City Versus Suburbs Management Approaches Change Based on Geography

The ‘big city’ is known for its breakneck pace, as life whirls around the unprepared out-of-towner in an overwhelming swirl. Suburbia, on the other hand, is supposed to be a respite from that intense metropolitan grind – a place to patiently teach the kids how to play tee-ball out in the yard until it’s time for dinner. 

Of course, the accuracy of these generalizations varies from person to person and family to family. But distinctions do exist between urban and rural communities, and those differences impact how those communities are managed and run. Community associations in more densely-packed locales have different concerns and priorities than those in sprawling townships. The Cooperator spoke with some professionals who have worked with both to delve into the similarities and differences.

Population Density

Space tends to be at a premium in the city, while an association in the suburbs generally occupies more square footage – or more acreage, to put it more accurately. The vertical-versus-sprawl contrast is the biggest variable when it comes to managing communities in those respective settings.

“From a management perspective, an urban high-rise can be easier to handle than a garden-type apartment community further out from the city,” says John Wolf, CEO of management firm Alexander Wolf & Company in Plainview, New York, “because with the latter, you have to consider landscaping, snow removal, and things of that nature. If you’re looking at a high-rise, much of what is vital is contained within the building: you have your boiler, the roof, elevators, heating systems and mechanics, which are more or less standard and need to be in compliance with local laws. But outside of the city, you have many of those same issues, in addition to sewage treatment, pools, siding, etc. A community with more acres means that you’re going to have to keep track of more vendors and contractors.”

The day-to-day complaints one hears in the city also differ significantly from what you might hear in the suburbs. “With city condos, I get a lot of noise disturbances, especially given how there are more brownstones and smaller associations,” says Jennifer L. Barnett, a partner at the litigation department of Marcus Errico Emmer Brooks in Braintree, Massachusetts. “More often than not, code violations happen more often in large municipalities than they do inside of the city, whether those are related to mice infestations or any other sort of pest issue, balconies, and retaining walls, etc. The Boston Fire Department makes it a point to periodically inspect buildings throughout the city. And if you don’t take care of a violation right away, they take the next step and pursue a criminal complaint with the housing courts.

“In suburban associations, I see more issues that pertain to contracts,” she continues. “In the city, it’s less likely that you’ll have a large area that needs snow removal or much landscaping work. But slip-and-fall cases can happen anywhere; those are pretty evenly dispersed. And I’ve also found that hoarding doesn’t depend on the setting; I see that with equal frequency in suburbs and high-end Back Bay condominiums. There’s no rhyme or reason as to where hoarding behaviors take place.”

The physical layout of a property or association is likely to vary based on where it is located. “When a high-rise condo in an urban location has a number of owners and occupants literally stacked on top of one another in close proximity, it can lead to things like noise and odor emanating from one unit and travelling to another,” says Benjamin J. Rooney, a shareholder with law firm Keay & Costello in Wheaton, Illinois. “This is less of a concern in suburban associations, which oftentimes consist of free-standing single-family homes on larger lots. But on the flip side, suburban community associations comprised of single-family residences or townhomes frequently require the owners to maintain exterior portions of those homes. That can create problems should they fail or refuse to perform this maintenance, thus creating an eyesore which the board must then address. 

“In a high-rise,” he continues, “owners do not typically have the right or obligation to alter – or maintain – any portion of the property visible to other owners or the public. While this may mean that the high-rise condominium association is ultimately responsible for more maintenance than some other types of community associations, it also results in the board having more control over the portions of the property visible to the public, which can lead to fewer problems.”

What a Handful

This may not come as a relief to managers the world over, but there are actually multiple reasons  why managing an association in either city or suburb can be extremely difficult. But those reasons vary, based on location.

“Disputes over management operations are equally balanced between city and suburbs,” says Barnett. “However, I do see a lot more city condos opting for self-management, just given the fact that they tend to be smaller. When there are disputes among two- or three-unit associations, I see more instances involving derivative claims, because it just becomes a standoff situation. I think that just boils down to the housing options that are available.

“And with a lack of formal management company, you have issues with informal operation, and people paying bills as they come in, rather than doing so pursuant to a budget and assessing and collecting common expenses. So, in the usually city-based smaller – i.e., under five-unit – associations, there’s more of a chance that they’ll be self-managed and need to deal with all of the hurdles that come with that.”

Some managers will tell you that the aforementioned hustle and bustle of city life is no joke – and is, in fact, exhausting. “It’s chaos,” says Pedro Foley, General Manager of The Courts at South Beach in Miami. “The city is chaos. That’s the only word that I can use. I live 19 miles from the association at which I work. It takes me two hours to get here, each way. And the working environment is non-stop. I’ll get in at 9 a.m. and sometimes won’t have the opportunity to sit down at my desk until 1 p.m. By the time I get home at 7, my kid is near ready to go to sleep, as is my wife, who works for an international company. It really affects quality of life. In other places you still have daylight when you get out of work; you have time for this or that.”

Of course, Foley isn’t saying that city life is all bad. “You encounter all walks of life, which I enjoy,” he notes. “I have Jewish residents, Russians, Germans… everyone from around the world living here. That diversity factor. And the money is good! I’m not going to get paid the salary I get paid here outside of the city. Everything has its cost. You want more money, you sacrifice your family time; you want to be home more, you get less money.”

Common Bonds

Of course, given the nature of the community association – neighbors investing in a larger residence, and an elected board tasked with making decisions on behalf of the collective – there are plenty of similarities regardless of where different associations lie.

“The fiduciary duties and fiscal responsibilities of a board anywhere are exactly the same, whether you’re talking about 5th Avenue in Manhattan or Main Street U.S.A.,” says Ronald A. Sher, a partner with the law firm of Himmelfarb & Sher in White Plains, New York. “The board’s commitment toward the betterment of its property and residents is a constant.”

So for better or worse – and excluding weather, which is its own challenge sometimes – there is no fabled town where running a community association is a cakewalk, just as there is no specific enclave wherein maintaining a residence is necessarily a hell. A board’s priorities must be a constant, regardless of its surroundings. To what the board may need react may depend on location, but its motivation should be to protect and improve upon the investment of the community.

Mike Odenthal is a staff writer/reporter with The Cooperator.

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