By Joni Lucas
In 1973, a group of farsighted professionals witnessed a rapidly evolving U.S. real estate market and saw a rare chance to identify and shape a new and exciting industry. Traditionally composed of rentals and single-family homes, a new kid had arrived on the U.S. housing block. Condominium development and sales were booming. These common interest communities were unique in many ways, and no one was quite sure or prepared to handle the unique challenges and opportunities they presented.
Managing these types of communities demanded a different set of skills, abilities, and mindset. And so, CAI was born.
This year, CAI celebrates its 50th anniversary. Now nearly 44,000 members strong worldwide, the organization is planning a bevy of events throughout 2023 to observe this important milestone. A lot has changed culturally, economically, socially, and politically since CAI was founded, and the industry has strengthened and matured. As the birthday party gets started, now is a perfect opportunity to take a minute to reflect on CAI's past and ponder its direction in the future.
Community associations “are definitely here to stay," says one of CAI's founding members, Clifford J. Treese, CIRMS.
In its first 50 years, CAI brought together many different aspects within the housing industry, and he believes its future strength lies in that diversity and the organization's ability to efficiently educate and inform the public and stakeholders about the model. He especially sees CAI's role in board member education as a top priority in the future to help leaders better understand how to direct common interest communities. Treese served as CAI president in 1986–87.
Fifty years ago, condominiums were a “new form of ownership" that the public didn't understand or know much about, says Ronald P. Kirby, another of CAI's founding members. Kirby, who served as CAI president in 1981–82, sees a straightforward mission for CAI in the future—to continue to educate the American public on the concept and get owners involved so that communities operate smoothly.
Stephen R. Bupp, AMS, PCAM, who helped develop and was one of the first to earn the Professional Community Association Manager designation, envisions maintaining a firm focus on the value the manager brings to the association in the future. CAI president in 1999–2000, he believes CAI has a role in boosting the respect and appreciation for managers and offering them opportunities to learn from and bond with each other both virtually and in person.
Across the board, fostering greater public awareness, educating homeowners, manager recruitment and retention, increased use of technology, and more state and federal legislative involvement are among the top issues observers say CAI must tackle in the future.
To be sure, it's not the first time that CAI has studied its future direction.
In 2015, CAI commissioned Community Next: 2020 and Beyond, which examined the future of community associations. The comprehensive report highlighted themes that are still relevant today, including: public perception of the industry, the need for qualified volunteers, increased use of technology, changing demographics, outdated governing documents, and the essential need for education and training. In the years since the report was released, social, political, and economic unrest and divisions plus a global pandemic have only complicated the landscape for communities worldwide.
Julie McGhee Howard directed the Community Nextproject. An attorney with NowackHoward in Atlanta, she says the project accurately predicted many of the issues facing the industry today. In the future, Howard says it's important for CAI to remain the “number one resource" for community associations, ensure best practices, and advocate legislatively. Howard, a fellow in CAI's College of Community Association Lawyers (CCAL), served as CAI president in 2014.
Observers overwhelmingly agree that expanding state and federal legislative efforts is one way CAI can make a difference. Kara Cermak, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, senior vice president of learning and development with RealManage in Palatine, Ill., believes CAI can educate lawmakers about the industry and help them develop smarter legislation that ultimately improves communities.
Cermak, involved in the development of the Community Next report, is proud of CAI's legislative efforts after the Champlain Towers South partial collapse in 2021, calling its leadership in forming national policy guidelines for repair and maintenance critical. Last year, CAI also helped Florida lawmakers craft landmark legislation codifying repair and maintenance guidelines statewide. (See “The Big Fix" in Common Ground November December 2022)
The Surfside, Fla., tragedy provided an opportunity for CAI and community associations nationwide to demonstrate their value and responsiveness, says Loura Sanchez, the founder of Inspired Interactions in Colorado and a leader in the Community Nextreport. It forced “hard, in-depth discussions about reserves and assessment that have more meaning because of the tragedy."
Lucia Anna “Pia" Trigiani, an attorney with MercerTrigiani in Alexandria, Va., a CCAL fellow, and Community Next leader, says she'd like to see CAI's legislative action committees receive additional resources so they can better develop, nurture, and sustain long-term relationships with lawmakers that can further understanding, cooperation, and appreciation of associations and the industry in general.
“The need for CAI is so great," says Kelly G. Richardson, an attorney at Richardson|Ober in Pasadena, Calif. He wants to see the organization focus more on educating homeowners and advancing the perception of community associations. Richardson, a CCAL fellow, served as CAI president in 2016.
Not only can CAI enhance education for community leaders, but it also has a role to play in building alliances with related professions such as real estate agents, Richardson adds. He believes more collaboration with them will ultimately result in better educated homeowners and more efficiently operating communities.
Indeed, education is a topic often mentioned by observers as CAI looks toward its future. Practical information on maintenance, budgeting, and governance are imperative, but community association professionals need to develop other skills, too. Embracing and emphasizing soft skills such as patience, empathy, mindfulness, conflict management, and well-being also need to be added to CAI's education offerings, they say.
Overall, CAI has done an amazing job of pivoting to virtual classes during the pandemic, says Sanchez. There is a need for more education for prospective home-buyers and current owners on the common interest model and their rights and responsibilities so they can get the most out of their investment, Sanchez says.
Creating and sustaining a sense of belonging and community along with supporting and nurturing volunteer leaders is another important component in CAI's future, observers stress.
Suzanne Mark, immediate past chair of CAI's Homeowner Leaders Council, is passionate about the importance of educating and communicating with homeowners. She called community association professionals and volunteers the “caregivers" that bring safety, comfort, and security to residents. It's a huge responsibility that requires continuous learning, patience, and commitment, she says.
She would like to see CAI boost efforts to make training more accessible and affordable to all homeowner leaders in associations of all sizes. Many leaders in small communities must pay for training from personal funds, which can be a deterrent to participation, she says.
Improved education and communication will reap many benefits—including setting the stage to develop future potential leaders, Mark says.
She encourages business partners and management companies to directly connect with homeowners to build camaraderie and create that vital sense of neighborliness communities need to thrive. “It's more than buildings and money," Mark says. “It's creating an enriching lifestyle. Home is our sanctuary."
As the world continues to regain its post-pandemic footing, there have been some bright spots. One of them is the increased use of technology that makes connecting easier and more convenient. “We can reach more homeowners" by holding virtual meetings and getting them more involved in the association, says Cermak, the RealManage executive in Illinois.
The flip side of this accessibility is the ease in which it can allow some people to be rude and disruptive. In the absence of face-to-face interactions, people sometimes can become “keyboard warriors" who think they can hide poor and aggressive behavior behind a computer screen, Cermak says.
While it may be difficult, Cermak says it's important for associations to strike a balance to collaborate respectfully both in person and online. Managers also must model proper behavior and demonstrate ways to build community and consensus, she adds.
Recruitment and training in the profession is another emphasis for the future.
Cermak would like to see the community association management profession gain traction on the university and community college levels and become a recognized and approved career path.
“The way (people) enter the industry now is by accident," she says. “That's not sustainable." Cermak would like to see young people “choose the profession rather than fall into it."
Sanchez agrees. Community association management is “a great career that offers independence, variety, and the opportunity to work with people. It's hard to showcase the profession with all the negative attention in the media."
CAI has an important role in addressing those negative connotations and refining education offerings, says Tracy Clay, AMS, PCAM, an independent manager in Raleigh, N.C., and a past chair of CAI's Community Association Managers Council.
Clay also would like to see community association manager recruitment efforts expand, beginning in high school and continuing in nontraditional places such as community colleges and historically black colleges and universities.
“There's lots of untapped talent in this industry," Clay says. “We need to think outside the box. There are creative ways to get things done."
She sees a role for CAI in developing national operating standards that would help the public and lawmakers better understand and appreciate the profession and the common interest community model, Clay says. “The more information and education managers have, the more competent they will be when meeting with boards and residents. It will give managers more confidence and autonomy to advise, mitigate risk, and make the best decisions."
“We need energy, effort, and (an effective) pitch to get diverse, new managers" to enter the profession, Clay says.
That's not all that's needed. Trigiani, the Virginia attorney, adds one more essential quality to the list. “You have to be lifelong learners" in this field, she says, citing the combination of legal and operational knowledge, and people skills that managers employ to get the job done daily. Inviting more conversations with mental health providers and social workers would be a great way to help managers grow, build community, and become more effective, Trigiani notes.
Part of building public awareness and appreciation of the industry is understanding how it fits into the greater economy. Fred Shapiro, PCAM, a recently retired executive of SBB Community Management in Dallas, thinks CAI can better inform the public about managing nonprofit entities and communicating the value of professional community association management.
These days, diversity, equity, and inclusion also must be addressed. Cermak suggests CAI survey the membership on DEI efforts, gather the information, and disseminate it for the benefit of everyone.
Exchanging information has always been a strength of CAI, and the growth of community associations internationally offers ample and exciting opportunities to learn from each other, these observers say. “There's a real need for us to be good neighbors," Trigiani says. “We need to celebrate the differences, not run from them."
At the half-century mark, CAI has a lot to be proud of—and a lot of work to do to guide the industry and the organization successfully into the future. It's a tall order with lots of challenges and obstacles, but a clear vision and determination to succeed can help lead the industry toward a bright and rewarding future.
Back in 1973, CAI's founders demonstrated foresight, grit, patience, and pluck to build an organization from scratch that provides education and acts as a clearinghouse of ideas and best practices for the more than 74 million people now living in community associations.
In fact, Trigiani describes that illustrious first generation of CAI leaders as “visionaries," saluting CAI's founders as a thoughtful, collaborative group who developed a sound foundation and infrastructure for the common interest housing model and the professionals who manage and govern it. It's a tough act to continue, but it also represents a great call to action.
As CAI celebrates a major milestone, there may be no better time for another generation of visionaries to step up and guide the industry to a bright and impactful future. Happy birthday, CAI.
Joni Lucas is editor of CAI's Common Ground™ magazine.
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