A Q&A from The Washington Post Real Estate section by Ilyce Glink and Samuel J. Tamkin
Q: I wanted to comment on your recent column relating to the use of a homeowners association (HOA) pool during [the pandemic]. Halfway through your answer you wrote, “You and your fellow residents voted in the board and they represent you.”
That seems like a reasonable statement, since in theory that’s how it’s supposed to work; but not in our HOA. We don’t have elections! We’ve only ever had one, when the property was turned over from the builder, and even that wasn’t much of an election as there were seven people running for five positions, but at least there was a campaign and voting.
Our board floats between three and five positions, so if only three people step up, that’s it, that’s your board — no voting, no election. If four people step up, they decide to have a four-member board and that’s it. If five people step up, then we’ll have a five-member board; and that’s your board whether you want them or not, whether they’re qualified or not. We need at least six people to run before it even triggers an election and voting, and again, that’s not much of an election. What should we do?
A: You seem to live in a community with a handful of engaged owners, which is why so few step up to help run the association. But it’s tough to recruit owners and keep them engaged, even in the best of times.
It’s clear that you’re frustrated by who runs for the association board and their decisions regarding your community. And we also assume from your letter that you are not currently on the board of directors and have not run recently (we can’t tell from your letter whether you’ve ever been part of the association board).
We get the frustration. But that doesn’t mean something untoward is going on. You need to take a deep breath and figure out what your association’s documents require regarding board elections and how fixing that might assuage your complaints about your association.
Let’s say your association documents require five board members at all times and an annual election of board members. That’s all fine and good on paper, but Sam has seen quite a number of small homeowners associations where the boards act informally and don’t follow their governing documents. Many associations never hold meetings. Some never elect board members. Many of these associations run perfectly fine and all the neighbors get along well.
While not legally correct, it acknowledges that sometimes in a smaller association, it’s hard to put a group of people together and have them follow the letter of the law as required by the legal documents for an association. It may also not be necessary if the association is managing to get everything done, like buying insurance, managing security and maintenance, and handling other association tasks.
One example Sam sees quite often pertains to two-unit or three-unit condominium associations. The organizational documents might require each unit owner to be on the board, but in reality the unit owners may handle all maintenance and other issues informally: They may never hold meetings, they may never elect board members, they may never elect officers, they may never pass an operating budget or have minutes of their meetings.
The owners in these buildings simply work together to hire people to make repairs, to maintain the building and to do what needs to be done in and around the building.
Your association seems to fit into the category of smaller associations. You can try to formalize how the owners run the association, but it sounds like you’ll be facing an uphill battle. From your letter, there are times that only three unit owners want to work on the board. When people don’t want to participate in the management and affairs of the association, it’s pretty hard to have five board members when only three owners want to serve.
You might volunteer to go on the board and help run the organization. Once on the board, you can try to start the process of getting the board to run according to the requirements of the association documents. Consider this: What problems are you trying to solve by formalizing how the association is run? Maybe you’re concerned about the association’s finances or how the property is maintained. Figuring out what’s bothering you about the association and the way your community is run will go a long way toward understanding how to deal with your co-owners.
Now, having said all that, if you live in an association with 20, 30 or 40 units and your association still can’t find people to participate on the board, you should run for the board and recruit your neighbors to run as well. Once you get a good group of people willing to serve on the board, you and your board members can get the board running as required by the association documents. Good luck.
Ilyce Glink is the author of “100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask” (4th Edition). She is also the CEO of Best Money Moves, an app that employers provide to employees to measure and dial down financial stress. Samuel J. Tamkin is a Chicago-based real estate attorney. Contact them through her website, ThinkGlink.com.