New England Condominium has been reporting on matters related to multifamily living, governance, and operations for the better part of four decades, covering communities large and small throughout this northeast corner of the country. Within each of those markets are different property types, ranging from dense urban high-rises packed like sardines onto city blocks to more spread-out suburban or exurban homeowners associations where single-family residences are surrounded by open land, roads, and outbuildings.
What we’ve learned from this diversity is that among the various property types and locations, management best practices, strategies, and skills are universal. There may be different laws to follow in Boston vs. Laconia, New Hampshire, for example, or different mechanical systems to understand in an elevator building versus a community with its own sewer system, but at the end of the day, a successful manager in any of these settings is a people person first and foremost. Regardless of where a building or community is situated or whether it is more vertical or horizontal in structure, managing it requires the same hands-on approach and customer service skill set.
Cities vs. Suburbs: What’s the Difference?
Statistically speaking, what were once thought of as differences in housing composition between cities and suburbs are today more accurately accounted for by an area’s density. Caitlin Sugrue Walter, senior director of research at the National Multifamily Housing Council in Washington, D.C., explains that development trends over the last 50 years have shifted the understanding of a metropolitan area. “Cities have traditionally had higher density, with more multifamily units than areas traditionally known as suburbs,” she says. “However, our research shows that the term ‘city’ should not be confused with ‘high density.’”
Rather than a “city vs. suburb” framework, where the former is thought to contain a higher proportion of multifamily buildings, “many geographies now possess some combination of both urban and suburban characteristics, which is why we need more refined measures of our urban and suburban areas,” according to Walter. “When composition of housing stock is examined using the number of households per square mile as a measure of density, a more nuanced relationship between the share of multifamily and single-family units emerges. As development continues to change the landscape of our metro areas and more areas qualify as ‘cities,’ density may prove a more reliable indicator of housing trends.”
All this is to say that suburban property management has many aspects of traditional urban property management and vice-versa, given that the composition of housing and what are actually considered “cities” versus “suburbs” in census tract data are fluctuating and interrelated to begin with.
Cult of Personality
Property managers are the first to admit that they tend to fall into a particular personality type. Generally speaking, they are problem-solvers who like to keep busy and do not shy away from challenges. They enjoy personal interaction with a wide variety of people. This is true whether they manage urban or suburban properties, large or small communities, luxury or more modest buildings. They might manage a portfolio of properties or be a dedicated on-site manager for one. By and large, property managers of all types of properties in all markets are gregarious doers who like to make people happy.
Alison Phillips, CMCA, AMS, CAM, vice president of multifamily and commercial at FirstService Residential based in Massachusetts, says of herself and her colleagues, “Although we may have gotten into this industry for many different reasons, I think we all genuinely like to be juggling a bunch of plates at the same time and feeling accomplished at the end of the day once we’ve completed those tasks.”
Michael Refat, CMCA, MBA, is regional director for FirstService Residential in New England. He, too, appreciates being busy with a wide variety of to-dos. Reflecting on the people aspects of his job, he says, “We are one of the few industries [left] where you have to interact with a human being. Every [other] industry has gone virtual, so you don’t get the chance to interact with professionals. Everything’s done from a distance; every job has been shipped overseas. So we are one of the few industries that still must have a person that you interact with. So I always say now to new hires, ‘Think quickly, before you join the industry. Because you have to be a social worker, you have to have social skills, you can’t just do business. You actually have to pick up the phone, interact with the customer. And you have to have some social skills and some patience.’”
According to Steven Berisha, a manager with FirstService Residential in Manhattan, the personality of a particular manager is also important with respect to the building or community he or she will be managing. “The manager should have a good vibe with the board and the residents,” he says. “They should be familiar with the predominant cultural backgrounds of the members, and be sensitive to aspects that might be charged or delicate. They should also have the particular skill set or sets needed for that building’s issues, whether its infrastructure or finances or community involvement.”
In terms of whether a manager is assigned a portfolio of buildings or dedicated to one full-time, the size of the community dictates that distinction more than whether the building or community is located in a particular setting, say the professionals.
While managers we spoke to for this article contend that their fundamental duties are pretty much the same whether in a dense or sparse setting, the professionals who notice some differences are the co-op/condo/HOA lawyers.
Ben Rooney, a shareholder with law firm Keay & Costello in Wheaton, Illinois, who represents condominiums and homeowners associations in both downtown Chicago and its suburbs, says, “When a high-rise condo in an urban location has a number of owners and occupants literally stacked on top of one another in close proximity, it can lead to things like noise and odor emanating from one unit and traveling to another. This is less of a concern in suburban associations, which often consist of free-standing single-family homes on larger lots. But on the flip side, suburban community associations composed of single-family residences or townhomes frequently require the owners to maintain exterior portions of those homes. That can create problems should they fail or refuse to perform this maintenance, thus creating an eyesore which the board must then address.”
Jennifer L. Barnett, a principal with the Braintree, Massachusetts, law firm Marcus, Errico, Emmer & Brooks, P.C., sees similar issues arise based on an area’s density. “With city condos, I get a lot of noise disturbances, especially given how there are more brownstones and smaller associations [in urban settings],” she says.
Barnett also mentions how laws and regulations differ among jurisdictions, with denser metropolises like Boston having more requirements—and stricter oversight—than their suburban or exurban counterparts. “More often than not,” she explains, “code violations happen more often in large municipalities than they do outside of the city, whether those are related to mice infestations or any other sort of pest issue, balconies, and retaining walls, etc. The Boston Fire Department makes it a point to periodically inspect buildings throughout the city. And if you don’t take care of a violation right away, they take the next step and pursue a criminal complaint with the housing courts.”
Lewis Montana, a partner with the law firm Levine & Montana in Peekskill, New York, who works with a co-op in the Bronx in addition to his clients in the suburbs, notices the same distinction. “It’s much more technical to comply with New York City’s own laws than it is to comply with those here in the suburbs,” he says. “Obviously, there is state law with which we all comply. But generally in regard to guiding clients, it’s easier to give them recommendations as to what they should and shouldn’t do up here in the suburbs than in NYC, because in the latter, there’s a layer of government regulations atop the state law.”
Montana also notes that, in his experience, “The further away you get from NYC, the more open the courts are to arguments on behalf of a board, which is, for all intents and purposes, a landlord. I’ve found that NYC courts at least appear to be more focused on protecting tenants’ rights. That’s not to say that courts up here don’t protect tenants’ rights; they certainly do. They’re just perhaps more open to entertaining arguments from a landlord point of view.”
As the notions of city vs. suburb continue to evolve—with shifts in response to COVID and telecommuting, more master-planned and transit-oriented communities, climate considerations, demographic dynamics, and changing paradigms in urban planning, to name a few realities—the prevalence of multifamily properties will continue to expand as well. Undoubtedly, those that are managed by professional property managers will benefit from these folks’ ability to multitask, remain engaged with client communities, and adapt to ever-changing landscapes.
Darcey Gerstein is Associate Editor and a Staff Writer for New England Condominium.