When it comes to questions of home and hearth, even the best of friends may argue. So it should come as no shock when co-op and condo associations, boards and residents fall into disagreements. It's what's done to settle or hopefully prevent these disagreements that can make all the difference in the world.
As with marriage or any relationship, good communication can go a long way in preventing disagreements—or at least stopping them from getting out of hand. "People have an inherent need to live in harmony," says Peter Glanvill of Wilkin Management Group in Mahwah. "The old adage that the root cause of all problems is broken communication is true."
Listen First, Talk Later
Every community, no matter how well run, will have resident complaints. Homeowners may have issues with a neighbor, or with groundskeeping, or with an unexpected assessment. The single most important way to prevent those issues from escalating is for associations and boards to listen. "It's almost a philosophy that a homeowner's association must adopt," Glanvill says. "It's not as simplistic as saying, 'let's talk.' It's a realization that board members and residents both have the best interests of the community at heart. It should start from there."
One way to reduce the number of resident issues is to ensure that everyone understands the rules and regulations of the community. "Most problems arise from rules and regulation enforcement and interpretation," says attorney David Byrne of Stark & Stark in Lawrenceville. "And also from confusion over who's responsible for what."
Associations will save themselves a lot of headaches by making sure that residents have read and understand the bylaws and know what their responsibilities are in terms of taking care of their own property and needs. "The more transparent board members can be with residents in their daily operations, the better their chance of avoiding problems," Glanvill says.
It's also important to let people know to whom they can turn for help. Glanvill's firm sends out welcome packages to new residents, informing them who board members are, who the property manager is, and who key service personnel are.
If residents understand the inner workings of their co-op or condo community, they will be more likely to empathize with certain decisions that are made. "When it comes to things like special assessments, residents know they can't argue over the substance of the problem because they know they would have made the same choice," Byrne says.
Getting the Word Out
In today's world of non-stop technology, boards and managers have myriad communication options. Those include old-school options such as postings to let people know about gatherings. "It's important to have constant and obvious notices of board meetings that make it clear what's going to be discussed," Byrne says.
Glanvill agrees that open board meetings are vital. "Residents should be afforded the opportunity to see the board in action, to see how they operate," he says. "To ensure effective communication, limit the distance between board members and resident. Don't have a 'you and them' philosophy."
Both Byrne and Glanvill suggest regular newsletters and websites run by management or the board. Letters, too, go a long way in answering potential questions. "Let people know about upcoming projects and bring up issues that board members suspect might be a cause of concern for residents," Glanvill says.
Sometimes, however, getting the word out may not be enough. Problems may still arise. The important thing for an association, though, is that they made the effort to get that word out. "What so interesting is that many people ignore what you try to share with them," Byrne says. "Really what you're doing [with these communications] is preserving your rights later. You want to put yourself in a position to say that you made a good faith effort to keep people informed." This will become important should the conflict ever reach the litigation stage.
Talking With vs. Talking At
Getting homeowners involved in their own community may be key to that ideal of harmony that Glanvill suggests. He suggests having subcommittees on the board, manned by residents. He also mentions establishing clubs such as gardening groups, or hosting block parties to get people talking and communicating. Several of the communities managed by Wilkin have started community projects for residents, getting people to work together to help others. Facilitating contact between board members and other residents takes the mystery out of homeowners associations, making people less likely to take on that "us vs. them" mentality referred to earlier.
Glanvill recommends regular resident surveys as a way to let people be heard before problems can begin. "It's good to ask for their opinion directly and give suggestions," he says.
Nip it In the Bud
When conflict does arise, board members and management should try their best not to go on the defensive. "In most cases, it's not the problem that's the issue, it's how it's resolved," Glanvill says.
Byrne agrees. "Problems arise with the tone of communication," he says. "People become defensive. They infer that there's a problem when maybe there isn't. Homeowners really just want someone to answer their questions and talk to them. You don't want them to be able to say, 'no one ever talked to me.'"
Conversely, if a homeowner has a problem with the board or management, they should approach them calmly. Make a phone call or approach someone quietly before a board meeting if the forum allows it. Byrne suggests talking with people "in a non-confrontational way."
If it's something the resident feels should be documented, then they should send a letter or e-mail. Again, though, approaching things with a level head is a paramount importance. "It's like that old saying, 'you catch more flies with honey than vinegar'," Byrne says. "That's the way to get things done."
The Next Step
In most instances, conflicts can be cleared up by an association by clarifying certain rules or regulations for a resident. "Sometimes there's a lack of understanding on the homeowners' part of what it's like to live in a community," Glanvill says. "When residents move into an HOA, they almost forego some of their rights in order to live in that community. Sometimes there is a basic misunderstanding of what they're allowed and not allowed to do." Helping residents understand and accept those rules and regulations often is enough to stop a problem before it escalates.
If discussion, letters or other means prescribed in the association's governing documents fail, some conflicts will require a more concerted effort to resolve them. In New Jersey, that comes in the form of mediation. Condo law requires that associations have an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) policy for dealing with just such situations. "The basic aim is to replace legal avenues, which tend to be both frustrating and cumbersome," Glanvill says. "If that ADR policy is well-written and well-understood, then that will go a long way toward solving the issue."
For mediation to work, both parties must be committed to the process and willing to accept the outcome, no matter who the decision favors at the end of the day. The process is usually a thorough one, with an independent investigation, the opportunity to introduce evidence, and chances for cross-examination. "The environment allows for people to be heard," Glanvill says. "Everyone will have an opinion, and here's a vehicle that ensures those opinions will be heard."
It's rare that mediation fails. "The sheer nature of the process allows for success," Glanvill says. "It presumes you have two parties who want to resolve the problem. It is clear what the process is, and it's clear that process is not biased."
For a conflict to reach litigation is extraordinarily infrequent, Byrne says. And that's a good thing. While lawsuits may settle the dispute, it only increases the acrimony between board and resident. "Once you're in litigation, unless you settle, there's no way to rehabilitate the relationship," Byrne says. "That's just the way it is."
In the end, the moral of the story is still good communication. Keeping residents informed saves grief in the long run. "From a co-op or condo association's point of view, communication is imperative because it helps you avoid unnecessary legal problems and expenses," Byrne says. "It also establishes that you attempted to keep people informed. That gives you some political clout [in case problems do arise.]"
Every association's aim should be to stop problems before they start. "What we truly believe is that effective communication is a philosophy and something that should be practiced on a consistent basis," Glanvill says. "It's what we encourage all of our boards to do. I almost believe we shouldn't be involved in conflict resolution at all because that conflict should be avoided. Residents should know what rules are. They should know board members, know when meetings are, get information, and enjoy opportunities to partake in committees."
And ultimately, if an instant of conflict arises, have something in writing. "There should be a policy in place [to resolve it] that is understood by all parties and those parties should be willing to resolve it," says Glanvill, again stressing that it all comes down to talking things through—something all good neighbors should be willing to do.
Liz Lent is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the New Jersey Cooperator.