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Managing Diverse Communities Living Under the Same Roof

 Almost every community is made up of people from a broad array of ethnic and  sociological backgrounds living in close proximity to each other. Managing a  co-op or condo that’s home to different people from different backgrounds can pose some very  distinct challenges.  

 Funding Feuds

 For some managers, the board’s financial status seems likely to be the biggest hotbed of potential conflict,  but Erik Levin, CEO of American Management Group in Pembroke Pines, says it all  comes down to politics.  

 “Whether it is politics of the different boards or the many different types of  residents, it’s all the same, and almost everything that operates the association boils down  to politics—who wants what, when and how and who does it benefit,” says Levin. “For example, as managers we know what typically needs to be funded in any given  budget, and that almost always includes a line item for bad debt and reserves. More often than not, these line items are removed or seriously underfunded—and politics plays a major part in those types of decisions.  

 Levin explains that boards do not want an uprising of owners when fees are  raised to compensate for delinquent owners. Most residents feel that while  reserves are important, they can be pushed back—and hopefully the same owners won’t be around later to deal with the issues when they arise.  

 “To be fair, most people want to see a properly funded budget, but because of  politics decisions are usually swayed in the majority interest of owners or in  some cases a small group of owners,” he says. “Those are often times where we unfortunately find that owners join boards  because of their own agendas, whether to reduce maintenance fees or keep the  association from foreclosing on their unit(s), or they may want to personalize  certain areas of the building to accommodate their own taste and needs. This presents us with many issues to overcome and it takes someone with the  skill and experience dealing with politics to navigate those issues.”  

 Cultural Differences

 Most managers said that conflicts between residents aren’t typically related to different cultures, but it can happen. “At holiday time, the cultural differences of your tenants may come up more  often. Many buildings are decorated in Christmas décor, but what about your Jewish residents, and those of other faiths? It should  be discussed with your owners and board early enough for a decision to be made  on what decorations will be used.  

 “Holiday decorations and observance need to be [perceived] as equal and fair,” says Bill Worrall, corporate vice president of The Continental Group, a  property management company based in Hollywood and throughout the state. “Unless it is a religious community, then that needs to be exclusively delivered  as prudent. As well, ingress and egress to the community during the Jewish  Sabbath and Sabbath elevators come up from time to time.  

 Worrall knows of one non-client building with a Jewish temple inside the  building. “A unit owner purchased the residential unit and converted it into a temple,” he says. “Folks from neighboring communities attend service there. This has created  numerous issues and questions with regard to city code, access control for  residents and guests, etc. Some other buildings are developed as religious  communities. Therefore, we need to provide the right manager and staff to cater  to these needs.”  

 Que Pasa?

 America is a melting pot of languages and ethnicities and, as a result, a  multifamily building in South Florida is bound to include a United Nations list  of residents who speak a language other than English. Language and cultural  barriers can be some of a manager’s biggest obstacles. You might find yourself talking to a Chinese couple who  just moved to the community and barely speak English, or you might be a  property manager in a predominantly Hispanic community, where Spanish is spoken  more often than English. A language barrier among residents and between the  residents and the board and management company can pose a challenge to both  communication and community cohesion.  

 The first step to breaking down language barriers is to evaluate your building  or community and look for solutions. For example, if your residents are  predominantly Spanish-speaking, it might be a good idea to offer important  documents in both English and Spanish. If one of your tenants if fluent in  Japanese, but speaks little English, have the documents translated into  Japanese for your tenant’s safety.  

 “Communicating often and with as many outlets as possible is good,” says Jane Bracken, PCAM, vice president of association services at BB&T Association Services, with locations throughout Florida. “In this day and age managing diversity means getting your point across in as  many ways as possible. Many associations have ways to put their information on  a web page, or some are now even starting to use social media such as Facebook  or LinkedIn in order to communicate to their owners.”  

 Occasionally you may have to deal with a comment from one tenant about another  that is racially or culturally-offensive. Such remarks only serve to create  tension between residents. Your job is to defuse the situation, evaluate what  happened, and come up with a solution that works for both sides. Unfortunately,  not everything you do is going to work. Although residents are entitled to  their own opinions, one owner simply cannot cause problems for or become  verbally abusive to another.  

 “Effective communication via open and frequent board meetings is rule #1 here,” says Worrall. “Residents need, and deserve, to be heard in an open forum. In the meetings, the  board must understand that they are not obligated to immediately respond to  every question or comment from the membership. Create a committee if necessary.”  

 He also recommends consulting your legal counsel if necessary. “Do not attempt to make decisions, pass new rules, or mandate anything on your  own and without proper review, advice, and support,” he says. “Finally and once a decision is made, addressed, and passed at a duly noticed  open meeting—stick to it and do not waver. We have seen and dealt with many of these  scenarios over the years. No two communities are the same in this regard; and  as such, each situation should be treated as unique.”  

 A Full Toolbox

 What kinds of personal and professional skills do managers cultivate to help  them communicate with different groups of clients?  

 “I think all managers that are in this field really need to love people and have  the ability to be patient and communicate effectively,” says Bracken.  

 Managers should understand that the board, who represents their clients, are the  managers of the association and that they determine the standard for which the association is run, with the documents. “That being said, it does take a special set of skills to be a successful manager  for your client(s),” says Levin. “Strong customer service background and the goal of maintaining or enhancing  quality of life is key. The principle of ‘the customer is always right, even if they are wrong,’ is a principle that should stay with a manager through any and most all  situations. This means a manager must have a strong moral character and  establish credibility and integrity.”  

 Along with those few key essential skills, an educated property manager is vital  for a successful community.  

 “Understanding such important things like the surrounding community, trends,  governing documents, Statutes, changes in legislature, etc. are essential when  communicating to your client,” says Levin. “These are skills often utilized in communicating your recommendations to the  board so they can make a well-informed and smart business decision. This means  the manager must also embrace the principle of etiquette when communicating  with clients. Communication with clients through face-to-face contact, phone  conversations, email correspondence, newsletters, etc. is what shows the  manager’s level of professionalism.”  

 There are resources to help managers and boards deal fairly and equitably with a  diverse building population. “Use your professionals, that is what they are there for,” says Worrall. “Managers should also reach out to their peers across the management company.  Share best practices and discuss these challenges with your company—you will find someone else with experience who can provide feedback and support  with virtually every scenario. If you don’t work for a management company—try to find a local professional organization or association and become a  member. You may find support their as well.”  

 Unit owner and board-recognized committees are a great resource. “If you manage them correctly, they will deliver their ideas and solutions on  behalf of the membership,” says Worrall. “Management is then responsible to execute. This is a much better scenario than  trying to develop the solution for the community—use the communities’ feedback to devise the solution. Make the most vocal person chair of that committee.”  

 Bracken also suggests that managers and boards use the expertise of the  Community Associations Institute (CAI), a nationwide organization for community  associations which provides bilingual education programs.  

 And finally, celebrate your building’s diversity. Don’t look at it negatively. It’s a great way of bringing residents together. Hosting a Japanese day or a  Hispanic Day that includes food, music and celebration is a great way of having  neighbors learn about neighbors of other cultures.    

 Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The South  Florida Cooperator. Editorial Assistant Maggie Puniewska contributed to this article.  

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