Infighting: The thought of it in a condo community makes everyone cringe, from residents to board of trustee members to property managers. It also puts those involved in an awkward position. Although it isn’t a common occurrence, thankfully, conflict can happen even within associations that have been typically harmonious. Sometimes problems arise within the board itself, and other times, between the board and homeowners.
Communication is often the first indication of a clash between board members and homeowners that goes a step beyond ordinary. “I get the feeling things aren’t normal when the board members stop responding to any major issues or if they’re taking one side and not willing to bend,” says Steve Hornsby, president and portfolio manager at HM Management in Attleboro, Massachusetts. “That’s usually where it starts.”
Property Manager John Kadim of Crowninshield Management Corporation of Peabody, Massachusetts, adds that board members who seldom attend scheduled meetings and don’t respond to emails are a clear sign of discontent. By contrast, an uptick in communication from homeowners can also be a good barometer. More phone calls and more emails than usual, together with more candid homeowner commentary, almost always signal frustration. When homeowners challenge him as to what the board has been working on and he doesn’t have an answer, “that is usually a bad sign.”
Don’t Get Personal
Moreover, instances of Us vs. Us us are usually personal, according to Hornsby. “Nine times out of ten,” he says, “it’s a personal issue rather than a business issue.”
And how can a property manager tell if the problem is the board itself?
Kadim believes that the tell-tale signs of an ineffective board are easy to spot: “If you attend three monthly meetings and the agenda looks the same for each one, chances are things are not being accomplished.”
And, he adds, if items are being presented (think overdue condo dues or prompt repairs that need approval) and the decisions are being tabled continuously, that may be a sign that the board is unable or unwilling to make decisions. Stall tactics are also a symptom—for example, when board members ask the same procedural or general questions on a regular basis. “Any way you look at it,” he concludes, “the ability to analyze and decide on items is key to running an association.”
Foot-dragging can be vexing for the property manager who sees a problem that isn’t being addressed—and that isn’t going to vanish, either. “Part of our job is to advise the board,” says David Abel, who recently joined The Niles Company in Boston as senior vice president and director of business development. “We consider ourselves negligent if we don’t give quiet counsel when appropriate.” Hornsby mentions a board that ignored his repeated recommendation to repair stairs until, eventually, the stairs broke. “I could see the red flag, but as the manager, all I can do is continue to give my strong recommendations,” he says. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Even so: “It’s frustrating, because it makes us [the management company] look bad, when in reality, for 18 months, I’ve been saying we have to do something.”
Abel recognizes the delicate matter of a problematic board and opts for a cautious approach, pointing out that when a problem is among board members, they typically have to hash that out among themselves.
Just as the nature of communication can be a warning sign that trouble’s brewing, it can also be a strategy for resolution. This is true whether the conflict is among board members or with homeowners. According to Abel, third-party expertise often defuses the situation. It comes down to “communication, communication, communication.” For example, he suggests bringing in a CPA to talk to homeowners when there’s a general financial problem or having the attorney speak to the community about legal issues. Transparency and providing information are imperative, he says, because “most of the time, reasonable people come to reasonable conclusions.”
We’re on the Same Team
When they don’t, homeowners may wonder what role the manager might undertake. Whose side are they on, anyway? At the end of the day, everyone’s. There are, after all, two sides to every story—and the condo documents trump all.
“It’s a judgment call,” says Abel, who has three decades of experience in the industry. “As much of an art as it is a science.” Abel shares that in a situation of the board versus the homeowners—which again, isn’t often—his inclination has been to give it some time to play out and ultimately “advise the board to take the high road.” He believes it’s important for the board to give a proper professional response to the homeowner, then, as suggested before, refer to outside experts as needed. “The board shouldn’t be a punching bag.” Instead, he encourages the board trustees to point homeowners to the condo documents, which often provide many of the answers to their concerns.
By the same token, adds Hornsby, if the board is unjustly singling out an individual homeowner (i.e., holding him or her to a different set of standards), he’d side with the homeowner. And he’s seen this happen. “The manager is there for all the owners, not just the board. We side with whoever is on the side of what the condo documents say.” In his view, many owners don’t realize that the property manager is an advocate for all and working for the best interests of the association as a whole.
Throw Them Out?
Hornsby provides an example of a dysfunctional board that, per the condo documents, could be removed via petition. Two of three members on this board completely refused to answer calls or emails or to make decisions in any way. In this case, given the inertia, he sided with homeowners, who signed a petition to remove those two trustees, because they were elected and refused to work (and one hadn’t paid condo dues for over a year). Because this option was better for the association as a whole, it was the choice he opted to pursue.
Abel says that in 30 years, he’s only witnessed a board being voted out once. “If people say they’d like to vote out a board, we aim to find out why. Almost all the time, if you address the concern, it can be worked out. More of the time, they don’t really want to overthrow—they’re often just angry.” The one time he did observe a board overthrown, it was a long, difficult process. The association had a five-person board with two versus two and the fifth member in the middle. The issue was the need to rebuild 116 units and raise $2 million. The go-to strategies of bringing in outside experts and promoting transparency illustrated the divide but didn’t solve the problem. However, it did equip homeowners with knowledge; they eventually voted out two of the board members.
Kadim says that fortunately, he hasn’t experienced board overthrow. As with Abel and Hornsby, it’s not an approach he endorses unless it’s a last resort. “I think that if the community strongly emphasizes that they are unhappy with the board, the best way to rectify it is to provide owners a chance to step up and run for the board,” he explains.”
At the end of the day, there have to be homeowners willing to work on the board for the current board to be replaced.” When the rubber meets the road, homeowners don’t volunteer to swap places as often as one might think. Kadim sums it up this way: “It’s much easier to be part of the problem than part of the solution.”
Help is Out There
Speaking of being part of the solution, it’s clear that condo association conflicts put the property manager in a difficult position. Hornsby, Abel, and Kadim agree: Management and peer support goes a long way toward helping a manager navigate rough waters.
Hornsby once worked for a larger firm but found the insight and assistance lacking; when he created his own small firm, he made the availability of mentoring resources a priority. Talking daily about what’s going on allows for shared experiences and a problem-solving mentality. In his previous position, Abel was senior manager at a large firm that managed over 3,000 condos, and says the senior staff had a lot of experience among them. A “deep bench,” as it he calls it, facilitates a quick response should a property manager need guidance. Kadim, also at a large firm, cites his own positive experiences: “I cannot tell you how many times I have run into an issue that is unique to me but has been tackled previously by a colleague. Luckily, I have a management team in the office to approach and solicit advice.”
A little informal education, then, goes a long way. So, too, does more structured education—for boards.
“I wish all my board members would go to at least one CAI (Community Associations Institute) training session,” Abel says. Boards generally have a very professional attitude and accept the basic management tenets for board membership. They don’t have to be experts in, say, irrigation; they just need to manage as an executive board making informed decisions, and that’s where training can help.
One drawback, though, is time. “Becoming a board member generally meets, or many times exceeds, the level of involvement that most board members expected to give,” Kadim notes, so while beneficial, it’s not always something board members seek out. That being said, Hornsby thinks that had the board that once singled out a homeowner gotten CAI training, they’d have known that they couldn’t enforce rules against just one owner.
What’s essential to remember, Kadim reiterates, is that “the board generally has the collaboration necessary to make an informed and well-rounded decision.” Sometimes conflict resolution is merely a matter of needing, gaining, or offering perspective. “When a resident or two present an issue to the board, they generally think of how it will affect them and their unit, but when the board reviews it, they evaluate this issue on a property-wide scale.”
That’s the goal, of course, and Abel believes the manager’s advisory role amounts to this: “Our job is to try to train [the board] as much as possible. We don’t want conflict; we want resolution.”
At the end of the day, that’s the one thread uniting all sides. It’s all in how you get there.
Jodie Lynn Boduch is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to New England Condominium.