April 23, 2020| Lester Yat
The times just keep on changing — and those changes are reflected clearly in the make-up of residential communities today.
Take a look around your building or community and think back five, 10, or even 20 years. Of course, the names and faces have changed. But beyond that — do you see more young families, singles, or retirees? Is there more discussion about the difficulty of making ends meet, as costs rise and incomes stagnate? Is the management office or board fielding more requests for playground equipment, solar installations, or pickleball courts?
As the demographics of communities shift, so do the desires, interests and even economics of the residents. This is, no doubt, an age of diversity — with residents of different races, faiths, sexual orientation, and political leanings rubbing elbows on a daily basis.
It’s incumbent, then, on managers and volunteers to keep their fingers on the pulse of their communities — but it’s not always easy to match those elements with the reality of available resources.
A recent study by the Community Associations Institute (CAI) predicted that “changes in demographics and attitudes, economic factors, perception and reputation, influential stakeholders and organizations, local trends and more will combine to affect how associations are operated and governed in the next 15 years.” The challenges faced by boards and managers in all kinds of residential settings can come in a wide range of sizes, from the simple to the complex.
Spreading the Word
Take, for example, something as basic — and essential — as communication. Office staffers are accustomed to fielding email messages. Millennials may be practically glued to their iPhones and connected 24/7 via Facebook or Twitter.
But technology hasn’t necessarily found its way into the homes and hearts of the senior set. Electronic newsletters and postings about community events or maintenance work may never be seen by some residents, leading to isolation or complaints to management.
And what if the newsletter or meeting agenda — delivered via electronic or print media — is unintelligible to a portion of the building’s population? A shift in the ethnic make-up of a building’s community may exacerbate communication issues, leading management to add multi-lingual staff or translators for day-to-day office inquiries and meetings.
Signs and Symbols
The diversity of a community’s population can also pose new challenges in accepting and accommodating ethnic and religious customs. A few years ago, a widely-publicized lawsuit arose over a Chicago condominium association’s removal of a mezuzah — a Jewish religious symbol — from a resident’s doorpost, pitting the resident’s right to religious freedom against the condominium’s governing documents. It was one of many such disputes across the nation, as boards and managers learned to walk the fine line between rules enforcement and discrimination.
Such disagreements tend to blossom around holidays, as owners and residents from different religious or ethnic backgrounds attempt to display a bit of holiday spirit. Enforcing rules, or drawing lines, can become a management nightmare without thoughtful planning and judicious execution. Fortunately, organizations like CAI regularly offer educational seminars and workshops for both managers and volunteers on “hot button” issues like these, and on programs like Alternative Dispute Resolution that can be put into play when problems arise.
The aging of many communities, too, can have a number of ripple effects. Some seniors may require assistance with everyday living — potentially running afoul of residence requirements or parking limitations. Adult children, faced with student debt and unemployment, may want — temporarily, they may say — to move into their parents’ over-55 building. Other residents, of any age, may need renovations to accommodate physical disabilities.
So how does a building or condo complex maintain a sense of “community” as these demographic changes sweep across the countryside?
Providing opportunities for residents to meet — not just at monthly board or annual meetings (which can sometimes be contentious) — can go a long way toward creating a cooperative spirit. A summertime block party or barbecue, a series of informal after-work gatherings, or an “international night” pot-luck dinner featuring ethnic foods, can help bridge gaps among various groups. How about inviting residents to work together on a beautification project, or creating a community garden where folks can work side-by-side and share mutual interests while getting to know one another? Or providing opportunities for children and seniors to interact?
Changing times may present new challenges for managers and community volunteers — but shifting demographics can create new opportunities, too, to reach across generations and learn about other cultures and customs. A positive attitude from management, staff and volunteer leaders can help turn strangers into neighbors as the times keep marching on.