Since its humble beginnings in 1973, the New England chapter of the Community Associations Institute (CAI-NE) has provided its members with the tools necessary for efficient community association management, operations and governance.
CAI-NE—one of 57 chapters nationwide and currently the third largest in the country—was originated by a group of extremely committed volunteers who saw a need for education in the then-new type of homeownership: condominiums and cooperatives (although in Massachusetts, community associations come primarily in the form of condo associations).
"The folks who really spearheaded the organization from the beginning, from what I've seen, were some of our still very active attorney members," says Claudette Carini, executive director of the New England chapter. "They were constantly contacting their colleagues and their client associations to encourage them to come out for educational programs. It was really a grassroots effort on behalf of these volunteers."
Carini was brought on in 1994 as the first hired executive director of the organization, which has offices in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Prior to her entrance, a number of people assisted the chapter administratively, but it is her job to assist the volunteers and to move the chapter forward. And with the help of her dedicated staff and exceptional volunteers, that is exactly what she's done.
Continuing a Tradition
Carini says she began her duties with a membership of only 200 people—a strong, cohesive group of volunteers made up of the founder of the organization and his colleagues, many of whom had long supported the organization financially.
Carini and her volunteer board, which now numbers 11, carry on the work started by the original volunteers by focusing on legislation and educational resources for a membership that has soared to 2,000 people in thousands of community associations in four states: Massachusetts, Vermont, Rhode Island and Maine.
"Their primary focus in the beginning was legislative," she explains. "Beyond that, they were also looking to educate homeowner association volunteer leaders. The idea for bringing me on was to expand the number of members involved in the organization and also to enhance the programs and services they were currently offering."
The education they offered was what they called the ABC Programs, day-long courses that covered everything volunteer leaders needed to know about managing their communities, both from a legal perspective and fiduciary responsibility perspective.
Today, the educational resources offered have grown and expanded to include:
• A series of full—and half-day programs to train professional managers in New England;
• Lectures and panel discussions that allow experts in various fields to answer questions for managers and volunteers, as well as offer informal networking opportunities;
• An annual conference that also provides networking opportunities and one-on-one conferences for people to have specific questions answered on a more private basis;
• An extensive, well put together website that offers resources and a helpful Q&A program;
• Conference calling and web conferencing programs ("webinars") that provide live instruction to community association volunteer leaders;
• Condo Media, a four-color, glossy magazine that provides articles, resources and references for associations' volunteer leaders to use in managing their associations.
"When we're talking about education, it's important to remember that our speakers and authors are all, for the most part, CAI-NE volunteers," explains Carini. "This means they are involved in the industry and work in the industry and they understand our association and the nuances that are happening within the New England region."
Taking Legislative Action
According to Carini, CAI-NE's projected future includes more involvement legislatively. Carini and her volunteer board hope to continue to educate legislators about the community association industry, helping them balance the best interests of homeowners with the interests of the industry and the professional community association managers. They also want to educate their own members with respect to what's going in their respective states' legislature.
In Massachusetts, CAI-NE has a legislative action committee that oversees bills that have been put before legislators both locally and on a statewide basis. It's their goal to establish legislative action committees in the other states CAI-NE represents – Maine, Vermont and Rhode Island—so that they have some real legislative clout.
"We get a lot of calls in our office from aides asking for more information on a certain bill that's coming before a hearing that their legislator is working on," says Carini. "Having an identified legislative action committee in all our states would be a way we can affect more positive change in the industry."
Locally, the organization has been working to ensure that condo associations in the Boston area receive the same municipal services for their tax dollars that individual homeowners receive.
At the state level, manager licensing is becoming a hot topic. Many states, including California and Florida, have long had bills that require property managers to be licensed.
CAI-NE is not opposed to any such bills that might be drafted in their states; however, they want to ensure that any manager licensing bill written is fair to all parties and doesn't bar entry into the industry for property managers, decreasing competition and thereby creating a shortage of management professionals.
In Massachusetts, a manager-licensing bill has been set before the state House now for the past three sessions. CAI-NE fears that the bill, written by a homeowner, might be one-sided and so continues to testify and offer their assistance in crafting a bill that makes sense for everyone.
"CAI and managers aren't opposed to manager licensing," Carini points out. "Managers often manage million-dollar budgets—they have a broad responsibility and need broad knowledge. We hope licensing would ensure that managers have this knowledge and the experience to be able to adequately and effectively manage. The concern that managers have is that, in other states with manager licensing, it's often become a state bureaucracy."
Carini cites as the main controversies a problematic state registration process, the question and issue of fees, the questionable way a state might manage the licensing process and the possibility that the state would require managers to carry their own liability insurance, thereby hiking the base cost of running a management company.
"The management industry here in Massachusetts has a very small profit margin," she argues. "HOAs are trying to squeeze everything out of managers for as little as possible. Managers have the concern that a bad bill would make them suffer even more."
Out of all of her successes, Carini says she is most proud of the strategic plan she's helped create during her tenure. According to Carini, the strategic plan was a way of putting an organization with a lot of momentum and good ideas on an organized path.
"We were all over the place," Carini laughs. "People were coming into my office asking about doing a homeowner networking party. I'd say, 'Okay, we can put that on the agenda.' Then someone else would ask me about a manager networking golf tournament. Or about developing a program for attorneys so they understand the nuances of common interest attorneys."
It was clear to Carini that the organization needed to consider the path they wanted to follow. So she and the board leaders considered their resources, the current state of the industry, their audience and their members. They then began to outline their objectives and the programs they wanted to offer for their members, who now consist of managers, homeowner leaders and business partners.
The strategic plan is something they actively focus on in meetings.
"In our board room, we have posted on the wall these big sheets of paper of all of our 13 committees," says Carini. "Under each committee's name, we've identified some of the major goals and objectives assigned to them. We've also brainstormed how each committee can meet those objectives and goals. After that, the committees come in and sit there and see what direction the board has established for them."
Committees are responsible for a variety of tasks, such as legislative action, golf events, programming, etc. Nine months into it, Carini thinks the strategic plan is a success. When an objective has been met, she circles it with a big red pen so everyone can see the process on paper.
"Objectives might have been to increase participation by a certain percentage or offer more manager education with a certain program or increase participation at the annual conference and Expo," she outlines. "It's really exciting for me and for the volunteers, who feel that they're accomplishing something."
How CAI-NE Can Help You
Condo owners and building trustees often contact Carini regarding the best way to run their associations. She says she's happy to help, and equates her role in the organization to that of a community association manager in a community association realm.
Along with her volunteer board of directors, Carini works toward the organization's mission, which is "to foster professionalism, education and the networking of condominium and homeowners associations and their business partners in order to improve operations and management and strengthen the quality of community living."
For more information about the Community Associations Institute and the programs it offers for managers, volunteer leaders, business partners and others, see their website at www.caine.org or e-mail them at email@example.com.
You can also call their office at (781) 237-9020 and they'll send you a complete package that includes the magazine, Condo Media, membership information, brochures and a listing of upcoming events.
Domini Hedderman is a freelance writer and aspiring novelist living in Erie, Pennsylvania.
Many of today's condominium owners depend as much on Internet access as they do on electricity, heat, and water. After all, who needs the fridge to run if you can't get online to order the groceries or take-out? Who needs a morning shower when you're working from home on the computer? Being online is a basic, and as such, homeowners expect their online services to be not just impeccably reliable, but high-speed and low-cost, too.
But how often do homeowners get what they need? Despite the growing demand for high-speed Internet, and its availability to 90% of Boston residents, only 40% of Boston households subscribe to high-speed service. Thirty percent use slower dial-up access and 30% of Boston homes have no Internet at all. In response, and to move the city into the forefront of a growing trend in municipal wireless, the city of Boston has launched a pioneering initiative that could revolutionize the digital landscape for property owners and businesses alike.
Wireless access, also known as WiFi, allows computers, laptops, phones, music players and other electronic devices to connect to the Internet through radio waves. In most major cities, including Boston, free WiFi is sometimes available in public places like coffee shops and libraries. In other places, like a home or business, people pay for Internet access through subscription fees that can be as high as $50 or $60 a month.
Wireless Internet for $10 to $15 a Month
A little less than two years ago, Boston's Mayor Thomas Menino appointed a Wireless Task Force to study ways of providing inexpensive wireless Internet access to anyone within city limits. Last year, the Task Force concluded its work and recommended the city designate a non-profit entity to create a citywide, open access, wholesale-only wireless network. The result, they said, would be "low-cost service to every neighborhood [in the city] while providing a platform for innovation unlike any in the nation." A wholesale network, built using the city's already existing infrastructure – light poles, traffic signals, and public buildings – would compete with telecom giants Comcast, Verizon, and others who currently dominate the market. Lower wholesale costs, they reasoned, would allow and encourage a proliferation of entrepreneurial activity. They predicted Internet connection service to homes and businesses would be as low as $10 to $15 a month, and from there, new applications "from inexpensive Internet phone to technologically advanced public safety equipment" would be developed.
Exciting Applications May Lie Ahead
"People are talking about a lot of exciting applications," says Pam Reeve, CEO of bostonopenair.net, the independent non-profit she launched after completing her work on the Task Force. "I think monitoring and security [over the Internet] might be very interesting to property owners, in terms [of using] wireless cameras and environmental sensors, particularly if you own multiple properties. Wouldn't it be nice to have all your buildings monitored and have all the information come back to one dashboard or central office?"
Demo Project Being Tested
Reeve is talking about a grand future, not too distant, but not around the corner, either. A year and a half after the Task Force's recommendation, the city's first demonstration program?—a square mile of network in Roxbury's Grove Hall and Dudley Square neighborhoods—is in a final testing phase.
"It's taking us longer than we expected," Reeve concedes, "but we have learned a lot. Some people might say we are taking a slower approach. I'd say it's a more thoughtful one."
"A lot of other cities have been announcing big things and getting lots of press," Reeve adds, "and then getting lots of press about the failures."
Indeed, the Boston approach is different. San Francisco's high-profile WiFi project, which died earlier this year, relied on a multi-year contract with Earthlink. The troubled company withdrew from the contract last summer citing financial terms they could not meet. The agreement reportedly required a $14 - $17 million investment from Earthlink.
Similarly, the city of Chicago recently scrapped its citywide wireless effort after months of negotiations with both Earthlink and AT& T failed to produce an agreement.
"Cities are experimenting with business models, so the Boston non-profit model may work in the end," said Esme Vos, founder of muniwireless.com, a website "devoted to municipal broadband projects worldwide that are funded or supported by cities and towns, especially those projects that incorporate wireless technologies."
"Boston's plan is quite innovative," she continued, "and the city should be commended for not just following what everyone else is doing."
Thinking Ahead Saves Money
Reeve says that in thinking about the future of the network in Boston, she would like to see all "major building renovations and new construction" think of themselves as "being a node on the network" and anticipating required needs like fiber connections, Ethernet connections, and power to the roof, to name a few. These are incremental costs to a project on its front end, she says, but they can add significantly greater costs to a project when they need to be retrofitted.
Most building projects these days automatically incorporate the technology to be wireless-ready, Reeve emphasizes, but some property owners will also want to know they can "contribute to and be part of an important citywide initiative." Others, she adds, will recognize that their property "will be more valuable and useful to the people who live and will potentially work in it."
Full Build-Out Will Come Slowly
A fully deployed build-out is still some time away. The originally optimistic estimate of completion by the end of 2008 has been replaced by Reeve's declaration that openairboston.net is going to work "neighborhood by neighborhood, as certain assets become available to us, and as our fundraising and our learning allows."
"We're treating this like a new product," Reeve said. "We've built our pilot using volunteers and donated equipment and services. We want to nail down our design, and prove that we can create something that works and that people want and can use. We're not going out there and spending millions of dollars to figure out what we can do."
Visions of a wireless future run the gamut. Reeve imagines sharing news and information in what she calls "hyper-local settings," like the population of a condominium complex. The network, she says, will make it affordable to distribute information that will only be of interest to people in a very small, local group.
Once the network is deployed in a significant area," she says, "people a lot smarter than me will think of other applications that will improve people's lives. The mind goes crazy thinking about the possibilities."