The Tyranny of the Condo Board

Moneybox
A blog about business and economics.
June 27 2013 12:12 PM

Glenn Greenwald Versus the Arbitrary Tyranny of the Condo Board

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This guy has large dogs. Who cares?

Photo by Jerry Lampen/AFP/Getty Images

Amid a kind of random oppo dump, Darah Gregorian of the New York Daily News reveals that Glenn Greenwald once got into some trouble with a condo's pet rules:

In a 2003 lawsuit, he and his then partner, Werner Achetz, were sued by their West Side condo board for having a dog that was bigger than building by-laws allowed.
The couple countered that they and their dog Uli were being singled out because they were gay, a charge the board denied. The case eventually settled.
“The co-op board said the dog could stay,” he said.
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Good for Glenn! Obviously I have no idea whether Greenwald and Achetz were in fact singled out for being gay. But the general way condominium associations seem to work—at least in our major coastal centers—is through a kind of arbitrary totalitarianism. Essentially everything is against the rules, and daily life is made tolerable only through the fact that the rules aren't actually enforced. But then anytime someone wants to be a pain in the ass, they can demand enforcement of some random provision or other. In other words, it's an ideal setup for selective harassment of your gay neighbor (or whatever) because everyone's in violation of something or other.

And the problem is that there's essentially no escape. In any condo, the rules are made by the condo board and at condo meetings. And while the boards and the meetings are theoretically democratic institutions, in practice they self-select for busybodies who feel like wasting their time on condo business. That quality of erring on the side of busybodiness is a characteristic that all associations have in common, and the transaction costs involved in selling real estate and moving are enormous. So in practice everyone winds up in an excessively busybody-dominated condo where too much stuff is against the rules and enforcement is too spotty and arbitrary. Most people simply aren't litigious enough to fight back. Among the sins of big-city real estate, this isn't at the top of my list, but it's a real problem and Greenwald deserves credit for pushing back.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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