Aside from death and taxes, there is one other variable every person can count on: change. For condominium managers and boards of trustees change comes in various forms, be it a varying age gap or cultural divide. In the end, how change is handled can determine how a community is perceived and defined.
“In many respects, we are like therapists,” says property manager Barbara Vieira, CMCA, AMS, of the Rhode Island-based Bilodeau Property Management. “The fact is, though, we are managers and we have to address all age groups, ethnicities and cultures equally and fairly because there are so many different types of condo owners.”
According to 2010 U.S. Census statistics, 49.8 percent of infants under the age of one are members of a race-ethnic minority. This marks a 42.4 percent spike since 2000. It is now estimated that more than a quarter of these infants are Hispanic, while Blacks and Asians comprise 13.6 and 4.2 percent, respectively. The report also found that large minority gains occurred in New England states such as Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, marking a new wave of future homebuyers.
With diverse demographics come disparate needs which require that boards change with the times. In some cases, boards and property managers may cater to the needs of a new minority population. For example, in a predominantly Latin-based community, signage in Spanish may be added to common areas. However, a board is first guided by general operation regulations from which they cannot deviate.
“It cannot be the goal to treat everyone equally. The goal has to first meet your legal obligations and then if resources are available, then to treat everyone fairly,” says David J. Levy, PCAM, with the Holliston, Massachusetts-based Sterling Services. “Equally means that you could need to have the rules in 5, 10 or even 20 languages in a large community. To treat the residents fairly, the top two languages would be considered more than the industry norm, and thus nearly everyone thinks that they are being treated fairly.”
When Change Comes
While Vieira says that most boards are “quick to act” when addressing new unit owner concerns, Attorney Frank Flynn of the Boston-based law firm Downing & Flynn explains that new rules and regulations require understanding by all related parties or confusion will arise.
“I have been working in this industry for 24 years. In the condominium area, there are rules and regulations passed in what equates to a top-down management style,” says Flynn. “The regulation is passed; property managers expect that unit owners will simply follow the new rules. In Massachusetts, rules about common areas can be passed by trustees by a majority vote, but what should happen first is a campaign of education.”
Whether the case is making a common area non-smoking, an area that would exclude outdoor grilling or a new pet ordinance, rules require notice and more importantly, enforcement. Since many newer residents might be from a different culture, speak a foreign language or be considered elderly and thus not always able to attend meetings or review regulations, it would make sense that additional assistance is provided to these individuals.
“On language diversity, at the townhouse properties it is assumed that all of the residents are fluent in English, so there is no need to attempt multi-lingual communications,” Levy says of the properties he manages. “Yet in some garden-style properties with high investor ratios, to reach the non-English speaking tenants, most informal mailers, such as flyers, are done in Portuguese, the primary language needed. For our largest garden-style property, the rules are in English, Portuguese and Spanish.”
In recent years, managers and boards have seen an influx of different cultures, explains Vieira. A property manager since 1988, she has seen changes in those properties located in college communities such as neighboring Brown University. “I have seen a growth in the Asian community, for example, but I haven’t experienced boards changing literature or making any changes to necessarily accommodate this population,” she continues. “Mostly it is parents buying units for their children in college, and those college students can present problems.”
Aside from typical college hijinks and all-night parties, a major problem created is not a language or cultural barrier but rather an age barrier. “We have many elderly unit owners that are co-habiting with younger professionals or college students,” says Vieira. “Many of these people are sick, on medication or lost a have loved one. They can become confused or annoyed by change, and we deal with these types of issues often.”
Property managers asked if all their properties were “problem free,” would likely roll their eyes and laugh, as it is impossible to mediate all issues among neighbors. There are, however, ways in which a manager can have a positive impact when change occurs, an approach that requires care and insight.
“What I am seeing more and more is condos that have all their documents on a website that unit owners can access,” says Flynn. “This may include upcoming meetings and votes. If there are different cultures and languages, there might be translation in other languages, but that is not common as it requires translation services,” say Flynn. He adds that in New England, culture is a regional issue. For example in Massachusetts, Lowell and Lawrence have a higher Hispanic population, whereas Quincy has a larger Asian population.
Embracing and welcoming new community members can be enhanced in a number of ways including hiring a manager that is bilingual and encouraging board meeting attendance and visits to the association website. These steps might not be enough, so in most cases it is best to take a family-friendly approach. “Having flyers and the rules in the top two languages goes a long way to making a reasonable accommodation. We even allow Portuguese and Spanish spoken at rules violation meetings, as well as board meetings, on a few properties, at no extra cost to the property,” says Levy. “Beyond the language accommodation, we have an annual cookout, where we serve traditional American food and traditional Brazilian food. The residents love the extra effort.”
He adds that unit owners, when treated with respect, return it. For most people, it comes down to common courtesy. “For my firm, I believe in treating people the way that I would want to be treated. That is with respect and if needed, creative flexibility. Thus the language accommodation has allowed our firm to create a niche-service within our growing firm, with 100 percent client retention on those accounts, as our competitors are not even trying to make even the basic accommodation. So while our staffing costs are a bit higher, this growth and perfect client retention in that niche does create, in the long-term, an appropriate financial return.”
Flippers and Investors
As the housing market slowly rebounds, deals are ripe for cash-strapped investors who are entering the condominium markets in regions across the nation including New England. Whereas property managers and boards have dealt with unit owners of varying backgrounds, investors are one subset that can be looked down upon.
“Another area in Rhode Island where I have seen change is in the sales of old units. Investors are buying them and either renting them or flipping them for sale,” says Vieira. “This is an area where rules and regulations needed to be tightened,” she continues. “Rental procedures, for this reason, are being reviewed by many associations right now.”
Flynn said that while he rarely fields questions about how a board should handle changing demographics, he does receive queries about investor-owned units. “Due to FHA regulations, boards become concerned because if there are too many investor-owned units it can impact the ability to obtain low-cost mortgages,” says Flynn.
Moving forward, New England condominium management companies can expect an uptick in minority populations. Vieira sees this as an opportunity to positively affect change. “While some boards do act quickly when it comes to changing rules and regulations, people have to keep in mind that nothing happens overnight,” she continues. “It’s important to keep in mind that regardless of the background of any tenant, all rules and regulations have to be enforced equally. Education goes along way and this can be achieved with a detailed welcome packet that includes all necessary information for new owners.”
From a legal perspective, there are on occasion issues related to tenants who for any number of reasons do not get along and thus cause problems in the community. “There can be cases where a unit owner feels they are being discriminated against. The case could be that they feel they are in the minority if the majority is a different race or ethnicity, for example. “Everyone has to be cognizant of different races, ethnicities and cultures and treat everyone the same. If one group is treated differently than another, that is where you will have problems,” says Flynn adding, “Any discrimination against race or ethnicity should be outdated thinking.”
W. B. King is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to New England Condominium and other publications.