So last month I was at the doctor’s office, and as I was making small talk with the nurse she asked “So what do you do?” I responded “I’m an HOA attorney.”

She actually grimaced.  It was a clear knee-jerk reaction.  And then she laughed, said sorry, and made some comment about her friend’s trash can being left out for too long.

I mentioned this story at a CAI event and got a number of comments in response. Other HOA attorneys replied with their own funny stories. A community association manager congratulated me for receiving only one such reaction, since she encountered it on a regular basis.  Board members commiserated. The point is that we all share this common experience – the perception that our situation in life is an undesirable one.  To receive an automatic grimace from saying what you do for a living… that says a lot.

So why the negative image? For one thing, the media’s portrayal of HOAs, and all those who work in the industry, is not helpful.  One rarely reads a positive news story about the “goods” of HOAs, because they’re simply not exciting or sexy enough. Like many of the reality TV shows today, HOA stories fixate on the negative, showcasing aggression rather than grace, and inappropriate behavior vs. positive governance. But a continual focus on the negative carries a lot of weight, influence, and ultimately damage.  The nurse I mentioned a moment ago? She didn’t even live in a community association, but swore never to do so because of the horror stories.

The HOA industry can be a difficult one for all involved. Whether you’re a board member trying to make the best of a community, or a manager who regularly serves as the buffer between angry homeowners and the board, or an attorney who sometimes has to juggle the role of legal advisor and HOA meeting referee, we are all faced with the underlying challenge that our industry is seen as a bad one.

You know what? I don’t buy it. And if you’re in this industry, you shouldn’t either.

So, what should we do about it? How do we change and ultimately rehabilitate our industry?

First, Take Pride in You. 

I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and doggone it… people like me!

I used to love watching Stuart Smalley and his laughable, lovable, and positive daily affirmations. No more stinkin thinkin! You can’t rehabilitate an image if you’re looking down your nose at it.

The first step is to take pride in your job, what you contribute to society in general, and to the HOA industry specifically.  Our time, commitment, and energy relates to one of the most important things in people’s lives – their homes, their home-life, and the communities surrounding them. This is significant stuff, and we have the ability to create, shape, and showcase successful communities and through that restore the HOA image.

Additionally, take pride in the people with whom you work. Not just people at your place of employment, but community association managers, board members, and other professionals in the industry. We seem to focus much too heavily on competition rather than comradery, and in my opinion that’s a mistake. We are all in this together, in both the struggles and successes.  So, let’s celebrate our partnerships, our diversities, and what we all contribute to the table.

Also, ixnay on the negative water cooler talk. I’m not saying there aren’t times when you are entitled to be frustrated.  We all know this can be a hard industry.  However, when internal frustrations are spoken aloud through harmful comments on a regular basis, this only perpetuates the pessimism.

Be Aware of, and Promote, the Positive in the Community.

The next step is to have a heightened sense of the good happening around you, and to promote the positive whenever the opportunity arises.

One thing I’ve noticed that is lacking in the numerous annual meetings I attend is the failure to showcase the successes of the past year. The focus appears to be on the budget, and concerns with both financing the upcoming year’s goals, as well as avoiding some of the mishaps of the prior year.

While it is always helpful to show the membership that you are a good money manager, it is also important to highlight the significant achievements of the year, and to underscore both the leadership and the support in doing so. Nothing does this like anecdotes about real people and their accomplishments.  Highlight the beautiful grounds, the fun social events, and the leadership efforts with pictures, not just figures, so that the benefits of home ownership in an HOA become more obvious. Always acknowledge the board, committee members, and volunteers in their efforts, so hopefully you can secure more involvement in the coming year.

And don’t just be aware of positive occurrences, try to build them. Community associations are perfect vehicles for transforming neighbors into friends and for creating community loyalty, responsibility, and empowerment. Use your newsletter to generate community spirit. How about installing a “meet your neighbor” column? Throw a block party, and make it a pot-luck, so some of the cooks in your community have a chance to show off their favorite dishes. Consider giving out lighthearted community awards.  Cultivating a healthy community spirit will lead to strong, cohesive, and an ultimately happier community.

Also, building a more positive community shouldn’t just happen at community association meetings or events. If you work in the HOA industry, you are in a position to promote change.

The other day I watched an NPR video titled “Good News: Moments of Joy from 2023”, which was filled with heartwarming moments of 2023. What if we turned on the news and we saw more information that connected us, elevated us, and changed the world for the good on a regular basis vs. at the end year?

Have you perused the Good News Network? A dose of this website might change the trajectory of your day. Or have you listened to or watched the HOA Insights podcast? They regularly spotlight the unsung Board heroes of our industry. The lightning effect of watching these types of videos, is that they make you feel good and could inspire you.

As an HOA professional, you are in a position to influence what the community pays attention to. Use your website to publish stories and happenings that encourage positive behavior and inspire change. Dedicate one area of your newsletter for showcasing a positive story about your community or the people in it. Maybe we can all start a TikTok challenge related to HOA positives!

And if your company provides education, incorporate at least one class on building community, or curing the dysfunctional board, or eliminating unethical behavior in the HOA, all topics that could advance the industry as a whole, while helping one community at a time. And if you’re going to share a HOA horror story, make sure it comes with a lesson so your boards and managers can learn from the incident, rather than just be disgusted by it.

Tackle the Negative.

Finally, in the same vein as having a heightened awareness of, and trying to create more, positive happenings in your community do not ignore the negative ones that foster a destructive environment.

What gives HOAs a bad name? Lack of transparency, bullying behavior, and abuse of power to name a few.  However, regardless of what you may hear “on the outside”, in my nearly 25 years of experience I’d say these characteristics are not the norm in most communities. Rather, they are the exceptions and the ones that have the most ability to get noticed.

If your board is being accused of lack of transparency, then tackle transparency.  Board members should never cut corners when it comes to keeping the owners informed about the association’s business.  Get educated on the laws that mandate transparency in the opportunity to attend meetings, conflict of interest disclosures, and availability of records.  Create a transparency checklist and adopt an attitude of transparency. Overcommunicate to your members.

If there’s a bully on the board who is driving other board members or the manager to quit, then tackle that bully. Learn about the types of bullies that are prominent in the HOA setting, and how to tame them.  Define the unacceptable behavior, and take steps to both tackle it now and prevent it in the future.

If meetings have become platforms of war, make sure your conduct of meetings policy is in place and you read the ground rules that should be listed in the policy at the beginning of each meeting. Prevent the bad behavior before it happens.

The point is that if you see bad behavior, don’t ignore it. Tackle it.

If you have questions regarding this article or HOA law in general, contact any of our Altitude attorneys at 303.432.9999 or [email protected].

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