10 Sep Considerations for 2022: Lessons Learned in 2021
Covid continues to have an impact on everyday life and perhaps the most challenging effect has been on maintaining and forming new relationships. The social aspects of community living saw a lengthy hiatus as residents adapted to the “new normal.” Working remotely, a pause on in-person social functions, and the closure of common areas kept us from the regular interactions we all crave. Highrise and other multi-family communities throughout Texas and Colorado missed out on a large part of what makes community living desirable for so many – the neighborly connections. While some restrictions have subsided, it takes time to feel as comfortable as before and to rally the same level of social involvement from residents that was present pre-Covid.
Lessons on staying social: Making Virtual Fun
The pandemic has taught homeowners associations and property management teams to value social interactions. Social interaction and relationships need a venue to form and grow, regardless of current events. With current technology offering us many viable ways to stay connected and meet online, homeowners associations can give residents a platform to connect easily. These platforms have been a solid way to continue operating and conducting the daily business of the community. But as stewards of the community, HOA’s need to promote online activities and gatherings that bring residents together in an informal and fun atmosphere, not just for formal meetings. Many communities learned to look for new technologies to pair with Zoom to create entertainment options for residents.
Online events will remain a part of our lives. Regardless of the pandemic status, virtual community events should be part of the social plan for every homeowner’s association. Remember that residents will have varying comfort levels around Covid so take advantage of virtual events to bring more people into the mix. That doesn’t mean it should take the place of in-person gatherings or events, especially when it’s safe to do so. For example, Fall will still be a great time to plan outdoor events, but that may not be an option come winter depending on the location. For an online event, consider hosting a virtual game like bingo or trivia. It could be something with a broader appeal, too, such as hosting a concert by a local artist or something more specialized like a monthly book club. The main goal is to bring people in the community together, whether safely in person or comfortably online. Make these virtual events Covid-free zones, meaning steer the conversation towards the event theme or other positive news in the community.
Another consideration for keeping up social is the uptick in home sales, bringing new neighbors to communities over the last year. It’s always essential to assimilate new residents into the community fold, so they begin reaping the benefits it offers. Although a virtual experience does not provide the same level of personal connection, its use to bring residents together is vitally important. The last thing an HOA wants is to begin losing the feeling of community due to a lack of personal communication.
Lessons on communication: Don’t Waiver and Never Assume
The pandemic has shown HOA’s and their property management teams that when decisive measures are necessary, implement them quickly without second-guessing those decisions, and communicate them often. With so much information to process and the immediate need to act on it, keeping a united front and consistent messaging helps keep residents safe and in check. When new information is presented (as it always is), it’s okay to update policies or procedures. However, while they remain in effect, the entire team needs to be aligned. Use available data and advice from the State and Federal levels to inform decisions and cite them when addressing residents. There is no such thing as “over-communicating” when a misstep could have extreme consequences. Fight the urge to make any exceptions, even for board members. Giving any special treatment can unravel into a more significant problem than its worth and cause infighting within the community.
Another area for enhanced communication within HOA communities in 2021 was the budget. Making sure residents recognize how costs can fluctuate during unplanned events is critical. The HOA still needs to collect and generate income regardless of what is happening in the world. However, it’s crucial to temper a strict business approach with an appropriate empathetic response. Some residents fell on difficult times financially during the pandemic, so having payment options that balance what the HOA needs versus the extreme circumstance is something worth embracing and communicating. Even though association fees cannot be waived, consider what, if any, association billing costs could be to help residents in need.
Lastly, board members and the property management team have seen residents who dealt with the effects of Covid differently. Some residents, for instance, may have felt significant stress and neglected their property that has otherwise always been well maintained. Or some residents may have had in-home gatherings with family and friends and unknowingly violated parking restrictions. As the pandemic restrictions continue to fluctuate, it’s important to emphasize the rules and dispense violations as necessary and continue open communication as long as there’s a firm and fair approach and everyone has the same level of accountability.
Lessons on financial planning: Emergency Buckets are Needed
While most associations and planned communities pay time and attention to their financial planning priorities, some were not entirely as prepared for the needs of Covid as they would have preferred to be. The importance of sound budgeting and having a healthy operating budget and reserve fund has become even more evident. For instance, increased cleaning costs hit operating budgets and will likely remain high for the foreseeable future. In addition, with more residents working from home, it puts a higher strain on the community infrastructure and facilities, which will require more regular servicing.
Boards and management teams now know that maintaining a solid financial bucket for emergencies is not an option. And residents understand as well. Communities are encouraged to share all the unexpected expenses of Covid with their residents and discuss how an emergency fund can be maintained. At what level would they like to have it funded (how much should be in there?), and if not there, how will they reach that goal? Many underfunded HOA communities and boards had to make the hard decision to increase assessments or implement emergency fees. That hard lesson has created a more diligent focus on preparing financially and otherwise for the unknown throughout Texas and Colorado communities.
The trials and tribulations of Covid produced well-equipped HOA’s and property management teams to meet unpredictable challenges. They understand how and when to execute and enforce policies, manage resident expectations, use technology to their advantage, and keep the fabric of the community intact through proper communication. Living through a pandemic also informs the team what other resources they may need at their disposal in the future, response plans and procedures to have in place, and additional local contacts that can be of use.
The common saying from the start of Covid has been, “we’re all this together.” From a community standpoint, nothing could be more accurate. Our neighbors are a select few people we welcome into our lives. Living through Covid has strengthened the bond for many groups, especially those residents who formed new friendships and people to rely on during a very stressful time. It’s still premature to say we can move past Covid; restrictions are still present, and some policies may have permanently changed. But with a team built of board members, property managers, and residents, significant challenges have been overcome, and whatever obstacles the future holds can be met – together.