Homeowner apathy can hobble community associations

Article Courtesy of  The Sun Sentinel

By Pamela Dittmer McKuen

Published January 18, 2017


What if you had a government, and no one came? That's what is happening at many community associations. Plenty of people want to live in communities where the snow, roofs and decisions are taken care of — by someone else.

Apathy is so pervasive some associations can't fill vacant board seats or draw a quorum to hold an owners' meeting, said association attorney Charles VanderVennet, of Arlington Heights.

"Owners won't come to a meeting to vote," he said. "They won't submit a proxy so someone can vote for them. If we set up an absentee ballot procedure so the ballot can be mailed in an envelope that's already there, they don't do that."

"It's a serious topic everywhere, but especially in smaller associations," said Mark Durakovic, vice president at Kass Management Services in Chicago.

Community associations are designed around the concept of self-governance. Unless the owners participate, associations quickly become dysfunctional.

If new board members don't step up, long-timers risk burnout and associations lose out on fresh ideas, said Diane White, senior vice president of condominium management at The Habitat Co. in Chicago.


Owner apathy is so widespread some community associations can't fill vacant board seats or draw a quorum to hold an owners' meeting.

Illinois associations must have three board members minimum to keep their not-for-profit status, which provides liability protection for boards and other benefits. Without those three board members, assessments can't be collected, bills can't be paid, repairs can't be made and emergency responses are delayed.

"The ultimate result is somebody bringing the matter to the court's attention through a petition to appoint a receiver," he said.


 "That individual will be required to take over the administrative role of the association, stabilize the building and get a board up and running. All that is expensive."

Owners should care about the workings of the association because their unit is probably their largest investment, said association consultant Angela Falzone of ASF Enterprises in Park Ridge.

"They should be part of protecting it," she said. "Serving on the board is the best effort, but showing up to board meetings and asking questions is second best."

White isn't bothered that few owners attend board meetings.

In her view, nonparticipation is often a sign of contentment rather than apathy. Many owners prefer to interact electronically. Depending on the association's capabilities, they go online to email questions and requests, check assessment accounts, read meeting minutes, vote or assign proxies. Some watch board meetings on their televisions or computers.

"It doesn't necessarily mean people are not engaged," she said. "It means we've offered different avenues for them to engage when they want to."

Here are some strategies to help increase owner participation:

Get a grip on your meetings. Establish protocols for efficiency and civility, or owners will stay away in droves, Falzone said.

Schedule homeowner forums before board meetings. Not after. When owners have to sit through a long meeting before they can comment, they'll stay home and wait for the minutes online, White said.

Host special events. Durakovic takes a tip from thriving apartment communities, which often plan activities such as culinary classes and wine-and-cheese tastings.

"The idea is to create an experience for people to participate in and get to know the board and one another," he said.

Habitat Co. managers and engineers hold monthly coffee conversations for owners and boards. They give building updates, answer questions and invite suggestions.

"The coffee conversations enable us to cultivate broader relationships," White said. "It's an opportunity to educate owners about what is truly involved and get their excitement going about different projects. When they are comfortable, they start thinking, 'I may want to be part of the governing.'"

Ramp up the communication. Remind owners how associations function, what the law requires and the consequences for noncompliance, VanderVennet said.

"There are some big jobs and some little jobs, and they are all important jobs," he said. "Let's work together to make it happen."