Thursday, January 21, 2016

Popular TV Shows Give Community Associations a Bad Rep (...or do they?)

On Sunday night, January 17, I joined millions of Americans on the sofa to watch TV and discovered two mega-hit CBS shows included one of my favorite subjects in their storylines:  homeowner associations. However, I was disappointed to see that both Madame Secretary and The Good Wife portrayed community associations in unflattering ways. Each episode featured violations of association rules handled inappropriately at best and downright badly at worst. Unfortunately, I know as a professional manager of community associations who partners with the volunteer boards of countless associations in NC and SC, that real life can be stranger than fiction–and a lot unfriendlier. That’s why I do what I do: helping community association boards create successful, happy communities begins–and ends–with professional and courteous interactions with everyone, from visitors to vendors to residents.

In Madame Secretary, Secret Service agents were parked in the community association common area with their cars running constantly as per their rules...and against association rules.  The Good Wife was running a business out of her home, in violation of her community association covenants. These are the kinds of complaints community associations get on a day-to-day basis and, in both shows, the community association boards handled the incidents aggressively and angrily. Sure, it makes great TV but it makes terrible neighborhoods.

What My Favorite TV Shows Taught Me About Community Association Governance and Problem-Solving

Those shows were a good reminder of what should be a part of every community association’s primary mission: to create a harmonious, happy, successful community. It’s just that simple...and just that difficult, sometimes.  That’s an important part of our service at AMG: to counsel and train our community association clients to deal with problems by, first, listening to gain an understanding of what’s really happening and then, armed with information, move towards a solution, together, with empathy, not nastiness. Community association governance is a delicate balancing act of preserving the rights and preferences of diverse people living close together. While conflict keeps TV viewers glued to a show, in real life, it can drive residents away from a community, decreasing property values and, ultimately, leading to community failure.

Yes, associations are technically correct in prohibiting certain activities such as running an office from home, yet the TV shows highlighted a common problem in community governance: the parties involved often are unable to see the effects of their actions on others. While I’m the first to support association covenants, I’ve learned that doing so with empathy and kindness often delivers a better result. The association representative who approached Madame Secretary’s family rebuffed her initial efforts to have a friendly discussion. It’s our experience that an open and receptive conversation has a high likelihood of solving the problem. And, if discussion doesn’t work, other measures are still available. From my perspective, there is never a good reason not to start resolving a potential violation with friendly discussion.

The TV shows also reminded me that, in many cases, this way of handling difficult situations is fiction, thank goodness! The good news is, research from CAI, Community Associations Institute, shows 90% of homeowners believe their community association board acts with their best interests at heart; 70% believe their association rules protect and enhance property values. While these are impressive statistics compared to how citizens feel about politicians, the people who govern our nation, that number could be even higher if association leaders took the time to understand the nature and details of the problem and, always, began from a place of kindness, courtesy and understanding.  Bottom line, if community associations want to stop being seen as unreasonable, they need to stop acting that way.

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