Communicate with Homeowners is Key

How Can You Avoid A Homeowner Revolt?

How can a board avoid “sideswiping” the membership and ending up with a revolt, a whopping legal bill, or worse, a recall! Building trust is the place to start. You may think the members aren’t listening and don’t care. But blast them with bad news and owners come “out of the woodwork” and stir up trouble. The best thing to do is to communicate with homeowners.

What Are the Most Controversial Topics in an HOA? 

The kinds of things I see spiral out of control without a plan or any “damage control”, tend to be related to a festering dissatisfaction with management, a big rehabilitation project costing a lot of money where a loan and/or special assessment will be needed, a governing document update project where an unhappy owner or owners is just chomping at the bit to find something to criticize the board about, presentation of a ballot on a controversial subject like a lease limitation restriction. The other areas of controversy tend to involve subjects that trigger emotional reactions like dropping EQ insurance, filling in the pool, removing trees, changing paint colors, reassigning parking spaces, and changing pet rules. Boards, you may have the best reasons for considering these things, but without the trust of the membership, you may well lack the support to carry them through to fruition.

Make it A Project 

“Projects” like special assessments, bank loans, lease limitation restrictions, updating governing documents, board or management crises, and even responding to a recall petition require planning. Yes, I call them projects because if you look at each as a project instead of an event, you are likely to be more inclined to think about an approach. You are more likely to adopt a plan, identify where you can benefit from the guidance of others, and involve the membership – especially if a vote is needed – which is often the case.

Even with the “emotional” subjects, if you think in terms of a project instead of an action, you are more likely to do important investigation and planning before a decision is made. For these subjects, you need to involve (and prepare) the membership! If you think otherwise, talk to a board that didn’t. You definitely need to seek member feedback before undertaking any action that is even likely to stir emotions. And keep in mind that the directors may not even be able to identify an emotional component, so surveying members may be critical when you are considering a change in the physical or aesthetic architecture, are planning drastic changes in the landscaping like removing trees, or are thinking of messing with people’s parking spaces or pets for heaven’s sake!

What Does It Take To Get The Owners On Board?

It takes basically one thing – TRUST – to get the confidence of enough owners to prevent a revolt. The perfect combination of trust-building skills would be patience, understanding, compassion, people skills, consensus-building skills, organizational skills, knowledge, leadership qualities, honesty, fortuity, ethics, a strong backbone, and competence. Do your directors have all of these qualities? My guess is they don’t. Do they have some, individually or collectively? If your Board is lacking any of these skills, then you need to seek out the right resources to help you prepare to avoid, or respond to, the controversy before you. How do you do that?  Start right here.

Communicate with Homeowners is Key

Where Do You Start?

  • Investigation – Information Gathering – Knowledge is Power. Any board that raises controversial matters to the membership without sufficient information to garner the trust of members is asking for trouble. Boards that discuss serious HOA problems in a void risks revolt when the big news comes out.
  • “Be Prepared” – weren’t you in the Boy Scouts or Girl Scout as a child?
  • Start the Information Flow – Don’t Wait For Someone Else To Do It. If a Board broadsides owners with any big issue and has failed to prepare them for coming bad news – all it will likely get is extra stress. You can be sure the problems will multiply – probably exponentially. Such a Board may succeed by accident if the owners remain in an apathetic stupor but its better not to risk it. It is a lot harder to calm members after they have lost trust or been misinformed by the rumor mill than to prepare them on the front end. Certainly, there are times when a board skates by, but in my experience certain subject matter seems to consistently draw seriously negative reactions by members. And if the board lets the information chain get started from or gets the wrong kind of attention from just one vocal member without responding, the problem can easily multiply.
  • Put Yourselves in Their Shoes – One of the most important things boards overlook is how action likely to have a big impact will be received. Another is a failure to identify subject matter that is likely to have an emotional content. Why is this so hard for the average director?  Because, (1) they usually have more information and a different perspective than owners; (2) they don’t see the kinds of things that can erupt every day (where an attorney who does what I do has the advantage of more experience facing or handling the difficult items); and (3) what may seem like business as usual to the board may trigger a very emotional reaction from an owner or owners whose interest is singular. Boards don’t see the result of failure to communicate until it’s too late. They don’t imagine what a drastic effect loss of trust has on the potential success of any particularly important big decision. And some boards, like most teenagers, think they are invincible.

Here are some quick tips on this subject for Boards:

Investigate Options – Reach beyond your collective board members to the internet, articles, and experts. Knowledge and information open the doors to successful plans and communications. Go to seminars, get on the web, brainstorm with others, do your research.  Find options to replace something if you are taking something away. Find ways to assist owners to cope with some big expense. Research loans options, association and individual, consider various options like “up front” payers vs. those that can only live with installments. Put together a good plan.  

Break Owners in Slowly to Prepare Them For Bad News Or Big Changes 

From your research and investigation, prepare meaningful information for the board and for the membership, and distribute it at various stages! Use board meetings, newsletters, town hall meetings, association websites, statistics, cost comparison analyses, best and worst case scenarios, Q and A documents, surveys, comment queries, committees, and things like useful paint samplings (on the side of a building, not on a half inch by half inch paint chip or Xerox copy page).  

Consult With and Use Experts 

Who knows more than you do? Try anyone who has been through the same thing before, one time or many times. Where do you get help? From experts who have helped others through the same things or who know more than you do. How do you effect damage control if needed? Ask those who have helped HOAs in just the same types of crises. Don’t ask a litigator whose focus and strong suit is how to win in court when you get there. Join industry groups and read the articles presented. Go to tradeshows and ask the exhibitors and speakers. Ask an attorney, manager, experienced contractor, CPA, or other professional how you prepare, or after the fact quiet the restless natives at home on any given subject of their expertise. Those with experience tend to know how best to build back the trust of those restless natives or how to diffuse or shut down the troublemakers.

Prevention is Easier than Damage Control

It may seem like extra work but prevention is 10 times easier than damage control. Even when bad news is involved, owners can more likely take a dose at a time than swallow the whole bottle at once without repercussions. And if you are in the midst of a controversy, contact someone like me with the experience to assist in easing you out of it with the right kind of damage control. And by the way, hiding out behind locked doors or cloaking all discussions with a veil of secrecy when dealing with tough issues is neither preventive nor effective as damage control. You’ll feel better if you share the burden!

Written by Beth Grimm, Attorney –