One in six Americans lives in managed communities, which are straining to keep their communities manageable.
Squabbles are erupting among the nation's nearly 20 million condo, co-op and homeowner association-governed units over everything from pets and pool use to flag-waving and cigarette smoking. All that, despite legal documents specifying what can and can't be done.
"It would be nice if people read their declaration and bylaws ahead of time," said lawyer Jonathan B. Levine of Bayside, Wis., who specializes in community association issues. "But we know they don't."
A common complaint from condo buyers, he said: "I bought my unit to avoid these problems."
Such woes reflect growing pains, not a crisis, according to the Alexandria-based Community Associations Institute, which represents the nation's estimated 50 million managed-community residents.
"In any universe this size, you're going to have issues, conflicts and disputes," said Frank Rathbun, the institute's vice president of communication. "Utopia doesn't exist anywhere."
Nationwide, managed-community life has grown to 19.9 million housing units this year, up from 701,000 in 1970, institute data show. Such growth suggests this lifestyle's pleasures outweigh its pitfalls, Rathbun said. His institute commissioned a Gallup Poll in 1999 that found 75 percent of managed-community residents happy to very happy about where they lived.
What makes them happy?
"Community associations offer a lot of amenities, such as a swimming pool or life on a golf course, that the average person couldn't afford on their own," Rathbun said. "The vast majority also likes the fact that they are protected from things like cars on cinder blocks in driveways or yards not maintained."
Much of what Levine hears, and litigates, involves what he calls "the tension between individual autonomy and the rights of the community. You have to balance those interests every day, and no matter what you do, you're going to make somebody unhappy," he said.
Financial trouble is a common but preventable issue in managed communities, Reserve Advisors Inc. principals John Poehlmann and Ted Salgado of Milwaukee said. Some, developed decades ago, now face expensive building repairs.
"The financing plan must be fair, predictable and preserve value," Poehlmann said. Options include special assessments, bank loans and reserve accounts, he said, and professional help is probably needed.
A third widespread problem, audience members said, is governance. Managed communities are run by their residents, who are typically, unpaid volunteers.
"The problem is, no one wants to volunteer," said Roger Raasch, founder and facilitator of the Wisconsin Condominium Association in Oak Creek, which represents 137 developments.
Homeowners' disinclination to participate in what Levine called their "little democratic subsociety" was underscored when Poehlmann asked the convention crowd why people run for condo or community association board.
Rathbun likened all the grumbling to media coverage of airlines: "You don't hear about all the safe landings; you hear about the crashes."
But he acknowledged that the managed-community phenomenon reflects not just people drawn to it, but people pushed into it. Local governments are doing the pushing, with an eye to saving themselves money, he said.
"Municipalities increasingly are requiring developers to handle some public services -- street maintenance, garbage removal, snow removal, street lights," Rathbun said. "There must be an entity to handle that because the developer eventually leaves."
The key to domestic tranquility in community settings, he said, is communication.
"There should be dialogue, not after problem or conflict arises, but as a routine matter within community associations," he said.
Levine's advice: Be upfront about development rules -- before somebody buys in and regularly afterward -- and be fair enforcing them.
"Remember, you don't want to win fights," he said. "You want to avoid them."
For more information about managed communities, see the Community Associations Institute Web site, www.caionline.org.