Articles in this publication, seminars like those offered at the New England Condo Expo, and, of course, television news broadcasts, often focus on problems that face condo associations—legal issues, maintenance concerns, special assessment fees, and so on. As a result, it’s easy to overlook the victories that can emerge from trying times. Here’s a welcome dose of inspiration: Extraordinary boards that are committed to the betterment of their communities and willing to invoke an often-scary word (“change”) with an eye toward both short- and long-term successes.
Take Brook House Condominium in Braintree, Massachusetts. In addition to its 2014 Association Excellence in Service Award for Landscape/Community Beautification from the New England Chapter of Community Associations Institute, which it received for implementing an extensive two-year exterior upgrade project, Brook House tackled a wellness issue.
Steve Holt, who became a board member in 2012 and was elected chair in 2014, shares the story of how Brook House became smoke-free. In 2013, Holt, another board member, and several other residents formed a committee to explore the options relative to a smoking ban beyond the existing one for common areas. The initiative required an amendment to the condo docs, which needed the approval of more than 50% of the beneficial interest of the condo trust. The committee did its due diligence by gathering information about smoking bans in other communities and holding open meetings with expert guest speakers.
Holt explains that the board then approved the dissemination of a survey to gauge interest and propose options. “We were gratified that the response to the survey was very large (more than two-thirds of the beneficial interest) and the overwhelming opinion was for a total smoking ban,” he says. From there the board worked with an attorney to amend the documents for both an immediate ban and a two-year grandfathering provision. “We announced that we would be allowing up to six months to gather more than 50% approval, after which time the amendment would be considered to be defeated if 50% was not obtained, but the amendment achieved 50% approval in little more than one month.” By November 2014, Brook House was smoke-free.
In the Bank
Some boards are tasked with righting a ship that’s gone financially adrift. Day Mill Condominiums in Templeton, Massachusetts, is addressing number of issues relative to overall financial stability, reserves, and road completion. Board president Matt Ward says they’re taking the pragmatic approach of “saving what we can each month while still actively maintaining our property.” Day Mill’s road project is high priority, but the board is taking care to go about it the right way (i.e., with the help of experts). Initially they’d gotten a bid without knowing how to properly create an RFP; they’ve since hired an engineer to issue the RFP, review the bids, and make a selection recommendation to the board.
Other boards turn challenges into opportunities. Attorney Richard Brooks of Marcus, Errico Emmer & Brooks in Braintree, Massachusetts, a law firm that specializes in representing condo associations, recalls an especially diligent board member from years ago: An association had three owners who were in condo fee delinquency. The Massachusetts law on super liens, which allows an association to place a lien on such a property, had recently taken effect. This particular board member had, as Brooks put it, “the chutzpah to foreclose on the three units, then laid out his own money for the association to buy back the units.” The association was then in a position to sell or rent out those units, and this board member’s long-term vision continues to benefit the community to this day.
Who’s on First?
When change is in the air, who takes the lead on strategy and implementation—the management company or the board? Brooks says usually the management company, because “they’ve experienced [a similar situation] 20 times before.” (Although he also gives a shout out to the numerous board members he’s worked with over the years who “get it” and come up with great solutions of their own.) That experience often puts them in the position of being able to identify problems and propose solutions. It’s the manager’s job, he contends, to educate the board, which as the governing body will be responsible for approving proposals and soliciting vendors. Brooks gives a vinyl siding project as an example. A manager might suggest switching to vinyl siding because in the long run, it requires less maintenance and is ultimately more cost-effective than paint. The manager would present the facts and figures to the board as well as help them figure out where to secure a loan, and so on.
In Ward’s view, the best scenario is when both the board and the management company are mindful about strategy and implementation. He explains that as the board president, he likes to stay informed and have a deeper understand of how things work, so he often brings up concerns to the board. Ideally, Ward says, the management company will “bring forth issues, with possible solutions, and have the board review the solutions and choose which route they want to take.” The manager’s role is the cornerstone of having things happen in a timely and effective manner. “If the manager fails to act or follow through, things can get real messy,” he adds. “Fingers get pointed.” Part of the reason for this is the manager’s experience; the other reason is time. Board members are volunteers who can only commit so much time to getting things done, so that relationship and reliance on the management company are keys.
In a self-managed community like Brook House, the manager is hired by the board. He reports to the board, attends the meetings, and partakes in deliberations. The process here is a bit different than associations with a management company. “Ideas for new initiatives are generally initiated from community members without any formality,” says Holt. “The board tries to solicit ideas in open meetings that will increase the quality of life in our community.” Once the board agrees to pursue an initiative, a board member-chaired “task force” does the investigative and strategic work. The board then becomes more directly involved when it comes time to execute the project, and the implementation phase goes through the hired manager.
Procedurally, this is all straightforward enough, but buy-in is another matter. It’s not uncommon for change, or proposed change, to be met with some measure of resistance—in fact, it’s rather expected. Making everyone happy isn’t a realistic objective. When all is said and done, openness and communication are what pulls a project together—even if it means, as Ward suggests, sometimes going door to door to talk to residents. Brooks points out that just as the manager needs to educate the board, so too, does the board need to educate the rest of the community. This happens especially with maintenance issues or a one-time assessment in condo fees. These situations are almost always met with resistance, but “education and explanation usually sort things out,” says Brooks. “Once they understand that the board has gone through the process, the owners get through it.”
Even so, the process can be frustrating for a well-intentioned board prudently doing what needs to be done. As Ward says, “People will always feel that you could have done things better.” Thus it’s how a board deals with objection, above and beyond communication, that serves as a grounding force when it comes to upsetting the applecart. This is especially true when the status quo simply won’t do and a board needs to bring back a community from the brink, as with Day Mill. “Overcoming the issues really comes down to standing your ground knowing that you made the best decision that you could in the current situation with the information that you have on hand at the time of the decision,” says Ward.
The noteworthy boards profiled here (and similar standout boards throughout the region) are defined by their actions. When asked what impact the Brook House board has had on its community, Holt believes that the board’s undertakings “demonstrated to the community that we can be trusted to listen to their opinions and to make responsible choices on their behalf.” Ward, whose community is still in the midst of change, considers the short-term effects to have been very positive. Although the long-term impact has yet to be determined, Day Mill is on the right path with focused diligence on both the present and the future.
Brooks shares a great story about the long-term impact of a board’s actions some time ago. A community had development rights to finish a project that had expired. The board didn’t understand the details, though, and the management company called Brooks in to discuss the legalities. It took a bit of convincing on his part, however, because they assumed the developer had the right to continue. A few meetings and phone calls later, they hired him to negotiate with the developer. The end result was that the association received hundreds of thousands of dollars—enough to properly fund the association forever (bonus: road maintenance in perpetuity was part of the deal) and give each of the owners (20 or so units) quite a bit of money.
Boards encounter all manner of problems and pursue all kinds of opportunities, but the very best boards have one thing in common: exceptional dedication.
Jodie Lynn Boduch is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to New England Condominium.