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Boards can keep the peace or stir the pot

February 04, 2007|Mary Umberger | Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Leo Tolstoy wrote in "Anna Karenina" that "happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." But Tolstoy never lived in a condo or homeowners association.

The Community Associations Institute, an advocacy group for association-governed communities, recently asked board members and homeowners around the country to psychoanalyze their own ills. The organization concluded that when these "families" are unhappy, they're pretty much unhappy in certain predictable ways.

The group says there are 286,000 association-governed communities in the U.S., with 57 million residents. The group compiled a list of things that really annoy association residents, based on its survey's responses. Some highlights:

It's the money. It is not so much that it's costly to run a building or a development but that boards fail to broadcast the association's financial status to the people, who feel blindsided by special assessments. Boards should provide financial data early and often -- on association websites and then by snail mail.

Tell them once and tell them again. Boards may weary of reminding residents of the rules, but newcomers always need to be educated. The details of the covenants, conditions and restrictions need to be translated from legalese into plain English and posted prominently. A good way to do this is through a frequently-asked-questions department on a website or in a newsletter. Strive for a "Did you know?" tone, as opposed to "Toe the line."

Enforce the rules consistently. As the organization points out, a resident whose once-a-year party got too noisy might get a pass from the board. But the once-a-month party guy is going to be steamed if he feels singled out for criticism. Boards have to notify every offender -- courteously -- or risk being accused of selective enforcement. Worse, boards that don't enforce the rules open themselves to accusations of breach of contract and fiduciary duties.

Beware of the ax grinder. Someone who is obsessed with a single issue can keep a board from accomplishing anything. It falls to the board president to keep meetings on track and focused on a predetermined agenda, the institute concludes.

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