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Neighborhood Politics: Residential Community Associations in American Governance.

Robert Dilger heralds the awakening of a sleeping giant in the arena of neighborhood politics: the activation of residential community associations (RCAs) throughout the United States. All of us, professional and elected officials alike, have had first-hand experience with the influence of grassroots organizations upon decision-making processes. If the compelling picture that Dilger paints holds true, then governmental officials, especially those at the local level, can expect even greater involvement in the future. In fact, the empirical data put forth within this book leads to the conclusion that RCAs will increasingly move into the spheres of influencing local government decisions and of providing direct services. To this end, in the course of documenting the history of RCAs, Dilger also presents a thoughtful analysis on the currently hot topic of "privatization." Dilger maintains that the significant role of RCAs on the provision of local services has been all but ignored in the latest round of interest in privatizing governmental services.

So, you might well ask, what are RCAs? They are those planned unit developments, condominiums, resorts and homeowner associations increasingly populating our local communities. RCAs are private, nonprofit corporations established by residential developers with local government approval. According to Dilger, RCAs provide homeowners in master-planned developments with a governing mechanism to manage commonly owned property in their neighborhood, such as streets, parking lots, park land and recreational facilities. RCAs increasingly are providing services such as street maintenance, water and sewer services, and security services. They typically create and enforce commonly held covenants, rules and regulations that govern the behavior of residents, such as ownership of pets, exterior remodeling, parking and landscaping. RCAs tax members through regular and special assessments to pay for the provision of the associations' amenities and services. Although RCAs are similar to voluntary neighborhood civic associations, their key distinguishing factors are property ownership, the existence of covenants and regulations, and the assessment of fees to association members above and beyond the taxes assessed by local jurisdictions.

It is clear from Dilger's research that governmental officials can expect both continued growth in the number of RCAs and in their influence on local government decision making. There are currently 150,000 of these organizations within the United States. That number will increase by 9,500 annually reaching 225,000 by the year 2000. The number of Americans subject to RCA governance will grow by approximately 2.1 million annually and will exceed 50 million by the year 2000. Survey results cited within the book indicate that RCAs govern more than 50 percent of all housing for sale in the 50 largest U.S. metropolitan areas and nearly all new residential development in California, Florida, New York and Texas.

With growth numbers like these it is easy to understand why Dilger concludes that RCAs will increasingly seek to influence local government decisions, particularly those directly affecting their neighborhoods. RCAs can be expected to be more effective in their efforts than voluntary neighborhood associations. RCAs can raise revenues to hire professional lobbying assistance. They have newsletters and communications networks to mobilize the neighborhood for political action. They have elected boards that can form the focal point of lobbying efforts. While information is limited, recent survey results presented within the book clearly indicate that RCAs regularly monitor local government actions and engage in lobbying efforts. According to Dilger, "RCAs are a potent, but latent lobbying power.... |They are like~ sleeping tigers. When left alone, they are of little concern to those around them, but once aroused from their sleep, they are clearly a force to be reckoned with at the local government level."

Not only will the influence of RCAs increase but also their role as direct service providers. As fiscal stress continues at the local level, governmental officials and residents alike will seek new ways of meeting service requirements. RCAs provide an existing and tested structure of the provision of services, and satisfaction levels amongst residents is high for those RCAs presently providing such services as street and landscape maintenance. Because their boundaries are smaller than the typical local government, RCAs are better able to meet the public's varying preferences for public goods and services.

At another level, advocates of RCAs argue that they provide residents with a greater role in determining the future of their neighborhoods. Opponents argue that RCAs create an elitist group in which those who can pay get more service and that RCAs segregate the population according to income, social status, social values and other personal characteristics that define neighborhoods. As a result, some view RCAs as a deterrent to community commitment to shared goals. Nevertheless, Dilger presents clear evidence that RCAs will increasingly be service providers in the future.

Neighborhood Politics is a well-researched account of the past, present and future roles of RCAs as both service providers and active stakeholders in local government decision making. It should be read by any local government official interested in the future of community activism at the local level.

Neighborhood Politics: Residential Community Associations in American Governance is available for $35, plus $3 shipping and handling, from New York University Press, Order Department, 70 Washington Square South, New York, NY 10012 (212/998-2575).

Tim Grewe, director of financial planning for the City of Portland, Oregon, and member of the GFOA Committee on Governmental Budgeting and Management.
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Grewe, Tim
Publication:Government Finance Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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