Home Sweet Home Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

The concept of high-rise living—people on top of each other—or across a privacy fence in condo living, doesn’t automatically equate to a sense of community; in fact, the close proximity sometimes has opposite effect. The reality is, residents with hectic schedules and thriving careers, or those who are continuing their education and/or raising children, often have minimal time or interest in socializing with neighbors.

If a sense of community has value—both real and perceived—what is the best way to achieve this network of support and communication? What steps should an HOA take to foster this intangible benefit? What, if any role, should property managers play in building community awareness? What can busy residents contribute to improving the quality of life in the place they call home?

Benefits of Community Living

Jeffrey Stillman is vice president for Stillman Management, located in Mamaroneck. He coordinates the technology resources, software, and online communications systems for his firm and the properties it manages. Stillman feels the same technology that allows for better online communication is just one reason there is less face-to-face communication between human beings in general, including the residents of a condo or co-op community.

According to Stillman, the demographics of a property—coupled with a lack of common interest—is a barrier to building a strong sense of community. He says 20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work in relation to community building and awareness, and notes the lack of residential involvement as a significant problem in the quest for developing a sense of community.

When properties increase community contact, usually tolerance is the result. Residents are more likely to overlook small issues—like occasional noise or strong cooking odors. It becomes easier to talk with other residents and exchange ideas; the atmosphere becomes friendlier. Often, trust grows along with tolerance.

Furthermore, Stillman says safety and security are enhanced when residents are more aware of their neighbor’s routines and habits. “When a board is isolated, then the residents are isolated, and distrust grows,” he says. Communication and transparency are essential for any property looking to build trust. Also, Stillman recommends open board meetings, where all residents can attend, staying educated and informed. “Happy residents just don’t complain as much,” he states.

Of course, every property is different. A wise manager will work with individual boards and committees to determine what systems and activities will best serve a particular property. “Newsletters and websites are two good tools for communication,” continues Stillman. He recommends the online portal Buildinglink.com, which is an excellent resource to keep residents informed. “Perception is reality,” says Stillman. “Buildinglink allows residents to check on work orders, repairs...and stay informed.”

Edward Lombardi of Benchmark LM Management Services agrees with Stillman on the importance of communication to help build community and trust. “Inform everyone on everything, particularly where costs are concerned, and tell the bad news, too, not just the positive,” he explains. Lombardi stresses the importance of treating everyone the same, but treating each property individually at the same time. “Think outside the box...one size will not fit all; manage the expectations,” he says.

Lombardi senses technical advances and the use of websites helps a property’s reputation. While a good reputation may not increase a property’s value, positive comments can increase desirability. Likewise, a bad reputation can have a negative impact on real and perceived property values and turnovers.

Mary Frances Shaughnessy is an asset manager with Manhattan-based Tudor Realty Services. With more than thirty years of experience in property management, she has witnessed many common factors that contribute to lack of community spirit. “The factors that contribute to a lack of community involvement are the same factors that keep people from voting and becoming involved in other community activities: lack of time, lack of interest, feelings of no power or influence, and not having been asked directly to join,” she says.

Finding a Good Fit

Shaughnessy notes that many of the buildings managed by Tudor Realty tend to have two types of residents: working parents with children who have little time, and retired people with time available but limited income. When parents and children participate in activities with other families in the building, this allows close bonds to form. “Playrooms and holiday parties, tree decorating, trick-or-treat, Easter egg hunts, are all great for attracting families,” she states. “The mature residents may have lost a spouse and friends. Several of our buildings have NORC services for this group, and other buildings make sure to watch out for the older neighbors.” NORC stands for “Naturally Occurring Retirement Community” where New York City provides a range of services to senior residents age 60 and over.

Both Shaughnessy and Lombardi have observed positive results when committees are formed to identify and implement programs and activities desirable within the community. “Committees open up participation and provide a training ground for future board members,” states Lombardi. “Committees allow non-board members a chance to participate,” says Shaughnessy. “While many residents may enjoy the privacy living in the city affords, I think everyone, at some time, realizes that they need their neighbors; surely, Hurricane Sandy taught us that lesson,” she states.

Some of the effective programs Stillman has seen implemented include pool parties, tag sales, bagel breakfasts, holiday events, and meet-and-greet parties for new residents. One building has a community garden area, as well as space for individual gardens in front of each apartment. Another location hosted a 40th anniversary party when the building reached that milestone; one committee was able to get a wine company to sponsor a wine and cheese party, while a different group invited a published author for a presentation and book signing.

Stillman is particularly pleased to mention how one board hosted an employee appreciation party and invited the residents to meet staff members who provide the daily operation services necessary for running a building.

Likewise, there is a property in which members of a community security committee worked with law enforcement to develop an official neighborhood watch program. One less active—albeit very detailed—committee created a handbook as a reference tool for their building; the more residents involved, the more possibilities for building a true sense of community. Clearly one size does not fit all, though. Committees need to allow residents to find an area of common interest.

Lombardi recommends making residents feel as if they are a part of the decision making process. “Whether it is a meeting or spaghetti dinner in the parking lot, don't ever exclude anyone. Run your community like the business it is, and keep costs contained,” he advises. “This is a business of taking care of people, not just property”.

Marlene Moretti, board vice president of the Village Gardens Tenants Corp. in Mamaroneck, moved into her co-op 26 years ago and became involved in community government early in her residency; she had a knack for building rapport and trust. With Lombardi’s help and encouragement, she helped 34 families in a fair, professional manner. The board is strong and works well together and with Lombardi. “We know what is expected on both sides,” she says. “We work together.” One example of this is the quarterly newsletter, The Grapevine; Moretti writes the informative publication, and Benchmark prints and helps distribute it to the shareholders.

Moretti has worked hard to help enhance her community; she pays attention to the laws and regulations. “We routinely work with four levels of government,” she states. “The Villages, the county, the state and federal laws all come into play when we apply or change a rule.”

“I do this for myself, and for all, and I am often asked why I work so hard, why I bother?” she says. “The answer is simple: this is my home, and I am protecting an investment I love.”

Anne Childers is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.

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