Hanging Together Communities Unite to Solve Problems

Hanging Together

 For community associations facing a world of economic uncertainty, the old  notion of “strength in numbers” has perhaps never felt more relevant. Because when it comes to tough problems,  the associations that are able to work together and sacrifice together are the  ones that usually end up stronger in the end.  

 In many cases though, neighbors start blaming neighbors when trouble strikes,  residents start blaming board members, and board members may find themselves  resenting residents. Strife and discord can spread like a disease through a  condo community beset by trouble, financial or otherwise. Even when money isn't  tight and things aren't especially bleak, apathy and disinterest in the  association beyond one's own front yard is a problem that all administrators  and boards struggle against.  

 There are ways, however, to encourage communities to stick together when the  chips are down. With some planning and some commitment, residents, board  members and managers can build a cohesive team that can cope with and resolve  problems, making a better life not only for themselves but for the community as  a whole.  

 Participation, Communication

 There are a couple of key differences between communities that hang together  during trying times and those whose sense of community spirit is non-existent  even when things are good, says Alan Crawford, owner and president of Crawford  Community Management Services in Rumson. "In the larger communities we find  that a lot of people in their busy schedules don't really get to the source of  a problem. But in the smaller, more tight-knit communities over the last three  years, we find that members will step up and say 'Hey, I have expertise in  engineering,' or 'My expertise is landscaping. I can give my time to this and we don't have to  pay somebody outside to do it.'”  

 "There are certain communities that are apathetic," says Philip Alampi of TAP  Property Management in Glen Ridge, "and then there are other communities that  have a sense of camaraderie, a sense of belonging to the community such that  participation is almost necessary to be a part of the community and to really  be active. We have two 55-and-older communities, and they tend to be more  involved, more active, more caring. On the other hand, we have one community  that is probably about 70 percent vacation homes and say 25 to 30 percent  year-round residences. Their communication is almost 100 percent electronic."  

 And communication, whether electronic or face-to-face, is the other factor that  can make or break an HOA. If funding is tight and services and amenities are  being scaled back, for example, residents may start looking for someone to  blame. For board members and managers who know such reductions are coming, it’s always best to start communicating—early and often.  

 “We believe in very open lines of communication,” says Nicole Engelmann, corporate lifestyle director for Capital Consultants  Management Corporation in Scottsdale, Arizona who develops community programs  and social networks to add value to her properties. Englemann says that one  surefire way to improve communication and transparency is to build  relationships between management and residents. In one of her communities, for  example, the manager often cooks dinner for groups of residents and invites  them in to get to know one another and to get to know him. “Taking the time to get to know residents on a more personal level makes it much  easier to have a conversation when problems do come up,” Engelmann says. “People don’t avoid talking to the manager because now they know him.”  

 Other ways to connect residents include community service, newsletters, outreach  programs or social gatherings. “We started noticing that if we had picnics for residents, the ongoing daily  business of the association became easier,” Engelmann says. “People became friendlier; neighbors looked out for each other. When neighbors  started getting to know each other, they started taking care of each other.” And if an association is suddenly struck by misfortune, Engelmann says those  connections will pay off. “It’s much easier to focus and mobilize a group that’s networked,” she says.  

 And social functions take on many forms depending on a community's location and  dynamic. "When the community is there at the shore, it's a very active  community and a lot of fun," says Alampi of his company's oceanfront  properties. "They also come down for a Christmas party during the winter and  get together for a Super Bowl party on the weekend when people come down to  their homes. One community even had a fundraiser for wounded veterans. One of  the managers' children was in Afghanistan, and when he came home, [they did] an  event and sent care packages off to Afghanistan. The community really came  together and helped with that in a way that I think is pretty unique."  

 Crawford agrees that human connections can make all the difference. "It's one  thing when a new homeowner comes in and they get a package from management.  They're kind of like 'Okay, management is welcoming us, blah, blah.' But if you  have a resident-based welcoming or hospitality committee to go out and welcome  new homeowners, that's something different. Here are actual homeowners who come  out and say, 'Hey! Welcome to our community. Do you have any questions? This is what we  have been doing, this is what you can do.' We found that new homeowners become  more involved when there is a homeowner-based welcoming committee."  

 Starting at the Top

 For most communities, it takes at least a few strong leaders to bring the  metaphorical troops together. Whether it’s a manager or board members or simply someone with a lot of clout among the  neighbors, someone has to step forward and let people know that problems are  better solved if everyone contributes to their solutions.  

 Jo-Ann Greenstein, PCAM, who wrote a chapter of Building Community: Proven  Strategies for Turning Homeowners into Neighbors, knows exactly what it’s like to help residents work through troubled times. As vice president of  RealManage in Anthem, Arizona, Greenstein has been working with a condo  community that was flattened by more than $40,000 in debt and was teetering on  the brink of bankruptcy. On top of those difficulties, they were also plagued  by water problems, including a flood that decimated the clubhouse. As a result,  the community was forced to slash its landscaping program to the bare minimum  and had to close the pool down, among other things.  

 At first, residents were angry—they had been unaware that a debt problem even existed. Greenstein held two  general meetings, which were heavily attended “because people were hostile,” she says. In the first meeting, she let everyone vent. In the second meeting,  she told them what had to be done to fix the problems. More importantly, she  asked them to come out and help.  

 Greenstein says she worked with the board to get people involved and was able to  find volunteers to run lawnmowers, pull weeds, change light bulbs and lend a  hand wherever possible. “You have to lead by example.  

 I was out there on my hands and knees pulling weeds,” she says. “When people see somebody out there doing stuff, they’ll usually come out and help.”  

 It’s imperative as well, Greenstein says, to get board members involved, even if a  community’s difficulties have bred dissent between leaders and residents. “You have to get board members to put their feelings aside,” she says. “Sometimes they have axes to grind,” but they have to ignore that and instead, work to bring the team together. “When people see the association doing something for people, that’s what makes the connection. The more you extend your hand to them, the more  they’ll want to become part of the community.”  

 By working together, Greenstein’s troubled community was able to pay off its debts and just recently reopened  its pool. It was the direct result of people working together, coming out of  their houses on a Saturday, meeting up for lemonade and putting on their work  gloves. As Greenstein says, laughing, “With juice and cookies, anything’s possible.”  

 That do-it-yourself, lend-a-hand spirit can mean the difference between whether  a struggling HOA recovers relatively unscathed, or continues to flail for  years, says Crawford. Enlisting volunteers to help with weed-pulling, checking  in on elderly or infirm residents regularly, and holding fundraisers are just a  few of the ways Crawford says many HOAs are surviving the current recession.  

 And again, Crawford returns to the twin issues of involvement and communication.  "Every community's documents require one annual meeting a year," he says.  "That's usually to pass the budget and elect new board members. But we've found  it really helps to get in at least one second, non-official community  gathering, whether it be a garage sale, a barbecue, or game night once a month  in a community's recreational facilities—card games, board games, whatever. Just get the families out. Anything that you  can get the community together on a non-official type basis bonds people  together so that when the tough times hit, they can all stand toe to toe with  each other."  

 Leading Strong

 When communities are faced with hardship, residents and board members alike have  to face some tough choices. What do we fix first? What resources do we take  from to fill the gaps here or there? Who’s going to do what? The pros agree that when it comes to financial issues,  communities need to trust their leaders and know that the right decisions are  being made. Without that trust, associations can splinter and fail.  

 According to Crawford, the biggest threat to trust is fear. "It's just like with  everything else," he says. "You have to communicate with the owners. You have  to let them know exactly what you're doing, and when you want to do it. No  question is stupid, and no question can be asked enough. The board can't hide  behind something. If you are truthful with your homeowners and work to  alleviate whatever fears and concerns that they may have, you'll see that  people will get on board. In fact, in one of our communities, we did a deferred  maintenance plan and had to level an assessment, but the homeowners actually  voted to add $20 more to the assessment than I had proposed, because they saw  what was on the table and said 'Let's make sure we have the money and can get  everything done.' And they chipped in the extra $20 apiece, because they  weren't fearful. They saw what was being planned, they saw the work that they  wanted to be done, and they all agreed that it would make their community  better."  

 "Good leadership is one of the biggest things," agrees Alampi. "If you listen to  your professionals, you listen to your accountant, you listen to your lawyer,  and you listen to your manager: If you have three people telling you that  choice A is the right choice, you can't let the board pick C, and that's really  important. The people who you're dealing with frequently have 25 years of  experience each, maybe 100 years among the three of them. And you really should  rely on your professionals because they've seen this already. This happened  before—this happened in the '80s. Now it's just going around again in a circle."  

 Again and again, management professionals stress the importance of transparency  and communication. When residents feel that they can trust their board and  managers, and see that they are trying to make the community a better place,  morale and involvement invariably improve. For condo communities and  associations to not only survive these tough times but ultimately thrive when  they’re over, people have to stick together. When there are a hundred hands holding  on to the umbrella, weathering the storm becomes a whole lot easier.    

 Liz Lent is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the New Jersey  Cooperator. Additional research by David Chiu.

Related Articles

You're Invited! - the CooperatorEvents New Jersey Expo 2023 is Wednesday, June 7

You're Invited! - the CooperatorEvents New Jersey Expo 2023 is Wednesday, June 7

10:00am to 4:00pm at the Meadowlands Exposition Center in Secaucus

CooperatorEvents NJ Expo Returns to the Meadowlands!

CooperatorEvents NJ Expo Returns to the Meadowlands!

Wednesday, June 7 - Register for FREE at nj-expo.com