Friday, March 19, 2004

The fascist tendency in new home construction and the tyranny of covenants 

Those of you who have been to Princeton know that there is tremendous variety in the housing stock. There are old prewar mansions, old prewar bungalows, run-down college town rentals, fifty-year old developments with split-level ranches, beautiful new houses rising over the rubble of a "tear down," and everything in between. Even the neighborhoods that were originally developed -- in the current sense of the word -- both homeowners and the passage of time have tremendously altered the landscape. My own neighborhood consists almost entirely of split-level ranches that began life in 1952-56 essentially the same. Today, there have been so many changes to the buildings themselves and the landscape that you might take a while to realize that it was all once one boring development.

This diversity in housing is possible because there are no meaningful restrictions on what people may do with their own homes, except for set-backs and such. If I want to rip down my ranch and throw up a brick colonial, no covenant prevents me from doing so.

Across the road in Plainsboro (you can almost imagine what the town is like from the name), developers have been paving over cornfields for the last twenty years and throwing up vast developments of houses, some of obvious quality and others that will not last fifty years without a lot of upkeep. Unfortunately, these neighborhoods -- if they can be called neighborhoods at all -- will not change and evolve the way Princeton's have. The difference between Plainsboro today and Princeton of fifty years ago is that restrictive covenants will condemn these neighborhoods to uniformity until the end of time. How hideous.

It would be wonderful if we could blame this on bureaucrats or evil developers, but we can't. The developers build these restrictions into the deeds they sell because most Americans, apparently, actually want to live in tract houses that will look the same tomorrow as today. This is the free market at work, Gentle Reader, and it isn't pretty at all.

Why do people who buy these houses want to lock in uniformity? Even the drones who want these covenants would not dream of buying the same boring car as their neighbors, or dressing in the same clothes, just to be the same. What is it about housing that inspires this need to micromanage the choices our neighbors make when revising their homes? Why are we Americans such housing fascists?

And don't tell me it is because we are obsessed with housing values. If Americans loved variety in housing, restrictive covenants would hurt the value of houses. It is only because so many Americans want this uniformity that the covenants increase the value of the property.

To see how silly -- and stressful and horrible -- this can get, read this story.

Me, I love it when a neighbor puts on a new addition. Sure, there will be a dumpster out front for a while and the sound of a circular saw at the wrong time can be a little annoying, but my scenery changes without me having to do a damn thing. Slowly, over time, the neighborhood reflects the creativity and spirit of the people who live there, and all of that makes our house seem more like home.


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