The Brookfield subdivision in Pflugerville, north of Austin, lies two miles from Interstate 35 in a bland patch of suburban sprawl, the kind that sprouts like clover on the edge of cities. Cookie-cutter homes line winding streets with tea-themed names like Earl Grey Lane and Darjeeling Drive. Two playgrounds, erected in the middle of circular intersections, fill with children when school lets out. In the summer a fenced-in swimming pool—for Brookfield residents only—provides a break from the punishing Texas heat.
Shawn Riggs lives on Sally Lunn Way in a beige two-story house that he bought for $137,559 in 2003. Like all his neighbors—and a growing number of people across the state—Riggs belongs to a homeowners’ association, which charges monthly or annual fees to care for common areas, enforce deed restrictions, and, at least in theory, maintain property values. One day this past February, Riggs went to the post office to retrieve a certified letter. He had been in a long-running spat with the Brookfield Owners Association over some mistaken fines levied against him for not taking care of his lawn. Riggs believed the letter would contain good news. For almost two years he’d been waiting for the property managers to acknowledge what he’d been saying since he’d received a nasty little notice warning him to cut his grass or else: they had gotten the wrong yard.
As Riggs had explained, it was his neighbor’s house that had been pictured in the notice he had received in June 2011. So