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.
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.”
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.”
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.