Opinion

How Homeowners’ Associations Get Their Way in California

In the last edition of my newsletter, I wrote about Los Angeles City Councilwoman Nithya Raman and the challenges she’s faced in her political career. Raman ran on a host of progressive policy prescriptions, but her housing plans — construction of more affordable units and homeless services — were what brought her into a face-off with powerful political forces that threaten to remove from her district most, if not all, of her constituents. This newsletter is about what those forces are.

In his landmark 1990 book “City of Quartz,” the historian Mike Davis writes, “the most powerful ‘social movement’ in contemporary Southern California is that of affluent homeowners, organized by notional community designations or tract names, engaged in the defense of home values and neighborhood exclusivity.” Davis is talking about homeowners’ associations, which since the 1920s have been organizing to keep their neighborhoods exactly as they are.

This has meant enforcing “deed restrictions,” which kept out Black and Asian families, and various secession attempts from cities that may have had different priorities.

Up until very recently, these organizations, which exist mostly in middle- and upper-middle-class neighborhoods, have operated largely in the shadows. “For most of the twentieth century,” Davis writes, “homeowners’ associations have been the ‘trade unions’ of an important section of the middle class. Yet they remain largely a terra incognita, neglected by urban historians and sociologists alike.”

Nithya Raman’s City Council seat representing Council District 4 (CD-4) currently includes a handful of ultrapowerful homeowners’ associations. There could be a lot written about any of them, but I want to focus on two in particular: the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association and the Hancock Park Homeowners Association — and how they’ve fought to move into a different jurisdiction.

The King of the Valley

Sherman Oaks, a quasi-suburb of Los Angeles that mixes multimillion-dollar single-family homes with long stretches of apartment complexes, suffers from a confused identity. Its more than 70,000 residents are technically part of the city of Los Angeles, but many of them consider their area a distinct community with its own values, demographics and politics.

Sherman Oaks is, perhaps, the oddest and least logical part of Raman’s current district — it extends out of the contiguous landmass of CD-4 and is disconnected with its so-called communities of interest, a term that has become ubiquitous in Southern California. It can mean more or less whatever you want it to mean, but it is often shorthand for pairing homeowners with homeowners and renters with renters.

Richard Close, a 76-year-old lawyer, has been the head of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association (SOHA) since 1977. During that 44-year reign, Close, who grew up in the Boston suburb of Andover and early on was exposed to political organizing through his father’s law partner, U.S. Representative Thomas Lane, has turned his outfit into one of the most powerful political organizations in California.

In the late 1970s Close teamed up with an activist named Howard Jarvis to start Californians for Prop. 13, in support of a constitutional amendment that went on to pass in 1978. The initiative effectively froze residential property taxes in California at the point of purchase, dating back to 1975. So if you bought a house that year for, say, $240,000 and that house is now worth $2.2 million (a common occurrence), you will essentially be paying nearly the same tax bill that you paid 40 years ago, adjusted for inflation. This one law has inhibited the state’s tax base and has been blamed for everything from underfunded schools to stagnant housing markets to the financial distress of the entire state.

It also gave homeowners a sense of political identity while incentivizing people to stay in their homes as long as possible and, up until recently, pass their homes and their favorable tax rates on to their children. Californians approved Proposition 13 with 65 percent of the vote, and it is still popular.

“Howard Jarvis used to come to our meetings,” Close told me in a rather thick Boston accent. “He was very charismatic. We had the people and he had the charisma.” Close is correct: He did have the people.

During the Proposition 13 fight, Close would keep tabs on his own community through monthly meetings, where people would voice a litany of suggestions and grievances. He would also go into surrounding communities, whether wealthy or not, and try to meet with other heads of homeowners’ associations. If no homeowners’ association was present, he’d encourage residents to form one. “I’m a delegator,” Close told me. “I find strong people, I find people that want to work, and we were out, getting signatures in the 90-plus-degree temperatures of the San Fernando Valley.”

For years, Close has edited the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association Newsletter, a monthly mailer sent out to a list of about 3,000 recipients. (At the end of our conversation, Close asked me for my address and said he’d put me on this list, proving that a master organizer sometimes just can’t help himself.)

The newsletter has served as the unofficial beacon of Valley homeowners and became a way for Close and SOHA to weigh in on local politicians. “Our focus was to carrot and stick,” Close said. “We would have no hesitation of calling out an elected official if he or she didn’t do what we believed was in the best interest of the community.” And likewise, if they did, “we would praise them.”

I asked Close if this approach got attention from politicians.

“Absolutely,” he said, and told a story about Mike Feuer, the city attorney of Los Angeles and a current mayoral candidate. The SOHA newsletter had been critical of then-Councilman Feuer, who then reached out to Close and said he disagreed with what had been written. Close said that he didn’t understand the issue — this was a community newsletter, not a major newspaper. As Close recalls, Feuer then said, “The trouble is that I don’t have your mailing list, so I cannot respond to what you say.” (Feuer’s office did not respond to a request for comment.)

By the end of the 1970s, Close created an unofficial network of political power, one that would have a large say in nearly every major land-use bill in the city for the next 40 years. It mostly accomplished this through the praise and criticism it heaped on local lawmakers and with a large bloc of people who would show up to vote in seemingly meaningless elections. “Politicians need grass roots. I’m grass roots,” Close told Los Angeles Magazinein 2017.

Some may roll their eyes at the thought that a coalition of mostly affluent homeowners could qualify as “grass roots,” a term more commonly associated with social justice movements. But they would be wrong: Throughout his four-decade reign, Close and SOHA have consistently out-organized, out-hustled and outmaneuvered their political opponents.

In the 1980s, Close and SOHA joined with dozens of other homeowners’ associations to form the “slow growth” movement in the Valley, which sought to impede construction of new housing, retain single-family zoning and, in many instances, wrest control from the City of Los Angeles or any other meddling municipal officials.

Close, for example, was a main proponent of the 2002 failed attempt of the San Fernando Valley to secede from the rest of Los Angeles, citing, among other reasons, a lack of services proportionate to its tax base. He worked to pass the monumental 1986 Proposition U, which restricted the amount of square footage that could be built on top of a plot of land in Los Angeles and which still places a stranglehold on residential and commercial real estate.

Some SOHA members also played a major part in the failed efforts in the late 1970s to stop the busing of Black students from South Los Angeles to Valley schools. SOHA took no official position in that fight, but individuals who had witnessed its organizing power brought their knowledge to the campaigns, prompting an antibusing Los Angeles Board of Education member to say, “We learned our political p’s and q’s in the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association.”

Close’s network still exists, and it continues to practice the coalition politics that have protected its neighborhoods for the past half century. Though the demographics of the Valley have changed — Latinos now constitute a plurality of the population according to the Census Bureau — SOHA and his network are still active. They still pass around petitions and meet every month to hear from one another.

In 2015, Close and SOHA flexed their muscle in the City Council elections by backing David Ryu in his victory against the candidate endorsed by The Los Angeles Times. The credit, both publicly and privately, was given to Close and SOHA. A scene described in a 2017 article in Los Angeles Magazineshows Close’s influence:

“Ryu is among the few pols in Close’s glow, and he is the featured speaker at the meeting this evening. As the 41-year-old former community health director approaches the stage in the cafeteria, Close bellows, ‘He was not supposed to win the primary; he was supposed to be gone. How many councilmen endorsed you?’ Zero, responds Ryu. ‘How many developer dollars did you take?’ None. ‘So how did you win?’ Ryu gestures to the room. ‘Because of you.’”

Back in 2015, organizations like SOHA could have a significant effect on City Council elections for the very simple reason that odd-year elections, which do not coincide with national and state contests, usually have very low voter turnout. The 2020 election against Raman was the first in years to be held at the same time as a presidential race, which meant SOHA’s bloc of votes would not go as far.

They once again threw their weight behind Ryu. When he lost to Raman, whose platform wasn’t exactly aligned with SOHA’s, Close pushed for Sherman Oaks to be separated from the rest of the councilwoman’s district and join the rest of the San Fernando Valley.

In a 2020 letter to the City Council’s redistricting commission, a representative from SOHA argued that Valley residents should share districts with other Valley neighborhoods. Today, SOHA believes its interests are aligned with the proposal in front of the council, which would effectively take away Raman’s district and would liberate Sherman Oaks from her jurisdiction. “SOHA is in full support of the Redistricting Commission’s recommended map K2.5,” Close said. “We are not proposing a different map.”

I asked Close if SOHA had been working to influence the drawing of the new district maps that would reunite them with the Valley and pry them away from Raman. “Absolutely,” he said. “That’s the whole purpose of public participation in this process. They’ve held a huge number of public meetings, they want public input. So the answer is, absolutely, we’re lobbying for the current redistricting plan.” Whether the commission was swayed or not by SOHA, its proposed map aligns with what SOHA was asking for.

I also asked Close how much of this push was just about getting Raman and her ambitious housing plans out of their hair. “I don’t think that was a motive,” he said. He then chuckled and said, “However, Sherman Oaks is much more conservative than she is. Sherman Oaks is more constituent-services oriented. There’s been a lot of criticism that she has not focused on constituent services — what’s often called the pothole approach to politics, getting problems solved in the community, as opposed to focusing on citywide problems. If I had a crystal ball and asked, ‘Would the Sherman Oaks residents like the new districts because of the new council member?,’ I think a lot of people would say yes.”

The Hancock Park Homeowners Association

Hancock Park, an unusually leafy neighborhood in the middle of Los Angeles, sits between two ethnic enclaves: Koreatown to the east and the Orthodox Jewish community in Fairfax to the west. With its rows of mansions on large lots, Hancock Park offers a rare touch of tasteful opulence in Southern California. Such unique traits have made its residents fiercely protective of the neighborhood.

In 1948, residents formed the Hancock Park Property Owners Association to block Nat King Cole from moving in. They failed, but the homeowners in the neighborhood have been organized ever since.

Today, the renamed Hancock Park Homeowners Association (HPHA) is led by Cindy Chvatal, an executive producer on the long-running hit television show “CSI.” For the past 10 years, Chvatal has been trying to unite Hancock Park with its own “communities of interest” — to the west.

Last month, she brought together several homeowners’ associations in the area to propose a map to the Redistricting Commission that would move Hancock Park out of Raman’s CD-4 and into CD-5 under the leadership of a new council member.

Like Close, Chvatal says that there’s nothing personal about HPHA’s push to leave Raman’s district; this effort, she said, is about uniting her neighborhood with the people who share its parks, schools and the like.

“Which way do you think is more like our neighborhood?” Chvatal asked me. “To the west or to the east?”

The area to the west, which has more single-family housing had more in common, I said, with Hancock Park than Koreatown to the east, with all of its renters and strip malls.

“Exactly,” Chvatal said. “To the east, it’s denser, it’s more apartments, and it’s more commercial.”

The term “communities of interest” kept coming up during my conversations with Close and Chvatal. The idea is pretty easy to understand, perhaps even natural: Neighborhoods that are alike and share parks, schools and other services should be lumped together. But if every district is simply a collection of communities of interest, the result will, by definition, be segregated zones all competing for attention in City Hall. In this setup, the rich will usually win and the poor will usually lose, not only because that’s how things usually work in America, but also because the rich tend to have more Richard Closes and Cindy Chvatals.

Tenant organizers and renters also talk about “communities of interest” and the need to consolidate their own concerns. (More on that in Part 3 of this series.) For example, Koreatown, an area rich with immigrants and apartment buildings, has been cut up into four districts, which has made it difficult to organize political power in the neighborhood and often places those renters into small pockets within mostly homeowner districts.

Chvatal has poured hundreds of hours of unpaid work to turn HPHA into a political powerhouse that represents its mostly wealthy members. If you watch the video of a Zoom call the HPHA had with Raman earlier this year, you can see the specific contours of Chvatal’s concerns. She believes that a City Council member should deal with the specific neighborhood issues of his or her constituents, what Close called “pothole politics.”

“Nithya was running for the city,” Chvatal said of Raman. “Her ideas were big and it was ‘Nithya for the City.’” I asked Chvatal to clarify a bit because what she was saying was more or less true. Raman had run on an ambitious citywide agenda. (“She ran a campaign as if she was running for mayor,” Close echoed.) Was the issue, then, that Raman was not actually attuned to the specific needs of constituents like the members of the HPHA, who were not renters?

In response, Chvatal asked, “Why does she want us?”

There are two truths to pull out of this conversation. First: Nobody in California can organize quite like its homeowners’ associations. Second: “Communities of interest” will continue to consolidate financial and political power into blocs that will likely have an outsize influence on what happens in the city.

Close, Chvatal and their networks of homeowners’ associations have flexed their might through grass-roots campaigns that should be the envy of every progressive in America. By understanding the importance of boring, wonky things like zoning codes and building-height restrictions, they laid a foundation of restrictions that are likely to outlast Raman and every member of the City Council.

One can disagree with Close and Chvatal, but anyone who dismisses their work as just the fruits of immense privilege are missing out on a valuable lesson on how to get things done. What any cause needs is a tireless advocate and a bunch of people who have both the time and energy to show up to every community meeting, vote in every seemingly insignificant election and see shared struggles in even the smallest housing fights.

Raman also seems aware of the obstacles she faces as a newcomer who does not have the endorsement of some of the city’s powerful homeowners’ associations and politicians. “By definition, I’m a total outsider,” she said. Speaking about the Redistricting Commission, she added, “I think those are places where my lack of existing relationships hurts my ability to have my district protected.”

It’s tempting to say that Close and Chvatal represent real politics while Raman and her supporters, despite their election win, should be written off as idealistic novices who need to play by the actual rules of the game. But, like most things with housing and politics, the truth is a bit more complicated.

Raman may very well lose the entirety of her constituency and spend the next three years going door-to-door in the far reaches of the Valley. But it shouldn’t be forgotten that she also unseated Ryu, who was backed by all the same homeowners’ association leaders, and in doing so may have unearthed a strategy that could work in any district with a fair number of renters.

In the third installment of this series, I will be writing about Park La Brea, the largest apartment complex west of the Mississippi, and how its residents helped get Raman elected.

Have feedback? Send a note to kang-newsletter@nytimes.com.

Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”

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