Post-Pandemic Solutions: How To Build A Stronger Rules-Enforcement Culture

By Andrew Penney / Published January 2022

Photo by iStockphoto.com/wildpixel

The pandemic fueled violations, weakened enforcement… and created opportunity!

Effective enforcement of community association rules and regulations was challenging during the pandemic; when it peaked, so did owner rule breaking. Daily life in condominium and HOA communities sometimes went unchecked by overwhelmed community association managers (CAMs), distracted boards, and shuttered residents. Chronic “rules breakers” were emboldened because rules violations weren’t being reported or enforced.

On the flip side, the powerlessness, boredom, and frustration of an extended lockdown energized, and many times forced, people to turn problems into opportunities. The silver lining of the pandemic could be that association members may be more receptive to new ideas that shift attitudes compared with pre-pandemic days—especially if new approaches can create a better owner and resident experience, won’t cost the association more money, and can deliver cost savings by reducing risk. Reimaging community association enforcement can deliver this promise.

Lessons from pandemic rule breaking—pavers in common elements

Association rule breaking at the height of the pandemic took many forms; paver installations in common elements tops the list. Paver installations in common areas outside first floor lanais sprouted up when selected owners created what they thought was a safe and acceptable new hang out space. “It’ll be fine,” they thought. But owners installing pavers in common elements violates governing documents and creates a raft of issues for both the owner and the association:

  • The ground the pavers lie on belongs to the association; now the association owns the pavers.
  • How should the association report this common element change to their insurance carrier?
  • Will the owner properly maintain the pavers? Who will fix buckled pavers in the future?
  • Why doesn’t the association fine the owner? And how much should the fine be?
  • What happens to the illegal sitting area after the owner sells the unit?
  • Can neighbors install similar paver setups in common elements?
  • How do you answer, “Our association president said it was ok!”?

The answer to the last bullet is clear: An association president’s “word” never supersedes the association’s governing documents or Florida statutes. Fixing this problem may cost the association significant legal fees. Violating “paver owners” also may incur expense and inconvenience when the association, as it should, insists the illegal pavers are pulled up and the area returned to its original common element condition.

Lessons from pandemic rule breaking—“on-site” handyman

The pandemic also may have increased the use of the uninsured, unlicensed owner handyman working for other owners. The “on-property handyman” might be a welcome convenience for many owners but carries risk to owners who hire him and adds risk to the association.

Non-professionals make more mistakes. Projects not completed to county code or not done correctly can have multiple negative impacts. The owner is less certain of job quality. Many times the on-property handyman disposes of job waste using the association’s waste contractor—another violation. Adjoining neighbors—especially below—may be more vulnerable to water leaks caused by the work of uninsured, unlicensed, “weekend plumbers.” Similarly, “weekend electricians” may unknowingly leave behind a fire hazard as part of their finished work.

There is no choice—§718.303(1) F.S. and §720.305(1) F.S.

Florida Statutes (718 for condominiums, 720 for HOAs) require compliance with the governing documents of the community and its rules and regulations. Pandemic rule-breaking lessons show that undisciplined and intermittent enforcement of community rules can produce legal risk for associations and create negative experiences for owners.

Changing the community enforcement paradigm can help compliance evolve organically across the property—naturally, as needed, on a daily basis. The benefit can be less rule breaking. The value can include less effort and cost (direct and indirect) to the association.

Consider a new culture of compliance—develop it slowly

Every owner carries personal responsibility to comply with rules and regulations through the original contract they signed with the association when they purchased their condominium or house. The opportunity lies in an expanded view of that responsibility.

Consider enforcement in a new light. Reimaging community association enforcement could start with repositioning the function into a positive, shared community responsibility. Build a model that values violations reporting and makes it the norm, not the exception. Do a slow build, be inclusive, and make room for many conversations and points of view to be expressed along the way.

A great way to begin could be to establish an ad hoc committee to develop the opportunity. Perhaps call it the ad hoc compliance culture development committee. Its operations policy should include regular collaboration with other committees, including documents/rules, communications, social, and the executive committee, if there is one. Its charter would frame the goal to increase owner knowledge of and compliance with association rules and regulations and to nurture proactive violations reporting by association members.

Involve your board and management up front in the creation of the proposed ad hoc committee’s charter. The process of getting leadership support and buy-in—before a board vote to approve a resolution that creates this ad hoc committee—should include an addendum programing document that outlines the goals, objectives, and strategies the proposed ad hoc committee will use as a roadmap to develop or refine the community’s enforcement culture.

The board-approved programing document can double as a tool to help recruit ad hoc committee members, assign roles, and introduce the initiative to the rest of the community at subsequent board meetings, coffee hours, social events, and town halls.

Be patient, find expertise, and build momentum

Realistically, this is a three-to-five year initiative with “Year One” being the development year. This is a strategic communications initiative. Find a board member or homeowner leader with a background in corporate or employee communications, preferably a resident with change management experience who can lead “Vision, Mission, and Values” workshops to build consensus around the property’s identity and purpose. This provides the foundation for “culture building” and identifying values that support a mandate for associations members, residents, and guests to know and follow the rules and regulations of the community.

Let the community know that the new ad hoc compliance culture development committee will conduct its work for one year. The development year is powerful because it can start and maintain new community conversations about enforcement. The topic of community-supported enforcement can become a regular topic of conversation across the property.

Finish the development and “go live!”

Marking the end of the initiative’s development year and its “go live” can be as simple—and effective—as a two-motion and vote board agenda item that 1) declares the end of the ad hoc compliance culture development committee, and 2) establishes a new standing, statutory compliance committee. The statutory designation of the new standing committee is appropriate because the function of the committee aligns directly with Florida statutes and supports a portion of the board’s direct responsibility.

An optimum time for this board agenda item to mark the “go live” moment for the initiative could be at the association’s annual meeting. It’s the most important meeting of the year, and the implications of this being on the annual meeting agenda will be understood by most.

After the initiative’s development year is completed, the presence of a standing, statutory compliance committee—especially because of its formal reporting requirement to the board—will be an ever-present reminder to owners and residents of the importance the association puts on owner, resident, and guest compliance with the association’s rules and regulations.

Softening the stigma of violations reporting

Eventually after the project launch, the majority of people on the property—regardless of who they are or what season it is—will expect the association’s rules and regulations to be followed with little fuss or fanfare. That’s the power of organic enforcement. A new culture of compliance can influence owners, residents, and guests to want to comply with rules, not ignore or break them. And perhaps key, a new culture of compliance can make owners more comfortable to report violations to the CAM—to say something when they see activity on property that goes against rules and regulations.

The long-term success of this initiative will be determined by the willingness of owners to report violations when they see them. Increasing owner participation in, and overall community support for, consistent rules violation reporting is the central driver to change the paradigm of community enforcement. Typically, community members are not in their comfort zone if or when they report violations; a shared culture that puts compliance in a positive light can change that.

Community consensus about the value of compliance to rules and regulations can help enforcement happen more naturally—organically—from the grassroots efforts of the community. The initiative can equip owners, residents, and even guests with the knowledge and tools for proper, discreet reporting of violations. Property managers and CAMs can then process violations as they normally do.

The power of a compliance culture on property

The hallmark of a culture of compliance in condominiums and HOAs is management and board leaders who continually reinforce the importance for owners to know and comply with association rules and regulations. An active compliance culture creates value when owners and residents recognize violations in real time and promptly and discreetly report them. CAMs remain enforcement quarterbacks, but community willingness to report rules violations creates effective, consistent enforcement.

Community enforcement can evolve across the property—naturally, when it needs to. Once established, coordinated community enforcement takes less time, money, and effort as violations decrease and owners, residents, and guests assume authentic compliance is expected daily from everyone on the property.

Andrew Penney

Chair—Hearing Committee; Member—Documents Committee; Vizcaya of Bradenton Condominium Association, Bradenton, FL

Andrew Penney is a retired corporate communications professional who relocated to Bradenton, Florida, in 2015. He has more than 30 years of experience in advertising and public relations agencies. Prior to his retirement, he led an employee communications team to develop and launch a new company culture initiative at the sixth largest healthcare technology company in the nation. Andrew is an active member of the Vizcaya of Bradenton Condominium Association, a 256-unit, gated condominium community located in southwest Bradenton. He is running for a board seat in the association’s March 2022 election.