice job of demonstrating how even the relentlessly monotonous homes in the Levittown developments were able to be adapted very successfully over time. People made additions, radically changed exteriors, etc. It’s hard to imagine these developments would have been nearly as long lasting as they were if the houses were legally required to have stayed more or less in their current state.
I think that the newer type subdivisions that are loaded up with restrictive covenants are going to face particular redevelopment challenges in the future. Those places without covenants may actually end up with long run competitive advantages because of their ability to adapt to change.
In fact, I predict that at some point in the future, as covenants make redevelopment aging subdivisions (or perhaps even just some of the failed projects caught out by the housing bubble bursting in the here and now) difficult in the future, we’ll see state legislatures (or perhaps even the courts) invalidate these as contrary to public policy.
In the meantime, I think lawmakers ought to take a look at what these might mean over the longer term. Perhaps covenants are ok in the short term, but longer term they should expire. This is already how they work in some cases and so perhaps this is a good balance of meeting present and future needs.