Two years later, community associations have met the adversity of the COVID-19 pandemic and found resilience together. The lessons are everlasting.
By Edward Hoffman Jr., Esq.
IT'S BEEN TWO YEARS, and we've had enough of it. We want a return to normal. I get it. Nobody wants to hear, read, speak, or even think about the COVID-19 pandemic, but it's hard not to. It's pervasive, and it continues to color our everyday decisions.
As a community association attorney and litigator, I've certainly dealt with my share of issues related to COVID-19. Virtually anything and everything that could have happened in the communities that my firm represents did happen since March 2020.
There's no denying the toll the pandemic has taken—the lives lost and interrupted, the economic ramifications, the mental burden, and more. But what if I were to tell you that community associations actually learned some good things as a direct result of the pandemic? It's not as crazy as it sounds. Let's count.
In fact, community associations have survived the pandemic thanks to the resilience and determination of community association board members, community managers, business partners, and residents. We are in a much different place now than where we were at this time last year. Several factors have made that possible, but the unwavering efforts of community association leaders must be acknowledged.
Difficult decisions had to be made in every community from the outset of the pandemic—whether it was how to handle the economic impact of resident unemployment and the potential nonpayment of association assessments, the closure of community pools and gyms, how to have meetings, whether to allow guests, whether to require face masks, or looking out for the physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing of residents who were home probably more than they ever have been. Community associations around the country deserve a round of applause.
After the pandemic started, community association leaders were put in a position to act quickly and ask residents to do things they never had to do before, including wearing masks around the community, maintaining a social distance from one another, not using facilities and amenities, and participating in meetings virtually.
Based on the communities that my firm represents, I believe that the vast majority of community association residents were not only cooperative (with rare exceptions, of course), but many of the residents went above and beyond in many different ways.
We learned that despite the impact of the pandemic, the overall delinquency rate in most community associations did not increase substantially. Of course, community association leaders had no way to predict if this, or the opposite, would end up being the outcome.
What we did know is that, not too long after the pandemic started, some community association residents were laid off, and unemployment compensation payments were not immediately sent to these residents. The worst-case scenario would have been that a majority of residents could not pay their assessments, leading to community association budget cuts, decreased services, and failed payments to staff members and business partners. Fortunately, this did not happen.
Instead, we saw residents reaching out to the board to make arrangements to pay their assessments, and boards worked with residents as needed—often allowing them to enter into payment plans and waiving late fees or interest on any delinquency that started after March 2020.
It appears that while the pandemic has had a massive financial impact on the global economy, the overall financial impact on community associations was not as drastic, at least to date. Let's hope it stays that way, especially as we move into the next phase of the global crisis.
During the pandemic, community association leaders increased their due diligence efforts to a level commensurate with the problem at hand. Rather than ignoring issues or letting the chips fall where they may, board members and community managers engaged in unparalleled levels of communication with all their trusted service providers and advisers.
The daily virtual meetings, conference calls, and chains of emails resulted in proper due diligence by community leaders on issues related to the pandemic and served to protect the health and safety of residents. We learned that community association leaders decided to tackle, rather than retreat from, the pandemic.
While some state legislatures have already updated their statutes to allow for the use of modern technology for community association voting, proxies, and meetings, there was no plan to update the statutes in many others.
However, as a direct result of the pandemic, we learned that many community association leaders and residents want the option of usin g modern technology for these essential issues and functions. When there was suddenly no other choice available due to the inability to have in-person meetings, community associations turned to technology to continue to operate, albeit on an emergency basis.
Most community documents are silent on the issues. Absent the enactment of statutory amendments to allow for the permanent use of modern technology that would generally apply to all community associations, the only choice most have would be to seek to amend their governing documents by way of owner vote. The pandemic taught us that technology is good for community associations, and statutory updates around the country are the preferred path.
CAI's federal legislative action committee and various state legislative action committees are diligently working on these issues for the benefit of community associations nationwide. Visit www.caionline.org/advocacy to learn more.
The pandemic served to “reset" our expectations in virtually every aspect of our lives. Lest we forget, not too long ago, there were toilet paper and paper towel shortages, hand sanitizer was selling for $15 a bottle if it was available, Lysol wipes were harder to find than a unicorn covered in diamonds, and grocery stores were rationing items like chicken breast to one pack per customer. All of this led to a decrease in demands, complaints, and communications from owners about things like the grass being one-quarter inch too high in the back of their unit or that the guy across the street owns a car that has a registration that expired a month ago. In other words, when residents focused on what was actually important, they stopped focusing on things that, while they might have merit, didn't matter in the grand scheme of things.
During the pandemic, those of us who focus on community association education, including CAI, worked tirelessly to ensure that community association boards and community managers would continue to have access to quality educational content. The end result was shifting in-person seminars to virtual events. Community association leaders apparently agreed that quality educational content was needed during the pandemic, as the overall attendance for the virtual seminars vastly exceeded the turnout of prior, similar in-person events.
Community association leaders were hungry for information and cogent guidance on important issues, and the pandemic was not a reason to stop educating. Rather, it was time for us to amp up our efforts.
The pandemic literally forced us to meet with one another virtually instead of in person. What community association leaders quickly learned was that these virtual meetings sometimes led to a better turnout, whether it was for board meetings or owners' meetings. The virtual meetings were generally more efficient to run and took less time to complete.
Community associations want to continue to have online meetings, which makes complete sense. As discussed above, the solution for community associations in many jurisdictions lies in updating statutory language to allow for the use of modern technology. If you live in a community association in a state that currently does not allow for virtual meetings, you should contact your state legislators' offices and make them aware of the issue.
The pandemic, by its nature, forcibly changed our notion of what “community" really is, and in thinking about all of this in retrospect, it appears that we took neighborliness and our shared experience for granted prior to the pandemic. Community association leaders learned that the idea and notion of community matters just as much (if not more) than the physical and financial elements, so we must focus on building (or rebuilding) community moving forward.
The good news is that we have a jump-start on this because residents turned their attention to assisting neighbors with things they could not do on their own due to the pandemic.
During the pandemic, we experienced and witnessed an abundance of personal pain, loss, and struggle in our homes, families, and communities. On a personal level, some of my clients unexpectedly and suddenly lost dedicated board members to COVID-19, leading to substantial impacts in these communities. Add the emotional, physical, and mental stress of the pandemic to all of this and the end result is that community association residents (our fellow humans) deserve some empathy.
Community associations should govern with empathy and use emotional intelligence in addition to good faith and due diligence when making decisions. “Don't leave empathy at the door when making important decisions" is something I said a lot over the past two years. Many community association leaders also began to think this way, and I hope it continues well after the COVID-19 pandemic is nothing but a distant memory.
Edward Hoffman Jr. is a fellow in CAI's College of Community Association Lawyers and is the managing member of Hoffman Law LLC with Pennsylvania offices in the Greater Philadelphia area and the Lehigh Valley/Poconos regions. Hoffman serves as chair of CAI's Pennsylvania Legislative Action Committee and is a member of the CAI Keystone Chapter's Pocono Mountains Regional Counsel. firstname.lastname@example.org
COMMON GROUND asked CAI members to share the biggest lesson they've learned since the COVID-19 pandemic started impacting the U.S. two years ago. Selected responses are included below.
How important face-to-face meetings and communication are to solving problems effectively. Email and Zoom meetings are great for sharing information in one direction but leave a lot to be desired in gaining a full understanding of an issue or in finding mutually acceptable solutions. —JANET L. NEWCOMB, Springhurst Townhomes Homeowners Association, Huntington Beach, Calif., and 2021 chair of CAI's Homeowner Leaders Council
Flexibility and creativity are important survival skills. We amended our bylaws to allow for electronic notification and electronic voting in trustee elections. The results have been spectacular. It has become so simple to vote electronically that we will never have a problem obtaining a quorum for elections. Also, the use of Zoom meetings and webinars has been an important addition to our ability to communicate with homeowners wherever they may be. —JOE BRANCIFORTE, Seabreeze at Lacey Community Association, Forked River, N.J.
During this time of uncertainty, we found the silver lining was that people realized the need to adapt and be more accepting of online communications and meetings. As we pivoted toward leveraging our online communications, we saved money and increased engagement among our residents. With Washington state passing legislation allowing homeowners associations to continue to use electronic notifications and online meetings, we continue using these cost-saving communication methods. —HILARY BUBLITZ, CMCA, AMS, Mill Creek Community Association 2, Mill Creek, Wash.
The biggest lesson I've learned since the COVID-19 pandemic began impacting the U.S. two years ago is how prevalent misinformation and mistrust in the government is in our society. The way this relates to common interest communities is that people have long struggled to embrace homeowners associations, which are governing bodies, and I think the pandemic has exacerbated that problem. —JENNIFER PEARSON, Real Properties Management Group, Las Vegas
That most people are willing to do whatever it takes to keep the community safe, such as wearing masks and not socializing. However, not socializing was a burden and still is for many residents. We are a 55-and-over community, and many are in at-risk age groups.
We can be creative in bringing the community together. Last June, we held our first ever ice cream truck social event, which was outside. We had more attendees than at any other social event. Last February, residents wrote remembrances on hearts that we hung on trees in our lobbies. The board provided a Valentine's Day candy bag to each resident. —CAROLE HUNT, Wayside at Chelmsford Condominium, North Chelmsford, Mass.
While acknowledging there are real and serious divisions in our country, our association is fortunate to have avoided most of them. Our owners remain supportive of the board's efforts. The lesson learned is to practice transparency and encourage owner participation. —HARRY POMMIER, Summit Beach Condominium Owners Association, Batavia, Ill.
Being present in the moment is one of the biggest lessons I've learned. I saw how friends, family members, and the world fell into sickness and died around me. It's a sad and lonely feeling but being there for them is one of my greatest memories. These past two years have been about growth and enduring the pain and turning it into a positive one, otherwise we become trapped away in the darkness. —ANGEL ROBLES-OCASIO, CMCA, AMS, Community Management Corporation, Chantilly, Va.
COVID-19 has brought many new challenges over the past two years, but it also was an opportunity for the community to provide a number of services and communication that brought more value to their dollar—from farmers markets to shifting indoor dining to outdoors and greatly enhancing takeout options. Communication has been a key part of successfully navigating through the pandemic. I started “health updates" with a wide range of information from where to find vaccines to where to get tests. We are now up to update #133, and the owners have been very appreciative. —TIM JONES, Stonebridge Country Club, Naples, Fla.
Engagement and communication with everyone living and working in our community is more important than ever. People are confused and anxious, so meeting them with kindness and empathy is crucial. Living up to the true meaning of community and fostering a sense of oneness is a great way to diffuse tensions and build trust. —CINDY TOSCANO, Glen at Tamiment Property Owners Association, Tamiment, Pa.
This has been one of the biggest challenges an association has ever had to face. Combining factors include the responsibility of the residents' safety, responding to frustration, and dealing with difference of opinions. The board is a volunteer position and, in such, the members do the absolute best they can. The responsibilities are never taken lightly, but the past two years have brought that to a level that at times made some board members contemplate resigning due to personal pressures and performing their elected responsibilities. Thankfully, our board remained intact, and some amazing work was accomplished during this time.
Lessons learned: People come together in times of crisis; we all try to do what is best for ourselves as well as others; life goes on, and we will adapt to the new way of doing things. —TONY HERBERT, Bears Nest Condominium Association, Park Ridge, N.J.
That it is difficult as a governing body to balance our need to respect homeowners' desires and rights to use the amenities along with health and safety concerns of the community and the possibility of the board's liability if a homeowner does become ill from COVID-19. —SHERRY PATTERSON, Horizons at Woods Landing, Mays Landing, N.J.
Member aggressiveness has been on the rise. Politics have divided our community and friendships. I have learned that I need to be cognizant of both sides and work within the community that we now have become. —KARIN LEA SHULMAN, CMCA, Auburn Lake Trails Property Owners Association, Pine Mountain Club, Calif.
I've learned a lot about the give and take of virtual and in-person meetings. Virtual meetings are great for providing access to more of the membership, they are much more convenient, and they are very useful for pushing information in one direction. However, I find them much less effective for discussion and collaboration than in-person meetings. In-person meetings are less convenient, don't provide a lot of access (unless they are broadcast virtually), and are generally harder to pull off. But the exchange of information is so much better. You can read nonverbal cues much clearer, and they are a huge part of human communication. —TONY JOHNSON, CMCA, AMS, Kingstowne Residential Owners Corporation, Manassas, Va.
The pandemic has taught me that there is so much more that can be done with technology than first imagined. I've found that many boards actually prefer to meet virtually, and online meetings allow many more owners to attend, leading to more transparency within the community. Aside from the benefit of virtual meetings, many other procedures can be done with technology such as architectural review applications, access device requests, work orders, and many others by fillable forms. Welcoming technology into the community association helps with many processes, shortens timelines, and makes residents aware of what's happening. —BILL DIX, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, SunRiver St. George Community Association, St. George, Utah
We have learned how to initiate creative and outside-the-box thinking to ensure operations remain fluid by ensuring that we foster a safe and healthy environment and by implementing tailored practices and procedures applicable to community residents, visitors, service providers, and employees. Some of these include identifying and navigating virtual meeting technologies, remote working, as well as closer engagement with board leaders, business partners, and colleagues. Business partners really stepped up and showed how much they are a value asset to our operations team and board leaders. They never stopped rendering services and put themselves at high risk to meet contractual obligations and resident needs and demands. —RAMON ESPIN, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, Kentlands Citizens Assembly, Laurel, Md.
Just about everybody is handling more stress than before, and it can pop up when you least expect it. Try and remain calm. —DAVE GREIG, Ramon Estados Homeowners Association, Palm Springs, Calif.
Being patient and listening to homeowners' concerns. Being present and aware of other homeowners' issues in their lives and remember to be sensitive to their problems. —GARY BURNS, Mulholland Heights Homeowners Association, Calabasas, Calif., and a member of CAI's Homeowner Leaders Council
We have seen a greater sense of community as neighbors came together to help support each other. —MICHELLE SCHALL, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, The New Washington Land Company, Washington, D.C.
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