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Involved & Invested Getting Residents Interested in Your Community

 Though they may live close to each other, people can feel isolated in an urban  or suburban environment. While high-rise residential buildings put families  near one another, living close doesn’t turn a group of neighbors into a community and that’s understandable, since people are busy and schedules are hectic. In some  buildings in their downtime, few residents eagerly attend an HOA board meeting  or socialize with their neighbors. But attracting committed board members and  creating a sense of community improves the quality of life within the building  and saves money. It’s good to know that there are many ways that co-ops and condos can work to  foster a stronger sense of community among their residents, while also  attracting new board members and committee members.  

 Making Connections

 Whether you live in a city or in the suburbs, people don’t always want to interact with strangers, because they’re used to being on their guard. Others feel no reason to socialize. In some  multifamily communities a significant percentage of the residents are renters,  who may not be as fully invested in the community. Some are newly arrived  shareholders still stuck in a renter’s mentality, and don't immediately see the value in forging connections with  their neighbors.  

 “A lot of the problem is most co-op and condo owners are working people. Their time to participate is limited,” says Steven Gold, president of Hudson View Associates in Manhattan. “When I see them get involved, it’s something infringing on their life.”  

 In some buildings, part-time residents who also live elsewhere are not always  attuned to what’s happening in their municipality or their local neighborhood. People with busy  careers and families don’t have the time to volunteer, and some people prefer to remain anonymous and don’t want to be involved. Too often, members of a community don't see a reason to  get involved with their association. When things appear to be running smoothly,  most don't think their help is needed.  

 "In homeowners associations, it's a microcosm of society," says Gary Wilkin  owner and president of Wilkin Management in Mahwah. "In many cases, people  don't want to be involved in the process. Fewer and fewer people want to go to  the meetings because somebody else is taking care of it, and they don't have  to."  

 Members feel that the overall community is not their concern, agrees John Masso,  a property manager with Richardson Management Group in Hamilton. "People are  too busy to care. Unless they are directly affected, they don't want to be  involved," Masso says.  

 Some buildings don’t offer much enticement to go to community functions while others get creative.  

 Jay Cohen, vice president, director of operations for Manhattan-based property  management firm A. Michael Tyler Realty, said his company serves some clients  who take a “town hall meeting” approach to the matter. A. Michael Tyler encourages its clients’ boards to have town hall meetings two or three times a year. At town hall  meetings, the board of directors tells owners what’s going on with the building, and refreshments are served. Depending upon the  needs of the community, the board might invite an architect to talk about a  planned maintenance project, or have the accountant talk about the building’s finances.  

 Before the town hall meeting, a newsletter is sent to residents, informing them  of upcoming building renovation projects, the building’s annual budget, or other community news. The newsletter always includes a brief  asking for residents who’d like to volunteer for the gardening, decorating, engineering, and newsletter  committees. Some communities prefer to send a separate note to residents a  couple times a year, soliciting their help on committees.  

 In some buildings, residents do most of the landscaping through the gardening  committee. The building buys the materials and plants and the committee members  do much of the work, in coordination with the landscaper.  

 “The members of the gardening committees are very close and they enjoy it,” Cohen says. “It makes other people feel good to see that beautiful, landscaped garden.”  

 Through the gardening group and other committees, residents can also ensure that  their perspectives on a matter are considered. “The squeaky wheel always gets the grease,” Gold says. “[Resident involvement] helps in beautification of the place—such as chipping in for new garbage cans or getting the area planted with trees  from the city.”  

 Having enough volunteers in the building equips the community to take a wider  view of the building’s place in the neighborhood and city. Having committee members represent a  building with the committee members of other residential buildings around them,  is one benefit. While creating greater awareness of building issues, such as  planned municipal street upgrades or other work affecting residential  buildings, the cross-building interaction can be as simple as enabling parents  to talk about which schools are best for their kids, or to set up a play date.  

 Regardless of the approach your building or HOA takes, it's vital to communicate  to residents about opportunities for involvement and community-building.  According to Wilkin, associations that don't do this are bound to have trouble.  People will get angry when things are done and they believe they should have  been consulted, but feel they were not. They likely would have registered their  opinion if they had known to do so in a timely manner.  

 "You start to have conflicts and questions,” says Wilkin. “Residents start to cause administrative and policy issues for the association to  govern.”  

 An effective association encourages its members to know and understand the rules  of the community. The successful operation of a community depends upon  residents following the rules, he adds.  

 Picking Up the Slack

 Not having the chance for your kids to interact with new friends, or not  realizing until the last minute that a major construction project is soon to  happen next door, are just a couple of things that can be missed when you are  not involved with your community. Existing in such ignorance is like living  with your head in the sand, Gold says. “You don’t know what’s going on around you—the city could be doing something that will affect you, like working at nights,  or a new building could be going up next door. When you find out, it could be  too late to complain,” he says.  

 Being on a board or committee does represent a time commitment, says one  suburban board chairman, but getting involved with the community is a question  of helping yourself. “This is really my home,” she says. “That’s why I volunteer—I just love the building.”  

 Town hall meetings like those mentioned above are one way to bring people  together and break the ice. Another method is having a winter holiday party,  like a cocktail party in the lobby. Some communities have a potluck dinner in  the summer, to allow people to mingle together.  

 The Board's Role

 Perhaps the best way to get other residents involved is to have very transparent  board operations, and to spread the word as much as possible. Create or  regularly maintain an informative building website, and send community update  emails to residents. Create or update a newsletter (online or on paper,  depending upon the community) and distribute it to residents, informing them of  building news such as upcoming projects, new residents in the building, recent  births or deaths, anniversaries, who is sick or needs help and other  information. Some communities use the web-based BuildingLink program, which  enables residents to send messages through it.  

 Some buildings and HOAs have started 'Know Your Neighbor' programs to help  neighbors who are immobile from illness or surgery or who otherwise could use a  hand from their fellow residents. The program also enables friends to check in  on elderly residents.  

 A person doesn’t need to be involved with their building in order to be a good resident but it  does help everyone. Some commitment is needed when volunteering for the  community, though, if a volunteer is going to be effective.  

 It does help a lot to have people involved with the committees of the board  because their involvement takes some of the management burden off of the  shoulders of the board members. Residents with particular skills can contribute  those skills to the good of everyone. Accountants living in the building might  help on the finance committee and find ways to save money on the budget, or an  engineer or architect might help with a building committee overseeing a major  project in the building. Other, less obvious skills also are needed in managing  a community and can be found among residents, such as bringing a designer’s professional eye to a lobby renovation or garden reconfiguration.  

 “If you have a good writer in the group, it’s good to have him or her involved with the newsletter,” Gold says. “The landscaping committee might even roll up its sleeves and get involved in  planting or other landscaping, which could save the building money.”  

 Residents who contribute time and labor to fix something up in the community,  naturally feel more invested and take ownership of projects in the community.  Don’t complain if you can’t take the time and roll up your sleeves to make a contribution. By having  people in the community helping themselves in building matters, thousands of  dollars can be saved each year. In buildings with little communication,  anonymous “poison pen” letters can circulate, fueling rumors about building issues. Gestures such as  winter holiday parties, Halloween events for the children, and town hall  meetings with refreshments can bring neighbors together and build a greater  sense of community.  

 The best foundation stone for a strongly built community, though, is for the  place to be well-managed. Communicating what’s happening with the building is to building trust.  

 Remember, though, creating a tighter-knit community isn't all about picnics,  games and town hall meetings. Fostering greater involvement often means getting  neighbors to take a hands-on approach to managing the community. It might take  some creativity on the part of the association but the outcome is well worth  the effort.   

 Jonathan Barnes is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to The New  Jersey Cooperator.

 

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