Most would agree that one of the most important characteristics of a well-run homeowners association is its ability to disseminate information between the board, the members and their management team. Relevance of information and making such information readily available is crucial to keep residents informed of the latest happenings in and around the community. Good communication makes things run smoothly and fosters a sense of confidence in association members about their governing board and administrators.
According to Michael Brower of Michael Brower Realty Co. Inc., a management firm based in Hackensack, a lack of communication is the number-one basis for shareholder complaints against a board. The most common complaints have a common root: not enough meetings held, failure of a board to follow up promptly on its decisions and responsibilities, board members and managers ignoring resident concerns, and so forth.
Keeping the Door Open
Boards and management can do their part to improve relations with all association members by making themselves available to address questions and by distributing information on upcoming decisions or projects to all the residents in the community. In the past, the main method of getting the word out about anything in a homeowners association was to put it in the association newsletter, or to announce it during a meeting and count on those who attended the meeting to inform those who didn't.
There are a number of reasons an HOA might cite as their reason for sticking with a more old-school means of communication; perhaps their staff is comprised of volunteers who are not technologically savvy, or perhaps the residents of the community are older and either don't have Internet access, or are more comfortable receiving printed materials from the HOA in their regular mailbox.
So a newsletter sent via regular mail is a big component of an association's communication effort. In addition to newsletters, HOAs also may send out reminders, event calendars and official documents such as ballots. They may dedicate a community bulletin board in a centralized common area or a clubhouse where managers and residents will regularly post announcements, updates and events calendars.
While newsletters and public postings do serve a purpose and may work beautifully for some buildings or developments, its important to make sure the newsletter is published with some regularity and contains information that is of substance. It does little good to grind out a periodical that's not of any practical use.
One suburban co-op resident expresses her dissatisfaction with her board's communication efforts; after living in her same building for nearly 25 years, she says she feels that her board has made fewer and fewer attempts to keep the shareholders abreast of what's going on. "Shareholders want to know where their money goes," she says. "I want to know the facts about the daily issues affecting [my building]." She feels that the board and managers need to make the extra effort to give residents information that is pertinent to their building, including repairs, new personnel, renovations and policy decisions.
At best, she says she receives written communication in the form of a newsletter three or four times a year. That wouldn't be too bad, except for the fact that the "news" letter doesn't have much to say regarding the issues affecting the building. In fact, the resident says it's more like an elementary school newsletter—the pages are filled with poetry, trivia, and other fluff, like a profile of the association's superintendent. "Everything else is a mystery," she says.
Often finances dictate whether a board can produce an informative newsletter for its residents. As mentioned above, smaller buildings and developments may rely on an all-volunteer staff that may not be familiar with what should (and should not) be included in a community association newsletter, or the association may not have the money to make a professionally produced newsletter a priority.
The failure of the suburban New Yorker's newsletter was not that it included poetry, but that it rarely included information pertinent to association business. A newsletter's content should primarily inform residents about what is going on in their community: scheduled repairs and renovations, construction, board meetings and other issues concerning residents and owners should be included. Other items such as birth announcements can be included to add flavor to and personalize the publication.
While there are still plenty of HOAs that produce a regular ink-and-paper association magazine or newsletter; more and more boards and managers are taking advantage of modern technology and establishing websites for their associations.
David Muelkin, vice president of New Jersey real estate consulting firm ROA Hutton, LLC, is partial to the use of new technology to keep people connected. His firm specializes in co-op conversions, and as part of the process, the company establishes a website for each building featuring information and a forum for community issues and discussion. According to Muelkin, "more and more people are using e-mail to communicate, so it's very convenient in our buildings to be able to just type a few keystrokes and contact several dozen people."
And as for the boards and managers who feel that their residents may not be technologically inclined enough to make use of an online newsletter—well, that may not be as good a reason as once thought. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project (www.pewinternet.org), the number of e-mail users has grown significantly over the last few years—and not just in the teenage demographic. The study indicates that over a four year span (from 2000 to 2004) the percentage of older Americans using the Internet on a daily basis has grown exponentially. According to the study, the segment of the population aged 50 to 54 who use the Internet on a daily basis grew from 25 percent to 60 percent during that time period, and the 65-and-older population surfing the Web for both business and entertainment has grown from 10 percent in 2000 to approximately 25 percent in 2004. In fact, according to the Pew project, senior citizens aged 65 and older are actually more inclined to use e-mail than their younger counterparts. Ninety-six percent of senior citizens polled use e-mail on a regular basis to stay in touch with their family and friends, as opposed to only 91 percent of those 18- to 29-year-olds.
And it's no longer just a matter of convenience or connectedness, says Drew Regitz, director of operations and co-founder of Association Voice, (www.associationvoice.com), an application service provider (ASP) based in Denver, Colorado, that produces community-based websites and offers hosting services.
"Ideally, communication via e-mail and the web brings tremendous value and cost savings. Traditional paper-and-ink newsletter mailings cost an HOA an average of 75 cents per piece mailed. E-mails end up costing a fraction of a penny. That's a tremendous cost-savings."
"E-mail also satisfies the sense of immediacy people have today to receive information," Regitz continues. "With the Internet, there is an expectation of self-service. HOA members don't want to have to call the manager and play phone tag. With the Web, all pertinent information is available and can be delivered immediately via e-mail to the member's inbox."
An Integrated Approach
There are still lots of people who prefer to read their HOA newsletter over coffee and cereal in the morning, and others who want their association information like everything else: fast, convenient, and delivered to their inbox like clockwork. An effective, responsive board/management team will try to strike a balance between the speed and convenience of technology and the access and comfort level their residents have with it. The key is finding out what technologies are available out there, which ones make the most economic sense to adopt and what the optimal mix of technology and traditional methods of communication will best suit the HOA.
"When dealing with members on an individual level, most of my interactions are via telephone," says Frank Arcamone, a property manager for the Richardson Management Group in Trenton. "For larger groups, I do mass e-mailings and then follow up with calls. I use e-mail a lot to send out those mailings. The last newsletter I did was a single-page with graphics that went out to over 600 recipients. It was a success—it was very engaging, and all the HOA members took time to open and read it."
According to Eugene DeGidio, executive vice president of Maxwell-Kates Inc., a management firm handling close to 10,000 units in 90 buildings in New York and New Jersey, integrated approaches to communication can help management and board members stay connected to residents.
""For example," says DiGidio, "this winter has been tremendously cold. A resident was complaining that her [radiator] was giving heat, but that it was still not as warm as it could have been. In addition to a phone call, the resident communicated her grievance online through the building information system. A message was sent directly to the management staff and the maintenance staff member, who looked into it immediately."
"I am a big fan of websites," agrees Arcamone. "They're a great way to get information out to the members of the association. The best websites I have seen are engaging and personalized in one way or another…for a website to be very effective, the information must be relevant and up-to-date. Contact information must be easily accessible, and I also think the design needs to be clean and pleasing."
A Sure Bet
Unlike a leaky clubhouse roof or a run-down swimming pool, the impact of poor communication on a community isn't always obvious; residents and shareholders don't feel engaged with their community, or they feel out of the loop. They don't know what's going on with their HOA board, and as people with busy lives already, it may not be a priority to find out. These things aren't measurable, but before long the morale of the entire community can be adversely affected by apathy and indifference, even if the sheer monetary value of the real estate is not.
The value of keeping the lines of communication open between management, administration, and membership can't be overstated, according to DiGidio. "Good communication means keeping information moving forward," he says. "It's more than a phone call - it's a network of information and action."
"Open and clear communication makes everyone's job easier," agrees Arcamone. "If everyone is on the same page, people have confidence in their board, and things run smoothly. Sure, problems will arise, but if people can communicate and work together, they will be much easier to deal with."
In the end, says Regitz, "It's simple. Better communication equals better communities. There is greater adherence to the rules of the association and you see fewer infractions. Everyone knows the rules, and so there is harmony in the community."
Brian Ormsbee is a freelance writer living in New York City.