Managing Diverse Communities Living Under the Same Roof

Managing Diverse Communities

New Jersey is one of the most diverse areas in the United States. Its proximity to two melting pot cities, New York and Philadelphia, only magnifies what is already a diverse mix of people.

In any sizable community, people from a broad array of ethnic and sociological backgrounds live in close proximity, sometimes under the same co-op roof. Managing a co-op or condo that’s home to a diverse population poses some distinct challenges—and offers profound rewards for administrators and residents alike.

What is Diversity?

The word diversity has come to be shorthand for racial differences, but true diversity extends far beyond that narrow definition.

“As important as it is to have women executives and people of all races in our neighborhoods, diversity is way, way bigger than that,” says diversity expert Tom Atlee of the Co-Intelligence Institute, a non-profit organization that strives to promote diversity. “Our use of the word ‘diversity’ primarily to address issues of racism, classism, sexism, and other oppressive 'isms' has blinded us to the fact that diversity is a vast fact of life, deeply embedded not only in humanity but in natural systems and in the very fabric of the universe.”

In more grounded terms, diversity indicates differences of all kinds. A building might be diverse because it has many people of color living there; it may be diverse because there are Orthodox Jews in apartments two doors down from dutiful Muslims; it may be diverse because there are a number of gays and bisexuals, or strong-minded libertarians, or radical communists, or artists; it may be diverse because there are elderly people on fixed incomes living side-by-side with 23-year-old hedge fund managers. The important point: any difference, no matter how visible or seemingly inconsequential, contributes to the diversity of a building.

“Diversity is difference,” Atlee explains. “It is a natural phenomenon, intimately related to uniqueness and identity. There is a rich world of discovery awaiting us when we are ready to fully encounter our diversity. But first we have to lift our heads above the bustle around us and look at the big picture.”

Board members and property managers are in a position to do just that. What’s more, to succeed at their jobs, they have to.

The Challenges of Diversity

With so many different kinds of people sharing common areas—literally living under one roof—good managers must be attuned to differences of all kinds. The hardest part about managing diversity? “Just to try to keep the peace,” says Chip Hoever, regional manager of the Somerset office for Wilkin Management Group.

“One of the biggest challenges is adapting to the needs of particular groups in a building,” says Steve Elbaz, president of New York-based Esquire Management Corp., which also manages properties in New Jersey. ‘Particular groups,’ of course, can mean all kinds of different things.

One of these needs is a basic one: the ability to communicate at a base level. In a state as polyglot as New Jersey, this is not limited to Spanish. “Language is another challenge,” Elbaz says. “Most management offices have the ability to speak three, four or five languages—English, Spanish, Russian, Korean, Chinese—although there always seems to be one we don’t know.”

“We have people who speak English as a second language,” Hoever says. “Sometimes we send out warning letters, and we get no response. What happens is, they got the letter, couldn’t read it, and threw it away. Why? They couldn’t understand it.”

Other differences include religion, which poses some difficulties in how the practices are observed. Can residents hang Christmas lights on the windows, or set up Nativity scenes on the lawn? What about menorahs? The key is to find a delicate balance, even if it means bending a house rule or two to keep the peace.

“You try to balance the best you can,” Hoever says. “We don’t want any holy wars in the condo.”

But diversity is not limited to race, ethnicity, and religion. There is also socioeconomic diversity. You may have a building, says a manager, where you have many senior retirees living on a fixed income. They tend to be opposed to anything that would have an assessment because they can’t afford it. Younger, newly married people, however, have more disposable income, and want to add amenities. It happens all the time.

Indeed, in the current, tumultuous financial climate, the clash between incomes—which often plays out as a clash between the old and the young—is probably the biggest challenge any board member or property manager faces right now. Every attempt to maintain the building—a fresh coat of paint in the hallway, a new roof, replacement of the washing machines—threatens to escalate into a war between the tax brackets. Good managers understand this, and act accordingly.

Renter/owner is another diversity issue—probably the greatest one in this climate, Hoever says.

“Buildings were started at the height of the market and completed after the bubble burst. Rather than leave the units empty, they rented them,” Hoever says. “Some of the renters are the trustees. There’s an attitude with some of the homeowners about the renters, ‘They don’t care about the rules.’ Now, we have some homeowners who are slobs and don’t follow the rules and we have some renters who are fine.”

The key, he says, is to explain that renter apathy is a misconception—and not only that, but that the presence of renters allows the condo to function.

“The reality is, if the owner didn’t rent the vacant units, he wouldn’t have the money to keep the building going.” Once this is explained in stark terms, Hoever says, it tends to defuse the problem.

Strategies for Communities

So what to do, when you have so many different kinds of people, some with radically different needs, in the same living space?

“Ultimately, the creative use of diversity involves having some kind of common ground to stand on while exploring difficult differences,” says Atlee. “One of the most dependable forms of common ground is what I sometimes call our ‘core commons’--that place in all of us that is rooted in our shared humanity, our shared aliveness, our shared spirit.”

In the case of co-ops and condos, that common ground is literal. Everyone living in a building—from whatever ethnicity or age bracket—has a vested interest in having the building function well. The motive for cooperation is inherent in the living arrangement.

“Nothing can replace really listening to each other—hearing each other's stories, thoughts and feelings—in the faith that we are all trying to do what makes sense to us, at some level, and that we can ultimately understand each other's diverse ways of making sense,” Atlee says. First and foremost, boards and managers must listen to the needs of the various groups, in order to understand their needs and respond to them.

One frequent problem in diverse buildings is that Group X “wants their cultures and customs to prevail over how a co-op or condo operates,” as Elbaz puts it.

Sometimes, the solution to this issue is simply to educate residents on the needs of a certain group—that it is a custom to not wear shoes in the house, for example. This can go a long way toward assuaging the annoyance a resident might feel about always seeing his neighbor's family's shoes lined up in their shared vestibule.

Elbaz agrees that “one of the most important things is education. A board should never assume that a unit owner understands how a co-op or condo operates.” Although the papers are gone over at the closing, the fast-and-furious nature of that particular transaction does not make for quality time to pore over documents—documents that may be written in a language the new owner does not fully comprehend. “Very few people take the time to read the documents,” says Elbaz.

It may not be an issue of flagrant disregard for certain house rules as much as ignorance that those house rules exist in the first place. A healthy part of the job, then, is teaching people how to live in cooperative housing, or in other words, reinforcing the customs, rules and policies of the building.

This cuts both ways. “Tolerance,” Elbaz says simply. “Boards, pick your fights. Don’t fight for the sake of fighting. If someone is doing nuclear testing with radiation in the building, do something about it. If shoes are in the hallway—that’s against the rules, but not the end of the world.”

For all the challenges, living in a diverse community is an enriching experience for everyone involved. The more we come together and understand one another the greater the chance for peace—not just in the condo’s laundry room, but everywhere.

“Diversity, like fire and genius, can be problematic,” Atlee says. “And like fire and genius, diversity has creative power we can use to make life better.”

Greg Olear is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator.

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