I have now used up another 10 seconds of my allotted 15 minutes of fame. I had the opportunity this week to be interviewed by a local television reporter who was doing a story about a property owner and his dispute with his homeowners association. Unfortunately, it is difficult to give complete and in-depth coverage of an issue when there is a limited amount of time available, especially in light of other pressing news like our country’s current financial melt down. However, the topic raised by the reporter does warrant further, in-depth examination, at least by those involved with the operation and management of their community associations, as well as those governed by them.
The question posed to me by the reporter was whether we are witnessing more conflict between community associations and their members. My complete response was along the lines that, yes, we seemed to be witnessing more conflict, although, I’m not sure that it is necessarily reflected in the number of lawsuits being filed. A number of the conflicts are resolved before they reach the level where legal action is taken, maybe because their boards and the members are able to resolve the problem by way of compromise. However, it is also possible that the problems are not resolved at all, leaving only unsettled discord within the community, division of the members into opposing camps, efforts to recall the board or division of the board into opposing camps. The net result of these problems is a dysfunctional board, or a dysfunctional community. So, it begs the question, is there a way to resolve problems before they lead to dysfunction?
While, in the future, we may explore other means of dispute resolution, as well as thoughts on how to avoid disputes, today I want to limit this post to the very narrow topic of one of the first steps in resolving disputes – understanding the source of the dispute from the perspective of both the homeowner and the community association. In any type of negotiation, it is important to understand the other side’s position – put yourself in their shoes, so to speak. With the current economic climate, board members of community associations need to understand the financial challenges that might be facing their members, including the loss of jobs and the prospect of foreclosure or bankruptcy. When faced with these problems, homeowners are going to find it extremely difficult not only paying their assessments, but also spending money to maintain their property, leading to complaints from the Association or even their neighbors.
From the opposite perspective, homeowners need to understand that the Association’s expenses have also increased in the same manner that the individual homeowner’s expenses have increased, making it more difficult for the Association to do its job. Further, if fewer homeowners pay their assessments, the Association is faced with having to carry out its responsibilities (costing more), but with less money. Somewhere, something has to give, and often what gives, is that homeowners receive fewer, or lesser quality, services, leading to their complaints about what they really get from their Association.
Lack of communication seems such an overused, trite explanation for many problems. However, it truly can be a significant cause of disputes, and effective communication can be one of the first steps to dispute resolution. Once homeowners and associations each understand the other’s challenges and problems, there is at least a foundation for further discussion to determine if a common ground can be reached. Without communication, most assuredly common ground will not be reached, both parties become entrenched in their positions, lawyers get involved, and the stakes increase. So, the lesson of this post, if there is one, is that, if there is to be effective dispute resolution short of legal action, the association and the homeowners should make every effort to understand each other’s position before moving in an irreversible direction. Legal action rarely achieves harmony within a community.