HOA Policy: 7 Steps for Easy, Effective (and Respectful) Rule Enforcement
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It’s no secret that HOA rule enforcement isn’t a fun topic to tackle; however, doing it the right way can have a significant and positive impact on your association. Having consistent and transparent policy enforcement in place not only helps your association run smoothly, but it can improve your overall resident experience and elevate your reputation among neighboring communities and buildings.
(Remember that it’s not your job as a volunteer board member to personally enforce policies or rules, but it is your job to make sure that the rules are consistent, fair and purposeful.)
Of course, it all begins with a strong foundation – meaning you’ve taken steps to create policies that are relevant for your community or building (to learn more, read Before Creating a New Policy, Ask These 5 Questions). After you’ve created the right policies, how can you ensure that your policies are easy to follow (and enforcement is clearly understood)? Start with these 7 steps.
1. Explain the “why” behind HOA rules and policies.
As mentioned in our policy communication article, communication and education are key when it comes to compliance. Make sure that everyone in your association (including new residents) knows the what, how and (most importantly) why behind your policy.
Sharing the why behind your policy means not only explaining what the rule is and why it was created (e.g., to comply with a new local law or ordinance), but also sharing why it will benefit your community or building going forward. For instance, here’s an example of how a board might explain the “why” behind a comprehensive smoke-free policy:
Having a smoke-free policy in place will enhance the resident experience (individuals will be exposed to less secondhand smoke). Additionally, we’ve learned that 90% of buyers in our area prefer a community with strong “no smoking” rules. Therefore, this rule will improve our reputation with potential buyers, making our community significantly more lucrative and enhancing property values.
The language in this communication doesn’t need to be complex – you simply need to explain why the policy was instituted and why it’s important. Work with your management company to craft and distribute this message. They can help you utilize multiple channels, including newsletters, social media, your community’s website, emails and announcements in common areas. They should also help you incorporate best practices for effectively positioning the message, based on what has worked for similar associations.
2. Create a transparent (and easy-to-follow) HOA rule enforcement plan.
Your method of policy enforcement shouldn’t come as a surprise to members of your association. In addition to understanding the what, how, and why of the policy itself, residents should know what happens (and what to do) when a policy is violated.
Additionally, they should understand what the potential fines will be and how they will be collected. Here’s an example of what a transparent, easy-to-follow enforcement plan looks like:
Sample HOA Enforcement Plan:
- Step 1: Resident in violation of a policy receives a courtesy call explaining the details of the situation and the policy that was violated.
- Step 2: Resident receives a violation letter, providing details on the policy and the offense as well as any fines required.
- Step 3: If resident does not respond after a period of time, a second violation letter is sent.
- Step 4: Upon refusal to comply after three communications, issue will be escalated to association attorney or violation committee for next steps.
Please note: Your process may differ from the above sample based on best practices, association communication methods and local laws. For example, according to California’s Davis-Stirling Common Interest Development Act recommends that “a schedule of monetary penalties be included as part of a general enforcement policy.” Work with your management company to ensure that you are abiding by best practices and in line with your governing documents and local laws.
3. Explain the policy enforcement process.
Clearly explain what residents need to do (or not do) in order to follow the policy. For example, if you’ve implemented a new rule or given further parameters around an existing policy, you will want to share how to follow it and what will happen when residents don’t. Here are a couple of examples:
Master-planned HOA policy example: All homeowners, residents and guests must keep their dog(s) on leash at all times in common areas. Dogs are only allowed off leash in the designated and fenced off dog park. Residents who do not follow this rule may be subject to a $150 fine on the first offense as well as fines on subsequent offenses.
High-rise policy example: All unit owners must only utilize the approved sound-proof flooring options when installing new flooring in their residence. Additionally, the work must be done by a licensed and insured contractor and approved by the association’s maintenance committee. If residents install unapproved flooring, they will be required to replace the flooring within 30 days or be subject to fines.
Remember, not all rules and enforcement policies should be viewed as negative. They may help create a more unified community in the long run. Kevin Pennington, vice president of community management at FirstService Residential, said, “Not all HOA rules are limiting in nature; some are liberating, such as a new rule which allows certain activities (with limitations) that were not previously allowed, such as allowing off-leash pets in a designated area or dog park.”
4. Follow through with enforcing association rules.
The fourth step of effective HOA or high-rise policy enforcement is likely the most important one: Your association (and consequently, your manager and management company) needs to actually enforce the rules (and do it consistently - more on that in step 5). This might seem obvious, but it’s a critical ingredient for healthy, effective and fair policies in your community or building. By only occasionally following through on fines or enforcement of existing rules, you put your association’s reputation at risk among residents and within the community at large.
By inconsistently enforcing the rules, your association may also be subject to liability or accusations of preferential treatment. Additionally, if residents assume they’ll be able to get away with breaking the rules, they will be more likely to ignore them. Make sure you are enforcing policies according to a process set in place or you’ll face consequences.
5. Be consistent with how you enforce the policy or rule.
Along with follow through, consistent and fair policy enforcement is key to ensuring that your association maintains a solid reputation with residents and owners. No one wants to be a part of an association where certain residents or board members get special privileges when it comes to observing policies. This practice can create bitterness among residents and damage your reputation in the community at large. In the worst cases, it can even result in discrimination lawsuits.
Please note: While consistent enforcement is key, there may be extenuating circumstances that may affect your ability or decision to enforce (e.g., emergency situations, natural disasters, etc.). Having a seasoned management team on your side can help you determine your best course of action when situations are difficult to assess on your own. Remember that communication in these instances is especially critical.
6. Lead by example.
Your consistency in enforcement also comes back to how you are following the rules as a volunteer board member. Remember that while it’s not your job to personally enforce the rules in your community, it is your job to be an example of what following the rules looks like.
If you are a current resident in your association, you are subject to the same rules and policies. While it may be tempting to give yourself or a fellow board member leeway, residents are looking to you and your board to set an example (and may respect you more for personally following through). Michael Nagle, board president for The Mark high-rise association, said, “We lead by example more than anything else. People are watching. If you have a board that isn’t leading by example, they can’t help themselves.” Essentially, the board will hinder any progress made by the association, because residents may see them as potentially biased.
7. Review and evaluate your policies.
Even if you have a strong community vision in place, things change. The policies that your association had in place 5 years ago may not be relevant anymore. That’s why it’s important to review your HOA or high-rise policies on an annual basis. When reviewing policies, work with your association attorney and management company and ask the following questions:
- Has our state legislature passed any laws that invalidate this policy?
- Does this policy improve resident lifestyles and/or enhance our reputation?
- Will this policy become outdated in the next year or two?
- Does this policy remain relevant for residents and owners?
- Has the current environment (e.g., a local emergency, natural disaster or crisis) created a need to change policies?
If you revise or remove any existing policies, make sure you clearly communicate the change and the reasoning behind it. As mentioned, transparency and consistency are key when it comes to policies.
Will enforcing policies make us the “bad guy”?
Consistent and fair rule enforcement will have a positive impact on your association, particularly in terms of elevating the lifestyle experience and ensuring that your association retains a strong reputation in the community at large. However, remember that good policy enforcement won’t win over everyone. The most important thing you can do is to create and enforce good policies and communicate them respectfully to residents.