Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Re-framing Expectations

Alexander Hamilton, the guy on the $10 bill (for now at least), authored much of the U.S. federal system.  In one of his writings (March 18, 1788) he said (paraphrased):  The representatives of the people sometimes fancy themselves as representing themselves, and become impatient and disgusted with the least sign of opposition from others, as if the exercise of someone else's rights infringes on their privilege and insults their dignity.

Unfortunately, we see this same mindset among some HOA Boards, and among some community association managers.  While these agents are tasked with representing a corporation (the homeowners association), not individual homeowners, it is easy to 'take it personal' when a homeowner challenges them.  Perhaps the homeowner doesn't have all the facts, or perhaps he has facts the agent needs to know.  As long as the homeowner isn't being abusive or using strong language, Board members and managers should hear him out.

Time not taken now becomes time & money taken next, under mandated arbitration.    Also, the views of future challengers are colored by how they see you treating the current ones.   You can expect respect when first you have shown it.  Not every person understands or agrees with a governing decision, but shutting the door on discussion should be your second or third action, not your first.
By the same token, everyone (homeowners, Board members, and managers) should start from the assumption that there is some validity to each assertion.  After thoughtful deliberation, you may discover that a person's expectations can't be reconciled with those of the community.  That doesn't make his position wrong, only wrong for the community.
 Sometimes you will find yourself in an endless loop with an upset homeowner.  Your attempts to bridge the gap failed.  Time to redirect your efforts to more productive Association business:  It is okay to end the conversation.  Just be sure it ends in a way that you would be proud to see reported in the news.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Meeting on Common Ground

Recently, we were alerted to a group of homeowners planning a camp-out on their HOA's common area – without first clearing it with the community's Board of Directors.  When they were notified that it was not permitted due to liability concerns, the flood gate (of complaints) was opened.  Apparently this was not the first social event that had been conducted without the Board’s knowledge.

The homeowners then asked for clarification on which events (everything from water balloon fights to Easter Egg Hunts to impromptu concerts) required ‘permission’.

The common denominator is not the activity, but that it is occurring on common area, and therefore requires Board approval.  Think of it this way - you wouldn’t dream of setting up a social event in the lobby of the Coca Cola corporate office, without first obtaining permission.  The same holds true for common areas within a community, which is also a business corporation tasked with protecting property value.

While homeowners have an undivided common interest in theses spaces, the Board is the one charged with its oversight.  Anything amiss could potentially fall on their shoulders, and ultimately upon the Association itself.  The Board must be very mindful of the restrictions spelled out in the governing documents.

For this particular community, the disclaimer stated, “Owners, Occupants and their guests shall use the common areas maintained by the Association and all other Common Property and all portions of the Community not contained with a Lot at their own risk and shall assume sole responsibility for their personal belongings…”

When an insurer is drafting the policy for the community, such statements are used to carve out exceptions in coverage.  It is the Board’s discretion as to the level of risk and associated expenses it believes best benefits the Association. 

Yes, the Board does have the authority to close off access to portions of the common area, and also authorize special events in these spaces.  A frequent example:
“No garage sale, carport sale, or similar activity shall be conducted in any portion of the Community without the prior written consent of the Board of Directors.  If permitted, such activities shall be subject to all reasonable conditions that the Board may impose.”

In the camping situation described above, the homeowners refused to seek permission, with the expected consequences.  A future Board may revisit this decision, hopefully consulting with legal and insurance experts while crafting community-authorized socials. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

To Tow or Not to Tow?

Towing is a drastic step used only after other options fail - or when life & safety are at stake.  Too often, an over-eager Board member quickly calls in a wrecker, with expensive consequences for the community.  Be sure the following steps are taken to close out loop-holes:
  • Review the community's Declaration of Covenants for towing notification requirements
  • Confirm the tow zones are owned by the Association, not public roadways
  • Issue a community-wide 30-day notice (& post at the mail box if there is one) of parking regulations and the intent to start enforcement
  • Chalk the tires of vehicles suspected of being stored, and check weekly for at least three weeks to see if they have been moved
  • Compare vehicles with community registration forms and contact vehicle owner
  • Tag vehicles and wait a couple of days.  Tag again if these are moved but still in violation
  • Provide police with the make, model and tag of vehicles scheduled to be towed.  This prevents police interference during towing, and eliminates ‘stolen vehicle’ claims
  • Keep handy a copy of the Georgia Supreme Court case of Reinertsen v. Porter, showing towing from private property is authorized
  • Snap two photos of each vehicle before towing:  One at a distance to show placement, and one of the tag/rear of vehicle
  • Tow only on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, to cut down on weekend calls
  • Notify all Board members and management of vehicles actually towed, so when the calls come in, everyone is in ‘the know’
  • Maintain documentation to demonstrate fair and equal treatment
  • If in doubt, call off a towing event.  There will be future opportunities to tow if the vehicle owner chronically violates the regulations

Often, it only takes one round of towing to send a message, but any Board embarking on this path must be prepared to consistently tow for many months.  Changing negative behavior takes time.  In extreme circumstances where large numbers of vehicles need to be removed, be sure to employ an off-duty police officer or sheriff to assist with confrontations.  Avoid premature towing.  Be thorough and measured in your approach when it comes to removing personal property.