By Mike Ramsey
©2020 Community Associations Institute
WHEN MANAGER David Moriarty inspects resort communities in central New Hampshire, it's usually early in the morning before residents wake up.
Prior to COVID-19, hardly anyone was around so late in the year. But this is 2020, and many owners have been riding out the pandemic at their second homes. That means more people—and yes, more complaints.
“It's busier than normal," says Moriarty, whose Campton-based company oversees 26 communities. “People are out on the properties more, and they're looking at things. 'How come this isn't done, David? What about this?' I try to explain to them, 'That's on our schedule. We are trying to find somebody.' It's been really stressful, more so than normal."
With owners staying longer than usual, shared utility costs have gone up. The sites are getting more use, which can drive up the need for maintenance and repairs. Complications have arisen. A number of residents would prefer not to have crews inside their homes, even if the visitors are wearing masks. Some subcontractors, such as plumbers and electricians, won't work in a unit that is currently occupied.
Moriarty recently had to find a chimney cleaner to do annual inspections after his go-to expert declined out of safety concerns. “Some of the other guys will charge more, but they are willing to go into units and do certain things," he says.
His boards have been grappling with the new reality, too. A flashpoint has been amenities, which were shut down earlier this year before some of the facilities reopened with restrictions.
Elected leaders at one community reopened their tennis courts but banned doubles matches because they didn't think it was safe to have extra players on the court. This upset some members.
“People are generally having trouble with things not being the norm," Moriarty says. “I've had people freak out over ridiculous things."
“We are caught in this endless loop right now, and what is needed is an increase in flexibility and resourcefulness."
Even in comparatively stable periods, community association managers and board members have tough jobs. Things have only intensified during the pandemic, which has been combined with the national backdrop of civil unrest and the most rancorous political season anyone can remember.
“I've never seen anything close to this," says Stephen J. Sulkey, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, who manages 22 communities in the Wilmington, N.C., area. “People go from zero to 60 for anger in a heartbeat."
In the past, he says, he could defuse potentially volatile situations by using diplomacy. If, for example, an owner had a boat in the driveway, Sulkey would ask them, “Are you aware you're not supposed to have that there?"
“In normal times, that works pretty well," he says. “Now, we're to the point where the guy will email back, 'What the hell business is it of yours?' "
At the same time, life has gotten more challenging for owners. Many white-collar employees have found themselves sequestered and working from home—if they've been lucky enough to remain employed. With many school buildings shutting down, parents have had to accommodate their children's remote learning, blurring the lines between work-life balance.
Retirees with empty nests have their own unique stressors. As members of a high-risk group, seniors may not feel comfortable resuming their routines, even with safeguards in place at their community and beyond.
“A lot of people here have self-quarantined," says Philip Rovner, secretary-treasurer of the Pelican Preserve Community Association in Fort Myers, Fla., which oversees amenities for several age-restricted homeowners associations.
He and his wife, both in their early-70s, are themselves being cautious about venturing out. “We will go to a grocery store or go to Home Depot. We will not go out to eat," Rovner says.
It's too early to take a full accounting of the psychological impacts of life in a prolonged semi-lockdown, but there are tangible signs of distress.
Anecdotally, organizations that run crisis and suicide-prevention hotlines say they have seen an uptick in calls from people seeking help. A Pew Research Center survey from March said 18% of U.S. adults have felt overwhelmingly anxious, nervous, or on edge when thinking about the pandemic (people in unstable financial situations were more likely to register these responses).
By comparison, Pew noted, a 2018 federal survey on mental health indicated only 9% of U.S. adults felt nervous most or all of the time over a 30-day period.
“People are fatigued by this, and it does make people more edgy," says Marshal Granor, a fellow in CAI's College of Community Association Lawyers (CCAL) who is based in Horsham, Pa. “I have heard from a lot of (community) managers that they're just worn out from a lot of negativity."
Sleep has become a casualty of the pandemic, too. Experts note rising rates of insomnia as virus-related angst disrupts circadian rhythms. There is even a term for this 2020 trend: “coronasomnia." Those lucky enough to fall asleep may be surprised to find out they're clenching and grinding their teeth. Dentists say “COVID teeth"—with people suffering from cracked and scuffed chompers—is indeed a thing.
“Depression and anxiety are on the rise," says Portland, Ore., psychologist Doreen Dodgen-Magee, who is studying the mental fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. “The other thing that I am seeing at this point is this sense of irritation and hyper-vigilance mixed with a sense of inertia."
Researchers have noted a corollary to what the public is experiencing now and the type of doldrums that can overshadow the late stages of a solitary mission. This low emotional point that astronauts, Arctic explorers, and submariners feel is known as “Third Quarter Phenomenon."
It's not a perfect comparison. Unlike a space mission with a definitive end date, the COVID-19 pandemic, for now, is an open-ended hardship. Life won't get back to “normal" overnight, with the immediate discarding of masks and social distancing. Even when a federally approved vaccine emerges, it is not expected to be 100% effective, and not everyone may get the shot.
“We are caught in this endless loop right now, and what is needed is an increase in flexibility and resourcefulness," Dodgen-Magee says. “Wrestling the complex requires grit, it requires resilience, and those are two things on the decline already in our populace."
People should acknowledge their discomfort, she advises, and consider therapeutic approaches that range from taking small breaks to exercising and meditating to seeking out counseling, even if it's of the “telehealth" variety.
Ignoring the most strident complaints and keeping a unified front have helped leaders stay resilient.
At the Pelican Preserve Community Association, board members have picked their battles carefully during this challenging time, says Rovner.
Attempts to get people to wear masks or face coverings in common areas have not been successful, he says, possibly because of politics and maybe even the Florida weather. “It's hot as blue blazes down here," Rovner notes.
The board held fast on one restriction: Only members of the association could use the swimming pools when they reopened at reduced capacity. This has meant that short-term renters or people staying with their parents or grandparents have been barred from enjoying the amenities.
To enforce the unpopular measure, Rovner says, the association hired security to check IDs at pool entrances.
“It hasn't been easy or pleasant in some situations, but most people understand the need to maintain a certain distance and that people from out of state don't need to come in," he says.
In an attempt to retain some sense of normalcy, Rovner says, the association's restaurant offered takeout during the initial lockdown. That didn't stop some owners from criticizing the menu selection or harping on other perceived failings. Some residents disapproved when the association applied for Paycheck Protection Program assistance from the federal government to keep staff employed during the slow period.
“We have not had people camping outside our units, but we have had a couple of pretty nasty emails. Quite frankly, it's insulting, and it's disappointing," Rovner says.
Naysayers tend to exaggerate the amount of support they have in the community, he says. “If you look behind them in the crowd, there's nobody following them."
Ignoring the most strident complaints and keeping a unified front have helped leaders stay resilient, he notes.
“I don't sense, other than time on task, that any of the board members or managers are unduly stressed. Collectively, we've supported each other," says Rovner, who is thinking of running for reelection when his board term expires in March.
Strange as it may seem, some managers have found silver linings in 2020.
Moriarty, the New Hampshire management company executive, says moving board meetings onto the Zoom platform has saved him the time and trouble of staging on-site gatherings at more than two dozen communities.
“Otherwise, we never slowed our operation down," he says of his business, Moriarty Management Co. “We're considered an essential service, and we kept things going."
Granor, the CCAL fellow in Pennsylvania, says online meeting venues have been a boon to community associations. He also thinks the format—putting people, “Brady Bunch" style, into a video forum controlled by an administrator—may have taken the temperature down a few degrees, considering some of the strife he's witnessed at in-person meetings.
“I've seen just about everything. I've seen the rebel group that comes in with 12 people, each of them with a script," he says. “And I've been at the meetings where one person goes completely nuts, off the rails, in one case where the police had to be called to remove the person."
Now, Granor adds, the boards are more in control. “When you have a 'mute' button in your hand—you try not to overuse it—if somebody's being impolite or obscene or whatever, you can say, 'Sorry,' and hit the button," he says.
Platforms such as Zoom, GoToMeeting, and Teams also have the potential to bring communities together for social activities, Granor says. For something looser, communities may consider tapping into online game platforms that allow several players to participate remotely. The cost to organize this kind of virtual fun is minimal, he notes.
“It's out-of-the box thinking and a way to bring some value back to people who think they're getting nothing from their association," he says.
Sulkey, the management company executive in North Carolina, is not completely sold on Zoom as a substitute for meetings. State lawmakers have allowed community associations to pivot this way, but he has asked his boards to consider gathering in outdoor settings, weather permitting.
Otherwise, Sulkey says, some owners could end up feeling disenfranchised. “Not everyone lives and breathes Zoom," he says.
Sulkey says he doesn't think COVID-19 and all of the troubles it has generated eclipses the problems of the 2008 recession—at least not yet. He says clients were flooded with delinquencies then, and the pressure was on him to shake the trees.
His overriding strategy in dealing with 2020 has been to keep perspective.
“I can tell you exactly where I was when Kennedy was shot," Sulkey says. “I have a historical perspective, not just an HOA perspective."
Granor likewise draws on his life experiences to help contextualize the pandemic. He recalls being among the first children to get the oral polio vaccine—a watershed moment in public health that helped relieve dread that Americans were feeling about that crippling virus.
“We lined up at my elementary school," he says. “I was 5 or 6 years old, and I remember it like it was yesterday. We were there to get our little paper cup with a sugar cube. We stayed in line, and it was like going to Disney World. We were there for an hour or two, and it was a celebration."
Mike Ramsey is a Chicago-based freelance writer.
Social Media: Connecting Or Dividing
THE DIGITAL TOOLS that have helped bring community associations together run the risk of driving them apart during the pandemic.
There has always been the potential for social media pages and message boards to turn ugly, depending on the controversies facing a community. But the content seems to have become more toxic as isolated owners reach their boiling point.
And talk about “doomscrolling": Professionals are at risk of running into a barrage of vitriol.
Stephen J. Sulkey, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, owner of Professional Association Management in Wilmington, N.C., advises his communities to carefully curate their online pages and forums, if they have them, to weed out inflammatory and libelous content.
As for himself, he tries not to pay too much attention to all of the venting.
“It will drive you totally insane," says Sulkey. “When I look at things, I don't look at 'this moment.' That's the problem with social media, regardless of everything else. It is this concept of the immediacy. It's right now. It's like instant judgment, guilty until proven innocent."
Before the pandemic, Americans were spending more than 10 hours a day looking at computer or phone screens, and that usage has only increased, says Doreen Dodgen-Magee, author of Deviced!: Balancing Life and Technology in a Digital World.
If it was easy for some people to lob harsh words and insults before, there is even less discipline now as they find themselves cooped up during the pandemic, the Portland, Ore., psychologist says.
“Our lives have become so small that even the rush that we can get from observing a big reaction online feels like something big in our lives now," she says.
Some argue that digital platforms have been more of a benefit than a minus in 2020. Consider that Zoom and similar online products have allowed businesses—and community associations—to continue functioning. Dodgen-Magee agrees this is part of the story.
“If we were people who could embrace boredom, I think this would be an optimal time for us," she says. “We would be able to balance the beautiful parts of technology, which let us be connected to other people, with taking some time away from it to develop a stronger core sense of self."
She recommends that everyone take breaks from their computer screens and phones. —M.R.
By David C. Wilson, Esq.
THE BEST WAY to handle homeowners association disputes is to hold winner-take-all gladiatorial contests, a law colleague once joked. If you take that option off the table, then perhaps your community could use some help to de-escalate tense situations and walk angry homeowners back from the brink.
Boards often feel unsure when an angry homeowner constantly critiques them or verbally attacks them. One of the first questions many boards ask is whether to involve legal counsel. While it may be appropriate to call the attorney at times, boards should consider several steps to calm the situation first:
REMOVE EMOTIONS FROM THE EQUATION. Homeowners are often driven by their emotions. As the “face" of the community, board members should try to remove their own emotions from an encounter. Failure to do so usually makes the situation worse.
❚ Don't be defensive or antagonistic.
❚ Don't rise to the bait or fall for personal insults or attacks.
❚ Respond calmly and courteously.
LISTEN CLOSELY. Allow owners to get things off their chest. Much of being a board member or community manager is allowing people to feel like they are being heard. The best listeners are active.
❚ Take notes.
❚ Summarize what you hear.
❚ Participate in the conversation.
❚ Ask questions to let them know you want the details. It tends to have a disarming effect on someone who is angry.
SHOW EMPATHY. Empathizing is the ability to show that you understand where a person is coming from. Showing empathy goes hand in hand with being an active listener but goes one step further. The goal is to help the angry homeowner understand that it isn't “you vs. me" or “the board vs. the homeowner." Rather, we are all on the same team and trying to work toward a common goal. Empathizing usually includes statements such as:
❚ “I understand how that could be difficult."
❚ “I know how that would make me feel."
❚ “I can see how you would feel that way."
EDUCATE. Many times, homeowners are angry because they don't understand the issue. They may have never lived in a community association before and may not understand the rules.
❚ Help them understand that no single board member can make decisions. Only the board as a whole can take action.
❚ Take time to explain rules, systems, and processes. Provide copies of any policies or rules.
EXPLORE OPTIONS. Once you have calmed the situation, have some plan of action or takeaway in mind. This could be as simple as letting homeowners know that a decision will be made. Other times, it may help to include homeowners in brainstorming solutions. This will invest them in the solution and get all sides working together. Sometimes, it helps to send the “next step" in writing. That way there is a record, and there can't be any distortion or misunderstanding.
INVOLVE THE ATTORNEY. There are certainly times when the attorney is needed. Figuring out the dividing line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior is sometimes difficult. If your board is unsure, go ahead and ask the attorney. No board member or manager should be abused, harassed, or intimidated, so when a homeowner's actions rise to this level, it is likely time to get the attorney involved.
Most board members look at dealing with angry homeowners as their least favorite part of the job. But, given some practice, your board may be able to turn this into a strength and even start receiving credit from homeowners for the ability and willingness to listen.
David C. Wilson is an attorney with Law Firm Carolinas. He is licensed to practice in North Carolina and South Carolina. firstname.lastname@example.org
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