Establishing Good Community Programming Where Everybody Knows Your Name

There was a time when everyone knew their neighbors and you could trust letting your kids out in the neighborhood. There was a strong sense of community, and neighbors looked out for each other. But over the past few decades, people have become more private and aloof—perhaps not as willing to open up to others as they once were. The trend has become even more acute in recent years, as people have become more security-conscious and self absorbed, and fences and barriers between neighbors have increased.

But many homeowners want to change this state of affairs. One big reason people move into community association developments is because they want a sense of community. And since co-op shareholders and condo unit owners hope to be involved in the decisions of their property, there is an even greater need to be on friendly terms with their fellow homeowners.

Getting Together

"People generally move into these associations because they want to be part of a community," says Chuck Graziano, a former management consultant in Ramsey who now develops community associations. "When you buy a single home, you don't care as much. That's why creating a sense of community is important."

The easiest thing managing agents and association members can do to encourage a sense of community is to come up with programming and social events to foster interaction and friendly socializing in the HOA setting.

"When people get together, they care more about what's going on," says Stan Rothenberg of C&R Realty and Management Co. in Englewood Cliffs. "It makes a better community and a stronger community."

"Associations can create a cohesive community by getting homeowners involved," says Graziano, "either socially, or in the governmental process—just generally involved in their community. They should have a number of things that are open for community members to observe and participate in."

Get-togethers can be as simple as hosting a community-wide picnic or a meet-and-greet, or can be more elaborate, with parties and group trips to nearby attractions.

"I've seen people go to parks together, or sporting events, and just trying to organize things that everyone may be interested in," says Geraldine Silverman, board president of the 275-unit Claridge House development in Verona. "It's not mandatory that everyone goes, of course, but it's a nice option to know that once in a while you can get together with the people you live with and just get to know your neighbors."

Although some homeowners will make it a point to attend the annual meetings, if there's something on TV that night, many will opt for the more entertaining option. Some people nowadays don't like to be bothered.

"Just having a meeting is very dry-sounding, but if there's a social event at the clubhouse that's going to be including the election and the meeting, people are more likely to show up," says Graziano. "Combining something social with the meeting always helps to draw people out."

Taking Part

Another good way to bring people together is to have a number of active committees that are involved in something important to the community. There can even be an evening out where people discuss the formation of new committees for neighborhood improvement.

"The board needs to delegate some responsibilities for tasks or projects that are helpful and productive for the community," Silverman says. "Many communities make the mistake of forming a couple of committees and then leaving them on their own with nothing to do—and consequently, they do nothing. Then the board members are surprised when no one is involved. The board needs to get their committees engaged about something."

Graziano warns that a committee is only an advisory to the board, but that they can be helpful with many things. He says that jointly examining and researching something—like the purchase of new pool furniture, for example—is one thing that a committee can undertake, and then bring their findings to the board. It's simple, it will get something accomplished and it will cultivate a sense of togetherness.

Party Time

A lot of associations will put together social nights of coffee and cake, or offer parties for occasions and holidays so people can get together and get acquainted.

"A Christmas party is much more on a social level than a board meeting where you can have people screaming at you," says Rothenberg. "Anything that can open up people to communication and interaction is a good thing."

Barbeques are also big in the summer, and usually there is something going on for the kids at Halloween time, whether it be a party or a community-wide trick-or-treat event.

"You can also have educational functions," Rothenberg says. "A couple of years ago we invited fire departments, police departments, the ambulance corps and local politicians to come and talk with the kids and adults. This gives people both a great sense of the community and of what's going on [in their municipality]. There's a lot of interaction and expression of ideas for very little cost."

Join the Club

Those communities that offer an on-site clubhouse have a big advantage in bringing people together.

"I think a clubhouse is a huge selling point," says Graziano. "People are attracted to a community based on the totality of what the community offers. I think people gravitate towards a community that has a clubhouse, a pool and some social events they can take part in."

And what about special-interest clubs and organizations within the HOA? While it's not completely uncommon for a community to offer a book club, computer workshop or some other type of weekly activity, that sort of thing is usually seen more in adult communities and age-specific developments.

"A lot of the older people are retired, and so you see those things pop up more in their communities," Rothenberg says. "Those are in places with active communities and large clubhouses."

Not that a clubhouse is absolutely necessary to hold a gathering—communities without clubhouses often get very creative, organizing functions in association members' homes or outdoors on the association's grounds.

Getting the Word Out

Whether it be a clubhouse function, party, or just a small gathering for everyone, there are a number of ways to let people know what's going on.

"You can make personalized invitations, post fliers, include a notice with maintenance billing, or use newsletters," says Silverman. "They're all very inexpensive to do."

Graziano cautions against launching a newsletter from scratch just to publicize community events and leaving its publication up to just one person or couple of people.

"You need to be careful with creating newsletters because they can become big projects that can overwhelm people. People may only have a few hours a week, but they have to write the whole thing, get it duplicated, get it in the mail…" Graziano says. "They should rely on the management company to do most of that, and the people on the newsletter committee should just go out and get the stories."

Stories that frequently appear in HOA newsletters include birth announcements, profiles of people just moving in and favorite recipes of the homeowners.

"Newsletters are very important," Rothenberg says. "They generate communication and let people know what's going on."

Community websites have also become very popular in recent years as well. Now, you can simply go to your association's site and see what's going on in the weeks and months ahead.

While these ideas for community involvement may not seem like that big a deal, just think how much nicer it would be if everyone knew their neighbors like they did in generations past.

"I think that it has somewhat fallen by the wayside—but not because people want it that way," says Graziano. "I think it's because that's what has evolved and people are just busy. People don't always get to know their neighbors, and that's why the boards need to be the leaders in setting something up that draws people out of their homes."

Rothenberg agrees: "I think after 9/11 especially there was a reclusive type of atmosphere but I see that changing and opening up more. People are doing things now—and it's a change for the better."

Keith Loria is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator.

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