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Learning from Disaster: A Look at Board Behaviors

posted by MC

By John Hershey, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP, RS, CAI Educated Business Partner

Published in Wisconsin CAI Fall 2021 Newsletter

First and foremost, my deepest condolences and compassion go out to all those who lost loved ones or were impacted by the Champlain Towers South collapse in Surfside, Florida.  We all continue to learn more and more about how that happened, but the truth is we simply wish it had not happened at all. 

One good way to honor those who lost everything is to reflect on our own understanding and behaviors and face opportunities to improve.  What can we do to prevent this from happening again?   While not at all intended to suggest blame – that is not my message here – there are common problematic behaviors that we should all address right away.

Buildings and property require maintenance.  Community associations need to have boards and community managers that take a firmer stance on maintenance needs.  I have witnessed boards that avoid maintenance reality many times.  Too many.  I serve on boards myself, I get it.  We are volunteers and at the end of a long day it is hard to steel yourself to be the one to push for unpopular but necessary action items but we really need to get better at it or acknowledge that we are being negligent in our passivity.

That’s the first behavior I’ll flag here; too often, boards, HOAs, and even management companies avoid detailed assessments of the state of their properties.   There are many reasons for this but primarily there is concern that disclosure leads to liability.  There is a worry that there will be maintenance needs that are not within the budget.  There may be someone on the board with some expertise that will feel threatened if another professional is hired to review their property.  Maintenance as a topic triggers the residents to complain, etc.   Not knowing the detailed status of a property does not make it safer or less prone to decline.   Postponing maintenance simply creates a bigger problem down the road.   Do you really know what your property needs in the next 5 years, the next 10? 

The next behavior is that of prioritizing cosmetic property improvements over “ugly” maintenance.  This is another area of avoidance and where the budget really should lead.  “Ugly” maintenance can be disruptive and lead to resident complaints as compared to the new garden improvements which the residents will love.  Visually attractive property is a pleasure to come home to and the optics of these improvements serve as a good reminder to residents of an attentive management company and board.  If these cosmetics come at the cost of necessary “ugly” maintenance there needs to be some tougher conversations in board meetings. 

There is an opportunity to make sure the boards represent a diversity of life stages.  There are numerous studies to show diversity on teams leads to better problem solving and better business.  On boards, this could mean different views of investment and progress or more openness to change.  Board members that are motivated to hold assessments flat need to be balanced with those that prioritize improvements.  And for goodness sakes, if there is a bully on the board that needs to be addressed as it prevents open communication.

Finally, community management companies need to help their managers improve influencing skills and become more assertive in board meetings.   Managers might be doing a great job serving the residents, but are they serving the property?  Community Association Managers can approach board issues with a more objective lens, with experience of what other properties have done right or wrong.  I would also push here for more physical visits to the properties they manage so they are as familiar with the property as a resident as that carries weight when discussing property needs.  Property maintenance and protecting property value should be part of a community association manager job description if it isn’t already.  Management companies should work to offer more continuity with staffing against properties because history with a property enables better relationships with the board and more impact.  Association managers in board meetings should have a stronger voice and company support to do so.

Most boards, HOAs, and most CAMs do not have backgrounds that enable comprehensive and holistic expertise in structural property maintenance.  This is why property assessments should be done regularly and comprehensively by outside experts.  Experts that offer this service are doing so because they have a passion for extending the useful life of existing structures and properties and will tell you what you need to know.

 John M. Hershey is president of J. Hershey Building Consultants with over 30 years of experience in design, property evaluation, and construction management.