In multifamily residential communities, where neighbors share common space, amenities, and maintenance—if not actual walls—establishing and maintaining boundaries can be a bit tricky.
Physical boundaries are often breached by things like noise, odors, smoke, and other airborne nuisances. And judging by the questions this publication receives on a regular basis—“Who is responsible for a leak from one apartment to another?,” for example, or “Why can’t I leave my garbage outside my door if it’s my door?”—boundaries continue to vex the common-interest membership, no matter how much and often they are documented and communicated.
Non-physical boundaries are yet another thing. Living in close proximity to one’s neighbors requires a certain tolerance of other people being in one’s business, as well as (one hopes) a certain restraint in minding one’s own. A lot of neighborly behavior is subjective—one man’s helpfulness is another man’s nosiness, after all—making it hard to delineate and enforce these particular boundaries.
Now throw in being on the board that governs a co-op, condo, or HOA. Your name and face are out there, so anonymity is no longer an option. You likely are also obligated to provide your constituents with your contact information—which, in these days of email and texting, is prone to being used at all hours of the day and night. And while you might not have to publicize which unit you live in, chances are that information is already known to many of your neighbors anyway. And regardless, you’re bound to encounter people in hallways, lobbies, elevators, and other common spaces—not to mention the neighborhood grocery store, gas station, etc.
So with all that, how can you maintain healthy boundaries between your board service and your private life? And what boundaries are appropriate for a board member to even expect?
According to experts we spoke with, the key to setting and maintaining boundaries is establishing clear expectations. In a co-op, condo, or HOA setting, this means making sure that everyone understands and follows the rules and policies set forth in a community’s governing documents, as well as the norms and protocols that boards set for themselves, their hired professionals, and their unit owner or shareholder populations.
This has to be drilled in from the very beginning, advises Suzanne M. Young, vice president of marketing for the McGowan Program Administrators, a national provider of community association insurance products. In her experience, residents tend to have trouble with board boundaries as a result of:
• Not understanding what it means to live in a condo or homeowners association or housing cooperative (as opposed to a private home or rental)
• Failure of buyers to read the governing documents before they purchase and move into the HOA, condo, or co-op
• Not understanding the role and limitations of the board
• A lack of clear procedure or protocol in governing meetings
“Setting boundaries can be difficult,” says Young, “but it is an essential part of creating a happy, healthy environment for both HOA boards and owners. Once you set these limitations, try to stick to them. Be consistent, and create a pattern. And always remember to be patient—it may take time to set these limitations, but it will be well worth it.”
Management as Buffer
The general rule of thumb for multifamily properties is that the general manager or management company handles all inquiries, complaints, and requests from shareholders or unit owners—at least in professionally managed communities. This not only shields volunteer board members from being bombarded in their homes and hallways, but having one official contact point also allows for a more streamlined process for follow-up and record-keeping.
Bart Steele, CMCA, AMS, account executive at Boston-based Barkan Management, suggests this strategy to his client communities. “We recommend that all communication comes through management first, which allows us to filter issues to the board as necessary,” he explains. “This is especially helpful due to the massive volume of email traffic—especially at larger buildings—and also allows us to document everything that transpires.”
After the elevator in one of Steele’s client buildings stopped working on a Friday night, residents resorted to confronting board members “in hallways, stairwells, even at their units … as if the breakdown was the board’s fault,” he recalls. “The attitude of many residents seemed to be basically, ‘I pay my condo fees, and it’s your job to make sure that the elevator works; there are elderly residents who you’re ignoring,’ et cetera. People were posting nasty messages in the halls, on the elevator doors, and on board members’ doors.”
So Steele put out a building-wide notice advising all residents of the proper communication protocol: go to management first. “We reminded them that they should never be bothering the board at their units about building issues,” he says. “[Board members] put in a lot of unpaid time in order to increase the value of everyone’s investment, and for that they deserve thanks, not criticism. The board spends a lot of its time doing unpaid work, and when not acting in official board capacity, members do not like to be bothered in the hallway, or have folks come to their units and interrupt their personal spaces.”
Likewise, Louise Krinsky, CMCA, AMS, executive vice president and chief operating officer for Access Property Management in Flemington, New Jersey, recommends filtering most issues through the property manager. “There are certainly times when direct communication between the board and community members is fine, and it happens all the time,” she says. “But it is important to remember that board members are just like non-board members: they want to enjoy their homes and communities, and not be afraid to take their dog out for a walk due to fear of being approached by half the neighborhood seeking advice and answers. The community manager should be the first point of contact for the residents, as they are usually on top of the community’s issues and armed with the resources to deal with them.”
Claudine Gruen, vice president and director of operations with Garthchester Realty in Forest Hills, Queens, agrees. “Most of the time, if an issue can be resolved by management without involving the board, we will go ahead and take care of it ourselves, and simply communicate to the board the end result,” she explains. “The only time the board truly needs to be brought in is if a decision must be made regarding policy or finances, or if a certain project needs to be executed. If a board vote is required, then we’ll put that issue on the agenda for the next board meeting. But nine times out of ten, we’ll simply address an issue as it comes and inform the board as to the result.”
The Email Boundary
Gruen also agrees that receiving complaints or suggestions in a written format is beneficial for all parties: management, the board, and the submitting shareholder or unit owner. “I recommend that everyone puts their complaints in writing,” she says, “with the understanding that only those issues submitted that way will be brought to the board’s attention during the subsequent board meeting.” Written submissions create a record, offer a means of follow-up, and avoid potential misunderstandings or miscommunication of issues.
Of course, the most common form of written communication these days is email, which can be both a blessing and a curse for volunteer board members and their hired professionals. The frequency and volume of email—not to mention its propensity for informality or inappropriate language or other content—can often make those on the receiving end regard checking their inbox with a sense of dread. On the other hand, the ease, immediacy, and searchability of email make it a preferred method of communication for just about everyone. The upshot, say the pros, is to set clear boundaries for email in particular.
“Use email to set realistic expectations for homeowners, board members, vendors, and the management company,” says Young. “If an issue raised by a homeowner requires a board vote, let the homeowner know that the problem may not be settled right away, and is pending a [properly noticed] board meeting. Consider setting up an autoresponder every time an email comes in, letting the writer know that the board has received the email, and that a response will arrive within 24 to 48 hours.”
Kate N., a board member of a large Manhattan co-op, advises new board members to set up an email address purely for board business, separate from their personal, work, or other email. “This allows them to segregate their volunteer tasks and requests from other communications in their busy lives, and to create different settings for notifications, calendars, etc.,” she says. Kate should know: with a full-time job in non-profit, three teenagers, and a “COVID dog,” managing her volunteer duties and setting realistic expectations for her time commitment are what make her board service possible in the first place.
Young’s advice is similar: “Identify your limits and decide on how much time you’re able to spend on HOA-related tasks,” she says. “If you’re working full-time, it may be unrealistic to want to dedicate 20 hours of your week to volunteering for your HOA. It’s important to be sensible with the amount of time you can donate. Set time limitations on weekends and weeknights. For example, ‘I can donate one hour of time on Tuesday and one hour on Saturday.’ Try this for two weeks and then reassess. It may take some time to find what works, and it may change season to season.”
Establishing and defining boundaries are also useful when a situation rises to the level of harassment, or potential harassment. Mark Hakim, a New York City attorney with the firm of Schwartz Sladkus Reich Greenberg Atlas specializing in community law notes that proving criminal harassment is often a matter of proving the perpetrator’s intent or purpose—which can be very difficult in the absence of any substantive indication of what someone is thinking or feeling in a given moment. That means that “the same behavior repeated in different circumstances may be harassment in one case, but not in the other,” he says.
Often, the attorneys indicate, it comes down to context and language. Michael C. Kim, of counsel at Schoenberg Finkel Beederman Bell Glazer LLC in Chicago, says that “It could even be a matter of personal style—like in a restaurant where a server calls a customer ‘dear’ or ‘honey.’ In certain contexts, that’s not necessarily problematic; nothing inappropriate is being suggested. But in other contexts, where that kind of familiar behavior isn’t normalized or expected, it isn’t appropriate.”
James Woods, managing partner of New York-based law firm Woods Lonergan cites case law that he says “has perhaps outlined a legal pathway for a co-op board to terminate a proprietary lease due to nuisance-like behavior over a longer period of time.” In Haimovici v. Castle Village Owners Corp., the court emphasized that the co-op board verbally warned and sent letters to the tenant-plaintiff that his behavior was disruptive, and stated that should he fail to change his conduct, action may be taken; the board also held a special meeting in which the board voted to terminate the lease—one where the plaintiff was able to present his case to the board. “The combination of a repeated and documented series of conduct by the tenant and the sufficient warning provided to the tenant by the board led the court to follow the business judgment rule and not second-guess the co-op board’s decision to terminate the proprietary lease,” explains Woods.
Options for Self-Managed Buildings
For communities that do not contract with a management company, boards don’t have the luxury of filtering complaints and requests through a property manager. In those cases, say the experts, clear communication and consistency are still essential to establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries. A well-maintained website can serve as a go-to resource for more common requests and actions, such as forms, policies, community updates, and service requests. Consider an FAQ page for inquiries that occur more regularly or that come from multiple people. And, advises Young, give owners an alternative to verbal inquiries. “Create a work order and suggestion lockbox,” she suggests. “This gives owners a place to describe their suggestions or issues and submit them to a safe and secure place for the board to pick up at their convenience.”
Since board members are themselves owners or shareholders and are volunteering their time in service to their communities, establishing and following well-defined boundaries—and even including them in a community’s governing docs—has mutual benefits for both senders and recipients of complaints, in addition to being much less likely to generate accusations of harassment. Board members are encouraged to set and communicate explicit boundaries of their time and communication preferences to make their volunteer service more palatable—and to ensure a more cohesive and harmonious community for everyone to live in.
Darcey Gerstein is Associate Editor and a Staff Writer for New England Condominium.