Accepting a board position for a homeowners association is no easy task- you can please some of the residents some of the time, but rarely if ever can you please everyone. For board members, serving the community they live in may seem like a thankless job, with 'active resident involvement' often taking the form of complaints.
Bad news travels fast in our super technical world, and stories of incompetence, expensive errors in judgment, and even outright criminal activity on the part of a board are quickly circulated. The goodwill, prudent decision-making and proactive approach many boards embrace don’t generally make for exciting headlines, but when shareholders and unit owners are pleased with operations on the home front, it validates their decision to live in their chosen communities. And a higher rate of resident satisfaction can reflect positively on a community’s value—both real and perceived.
Finding the Niche
While there are classes, workshops, and seminars on board operations, the best place for building or HOA administrators to seek inspiration is often right at home. Each community is different and each will require a bit of due diligence to find the right “sweet spot” for their particular demographics.
Attorney Leni Morrison Cummins is a member of Cozen O’ Connor’s Real Estate Department in Manhattan. She also serves on the Cooperative & Condominium Law Committee of the New York City Bar Association, and was happy to share some examples of positive board action from her experience.
“One of the condo boards I represent offers free toddler swim classes on Saturday mornings, and the board puts out a breakfast spread pool-side for the adults,” she says. Cummins points out this proactive association is very family-friendly, and says that in addition to developing a lifelong skill for the youngsters, the classes have facilitated and strengthened friendships for both the children and the adults who call the building home.
Cummins cites another association she works with where board members see the big picture—literally! Every Thursday night is movie night, and the board has arranged for residents to enjoy a show in the building's library, complete with free popcorn and soda. This is an idea most associations could develop and expand on depending on their personal demographics. If swimming lessons for children are not possible, maybe Saturday morning children’s movies would be a fun activity. Or maybe a Sunday matinee would be a better time slot—the possibilities are endless.
Attorney Steven Troup is a partner with the law firm of Tarter Krinsky & Drogin, LLP in Manhattan. He chairs the firm's Cooperative and Condominium practice and counsels numerous residential and mixed-use cooperative corporations and condo associations. Troup cites two examples where a board of directors went above and beyond while dealing with an older residential population.
“Several years ago, one of the co-ops I represent had a bedbug infestation throughout the building. Most residents cooperated in full, but 3 or 4 elderly people resisted all attempts to arrange access to their apartments for testing and treatment, and to comply with all requests for special laundering of clothing, etc. The attempts ranged from posted notices, letters from the managing agent and letters from me, he explains.
Rather than asking me to commence an action in court, the board president reached out to each one personally and arranged assistance at no charge.” Troup points out how the board president’s sensitivity scored a win-win for everyone. “All apartments were inspected and treated, and all of the special instructions were carried out; the infestation was eradicated, and the elderly residents’ fears were effectively addressed and not ignored. This is a great example of how the personal touch is often more effective than getting the lawyer involved,” he says.
Troup also witnessed positive board action for a co-op client serviced by Tarter Krinsky & Drogin, LLP. “The 10-story building with a single ancient elevator, had reached the point where the elevator had to undergo a 15-week modernization program. Rather than forcing infirmed high-floor residents to fend for themselves, the board hired a man to assist them in getting from their apartments to the lobby so they could attend to their business—medical appointments, worshipping, shopping, etc.—and later helping them back to their apartments. The managing agent had improperly advised the board that it had no duty to provide this service, but the board’s empathy and common sense prevailed; this worked extremely well.”
Yet another client served by Troup’s company was undergoing a new roof project on its 7-story building. Residents on the top floor were significantly impacted by the installation.
“Although it had no obligation to do so, the board paid to put those residents up in a hotel for 4 nights to allow the project to proceed on schedule. The good will engendered has paid continued dividends within the building ever since.”
Involve The Residents
One way an HOA can share the workload and encourage participation in the community is to involve the residents in the planning stages for events and activities. Committees allow interested residents a chance to determine and plan for the activities most appropriate for the individual property. When residents are not involved in any aspect of condo or co-op living, other than paying the fees, there can be a disconnect. Inclusiveness can serve to foster community awareness and a sense of pride, which can make a board’s duties much easier. A board may even elect to turn the annual meeting into an event, complete with some light refreshments and an opportunity to socialize with board members and neighbors.
Between annual meetings, potluck dinners are another way to get residents out to mingle over food and beverages. This setting provides a pleasant, informal way to meet neighbors and socialize. A more senior community may enjoy monthly pot luck dinners, then again a building with young families may also enjoy an opportunity to get together over a meal. A committee can poll the residents and zero in on the activities most favored by the majority of residents. By using the communication systems in place such as emails, newsletters, and websites residents and board members alike can stay informed and plugged in.
Start Small and Perfect
Depending on the demographics and interest level of the residents there are probably several positive steps a motivate board can take to improve the “fun factor” on the homefront. Rather than implement everything at once; it would be wise to start small, and then build on the more successful outcomes. Holiday parties are generally a good starting point for all age groups—everyone loves a party!
Wine tastings, book signings, or guest lecturers can offer an ice breaking type of atmosphere and provide a foundation for more regularly reoccurring events like exercise classes, or play dates for the cookies and milk set. Residents may not participate in any or all of the activities, but the fact that the board is trying to improve the community will generally be viewed as positive. As residents become more familiar with the board and other residents, a common side effect is improved community pride and awareness—two factors that can contribute to increased overall safety for residents. Just as negativity tends to breed a more negative atmosphere, positive activity can also be contagious; improved morale, is another positive side effect when a board exceeds expectations.
From The Bottom Up
As nice as going above and beyond the expected may be, there may be times when that goal is out of reach. When an HOA is trying to recover from poor management practices, financial shortfalls, and/or other challenges, planning a party, or organizing a class might sound unnecessary and even downright frivolous. How can a board recover from barely surviving to thriving, and maybe even enjoy the journey? This is a question Abdullah Fersen, CEO of Newgent Management LLC, in Yonkers, is all too familiar with.
As Newgent Management has added properties to their growing firm, they have encountered several HOAs with limited to no reserves, mounting debt, and a spotty management history. “Communication and a proactive, preventive approach are necessary to rebuild a community,” Fersen states. His philosophy is to help every community recognize a sense of ownership, belonging, and security. When he begins working with a motivated board he finds mutual respect makes the difference.
Fersen was recently called in to help a newly acquired property reorganize. The board although motivated, was bogged down with unpaid debts, and zero reserves. Just meeting expectations was a challenge and anything exceptional seemed well out of reach.
Fersen believes a board and the residents, needs to feel a sense of control for their investment, so his first recommendation for this property was “pay yourself.” The board began to set aside a designated amount monthly for the reserves, and Fersen negotiated with the creditors and vendors to set up a payment plan to get everyone back on track. With the reserves soon showing a dramatically improved bottom line, Fersen approached the bank and helped the board secure a much needed loan. While some may consider the board was just doing their job, others will recognize the above and beyond efforts required to go from broke to solvent in four months was indeed extraordinary.
Whether a property is well-established or reorganizing itself, most communities will appreciate and benefit from upping the fun quota…..take a look around and see what possibilities present themselves for your own community!
Anne Childers is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.