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How to Get Heard A Guide for Unit Owners with Complaints

As a condo owner, you’ve got a gripe. Whether it’s about Mrs. Smith’s poodle barking all day, the neighbor’s teenaged son, who blasts his heavy metal music full-volume when his parents aren’t home, or a long-coveted parking space that hasn’t materialized after years of waiting, you want someone to listen—and of course, do something about your complaint.

While a seemingly unresponsive (or stone-deaf) manager or board can be profoundly frustrating, it's worthwhile to consider the approach you're taking to state your case or present your problem. Are you using the proper channels? Are you stating the issue clearly? Do you understand the rules and limitations of your own association and board? The answers to these questions have a lot to do with how soon and how satisfactorily your problem gets resolved.

Chain of Command

In most buildings, how you complain really depends on what your complaint is all about; there are different approaches for complaints related to maintenance and complaints related to neighbors. If it’s a noise issue, such as the above-mentioned barking poodle, speaking directly to the neighbor to see if you can work it out amicably should be the first step.

If the issue is a perpetually-flickering hallway light or some other everyday maintenance-related issue, most professionals agree that those complaints can be made first to the doorman or superintendent.

If no improvement is made, or no action is taken within a few days, it's then appropriate to go up the chain to the property manager—usually via a simple phone call. According to Tony Nardone, president of Dovan Management Group in Bloomfield, “If an initial request from a unit owner goes unanswered or unaddressed, they should put their request in writing. I’ve found that when unit owners reduce their requests to writing and are very specific about a situation, they will get a quicker response.”

If that doesn't elicit acknowledgment and progress toward solving the problem, the next step may be to address the association board. However, Nardone is quick to point out that “address” does not mean “accost-in-the-elevator,” or “ambush-on-the-golf-course.”

“Board members often feel that unit owners think it’s an acceptable practice to stop and complain directly to them,” he says. “In the board’s defense, when they tell unit owners to please send their concerns in writing to the management office, guess what usually happens? Only about 20 percent of those verbal complaints actually make it into writing. So it begs the question: was there really a complaint, or did the unit owner just take advantage of a board member when they passed them in the community?”

In addition to clearly and concisely articulating what may be a contentious issue if discussed face-to-face, management experts note that putting complaints in writing also creates a paper trail that can be followed until the issue is resolved. And in a worst-case scenario, if any sort of litigation should ensue from a given problem, written complaints and responses may be extremely useful to both parties in court.

Give 'Em a Chance

Once you’ve made your complaint, the experts say, be patient and give your manager a chance to do their job. Depending on the complaint, property managers may need to hire an outside contractor to fix it—putting them at the mercy of that vendor’s schedule. That can take time, but it’s less likely to be an annoying wait if you don’t feel ignored.

The board should be a last resort for shareholders or residents with complaints—not the first place they should go when something isn't to their liking. “We get paid to do the job,” says one manager. “Board members are volunteers. They should not be harassed in the hallways, or have their doorbell rung at dinner time, or when they’re walking the dog, or at the supermarket. Their role is to effectuate policy, not to deal with complaints.”

If the manager is not responsive, though, it may be time to turn up the heat a bit. “Voice your concern to the management company,” says Nardone. “If you get no response, put your request in writing, requesting a response by a certain date. Be realistic in the time allowed to respond, but if you still get nothing, send a second request via certified mail to the manager. If all communications fail to this point, the homeowner should write a letter to their board voicing their concern, stating that they tried to resolve the issue with management, and attach all previous correspondences between themselves and the management company. Most boards will take action at this point.”

Address the Board

If the recommended steps don’t work, consider asking to be heard at the next board meeting—but again, whether or not unit owners are allowed at the meeting depends on the community's governing documents. Some HOAs have ‘town hall’ style meetings two to three times a year and allow residents to voice their complaints or give suggestions, while others handle all business at the annual meeting.

Valerie Mancino, president of a co-op board in Queens says that having systems and procedures in place—and encouraging resident shareholders to follow them—makes a world of difference. “We’ve seen the best and the worst of it,” the 10-year board veteran says. Before their current management took over administration of the building, she says, “As a board, we constantly had shareholders stopping us in the hallway, stopping us in the grocery store, ringing our doorbells at night, trying to be heard with questions, issues and complaints.” Mancino is convinced that the “heavy level of engagement” was one cause of very high turnover on the board. “Honestly, it got to the point that some folks felt harassed.”

When the new management company came on board, she said, the process for complaints or problems was presented to shareholders and residents both in writing and verbally at the annual meeting. At that meeting, she says, “I did take the opportunity to remind folks we were standing in front of them not only as a board, but also as fellow residents. The co-op board is a voluntary position, and we had put a tremendous amount of work into it over the past few years because of all the projects and challenges we were faced with.”

Different Approaches

It should go without saying—but sadly, it doesn't—that standing up and ranting at a meeting is definitely not an effective way to make oneself and one's complaints heard and heeded.

“I'll shut a meeting down if it starts to get into a shouting match,” says Jack Leonardo, a trustee on the board of the Four Seasons at Mirage condo in Barnegat “We want concerns, and we want to give answers. But when there is disrespect involved, I don't feel that any board member should have to tolerate that. I'll stay there all day long, and discuss anything that you need to discuss, but when the meeting gets out of hand, it's no longer a meeting—it's a free-for-all. I personally would not tolerate it, and I hope that any board member would take the same position. Some people love to grandstand as well, so if a lot of owners have questions, we will occasionally limit speaking time in order to be fair and give everybody a chance to be heard.”

Of course, every HOA has its own approach. “We embrace the fact that residents have the right to some support, even if they haven't gone to the site manager,” says Howard Bersch, president of the Cross Creek Pointe condo community in Englewood. “The site manager is employed by the management company, and [the company] is an employee of the board. So if residents have a complaint about the site manager or about another resident, they could come to us directly. We would prefer that they do go to the site manager, of course, because that's why we're paying the management company, but they can come to us.”

“We have two ways for the residents to communicate with management and the board,” says Leonardo. “The 'concern form,' and the 'complaint form.' You can go to to the office at the clubhouse and fill out a concern form about something that is happening, or is going to happen, or that did happen, which you'd like the management to take care of. If your lawn wasn't cut right, for example, or if they missed you or did damage on your property, you would fill out a concern form. If there's something going on and you want the board to take action—or not take action—on it, you fill out the complaint form. So there are two different forms going to two different bodies: the concern form goes to management, and if it's a complaint, then the board has to take action.

Making different avenues of communication available is helpful, say the pros. “I think it's good to remind residents that it is not an ‘us vs them’ relationship,” adds Mancino. “Really, we are them.”

Still Not Satisfied?

But in the end, say the experts, if residents' best efforts just don't work, and if enough HOA residents feel they’re being stonewalled by the board and not being heard when there’s a problem, they can call a special meeting, invoke the appropriate clauses in their association's governing documents, and replace the board.

“If a board member or the board does not listen to an observation of a community,”says Bersch, “they should vote the board out. They should wage a campaign to put somebody who has their same persuasion to be the new board representative. In fact, we have a new board. We have elections every two years on a rotating cycle, so in general terms, they publicly have to wait no longer than two years and probably in real terms less than a year [to see their issue addressed by different administrators.]”

Fortunately, that's a step that rarely has to be taken. “Those situations usually come up only when a board just isn’t communicating,” says one manager. “We believe effective communication is the key to a well-run building. Clearly, clearly, clearly, the more people know, the happier they are.”

Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator. Editorial Assistant David Chiu contributed to this report.

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