How to Protect Our Community Vision with HOA Rules Enforcement
Policy enforcement is a challenge for any community; no one wants to be the bad guy. But weak policies that aren’t backed by common sense enforcement won’t do any good in your community. How can you reasonably support your vision and accompanying policies without making enemies in your community or high-rise? Read on for some advice on how to manage compliance with as little stress as possible.
Educate residents.When imposing a new policy in your community or high-rise, make sure that the policy is communicated to everyone in the community and to all new residents as they move in. Explain clearly why the policy is being implemented, what its positive impact is on the community (improving lifestyles, increasing safety, enhancing property values) and the consequences for non-compliance.
It takes more than one communication to reach everyone, and you should use all possible channels to do so: newsletters or e-newsletters, social media, your community website, email and postings in common areas. New residents should be provided a move-in orientation that introduces them to policies and compliance in your community. If you work with a professional property management company, it will be able to draw on what has worked in similar communities to yours and help you establish procedures to educate your residents.
Be consistent.“When enforcing rules, consistency is so important. Being selective about which rules you follow and enforce leads to the rule not having any real weight,” said Edwin Lugo, vice president at FirstService Residential. “The end result? Eventually, you will have to waive the rule or start grandfathering in people for whom you've made exceptions. You want to avoid that as much as possible so consistency is key.”
“As leaders in the community, the board can create goodwill and lead by example when it comes to following policies,” explained Jose Vilarello, community association manager at FirstService Residential. “As board members, you can’t have a size limit on dogs and then exempt yourselves from complying with that policy.”
One common reason that community associations get sued is discrimination, and often that discrimination charge is rooted in uneven policy enforcement. A resident will naturally feel singled-out if they see neighbors “getting away with” issues that result in violations for them. Those feelings fester and will inevitably have a negative impact on your community. Left unaddressed, they will result in gossip and rumors, a loss of reputation for the community and possibly legal action against the association.
Have a transparent enforcement process in place.William Plaza, a regional director at FirstService Residential, described the typical violation process as handled in the communities he oversees.
- Courtesy call, explaining the situation and which policy is being violated
- Violation letter, detailing the offense
- Second violation letter, if no response to the first letter and situation remains unresolved
- Escalation of the violation to the association attorney or violation committee for further action
Successful enforcement is facilitated by having the right technology to ensure transparency and consistency, as well as streamlining communication. That technology will include features like a mobile app that includes photos of violations in notifications, the ability to auto-populate violation letters with the text of the rule being broken, and the opportunity for management, board members and the violator to view real-time updates to the violation as it is resolved.
How does this benefit you as a board member? When the text of the rules is auto-populated in the violation letter, you know that every resident who gets a violation for parking in the wrong space is getting the exact same language in every letter, which helps with any questions of consistency in enforcement. Having the ability to include photos in the letters helps eliminate pushback from residents when they get a violation letter: the proof is right there. The ability for everyone to see real-time updates offers all involved parties transparency in the process and confirmation that the situation has been satisfactorily resolved.
Make sure that everyone understands how the process works, including how and when fines can be collected and by whom. “When policies are consistently violated, you, as an association, can impose a fine on the resident, but to do so, you must have a violation/grievance committee in place,” Plaza explained. “Your professional management company cannot collect the fine.”
It’s important that board members understand the limitations of fining residents and be prepared to take further action if necessary. “The state of Florida caps fines for association violations at $100 a day, for up to 10 days. For some homeowners, that's not significant enough for them to start following a policy they don't agree with. So, they just pay their fine and continue to break the rule,” said Bill Worrall, vice president at FirstService Residential. “Associations that have this problem need to seriously consider the legal avenues they have at their disposal to address these habitual violators.”
If fining a resident or taking legal action is not an option, then your board can consider access control, in which residents are restricted access to common areas and amenities, but again, this needs to be done as consistently as possible. Always check your governing documents and consult with your association attorney before taking any action that restricts a resident’s access within the community.
Review rules on a regular basis.Communities evolve and circumstances change. A policy that was put in place two or three years ago might not be valid anymore. “You also need to look at your policies regularly, once a year, or as needed, meaning when an event occurs that requires updating the policy or rule, state law changes, etc.,” said Veronica Vargas, regional director for South Florida High-Rise at FirstService Residential.
Review your policies every year, and consult your association attorney when you do. Make sure that the state legislature hasn’t passed any laws that invalidate a policy, and update or remove that policy accordingly, if needed. Make sure that you properly inform and educate everyone in the community if you do make policy changes based on that annual review.
Community associations write policies to make life better for everyone in the community; whether the policy is focused on increasing safety, improving resident lifestyles or enhancing property values, enforcement of that policy must be consistent and transparent. It’s also important to review policies on an annual basis, with legal counsel, and then educate residents about any changes that come about as a result. Doing so will help build harmony in your community and free both the board and management to focus on making your community thrive.
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