Policies and Compliance 101: Guidelines for Making and Enforcing Rules
Good rules make good community members. The most important factors in association policy making, whether for a condo, co-op, townhome or master-planned community, are clarity and sensibility. When making a new policy, the board must present a united front and clearly communicate the policy and related consequences to all residents. Whether you live in an Alexandria condo or a Fredericksburg gated community, whether the policy is about overnight guest parking or designated smoking areas, the basic principles for crafting good policy and successfully enforcing it are the same.
Everyone in a community, including the board, management team and homeowners, must understand the roles of the various people or groups involved in both writing and enforcing compliance with a new policy. If that isn’t clear, it’s easy for people to misunderstand who does what, who is responsible for creating the policy versus issuing a violation notice for breaking it.
The community association board, which is elected by homeowners and residents, is always responsible for creating new rules and policies in the community. They may ask for assistance from their knowledgeable community management company, which can recommend effective and equitable policies to help communities achieve their objectives. A professional management company and its staff are responsible for implementing the policies, as well as documenting and enforcing violations. When letting your community know about a new policy, take that opportunity to remind everyone of the reason for establishing the new rule and the roles of the various participants in the process.
Make sure to keep these eight concepts in mind when crafting new policy in your community:
1. Let common sense lead the way.
Always balance protecting resident safety and well-being, as well as property values, with homeowner freedom when writing new rules. Ask yourself if the rule being proposed is really necessary. If it isn’t, don’t make it. If the rule creates a bigger problem than already existed, it’s not a good rule. Good rules achieve a specific goal or outcome. If that isn’t the case, take a closer look at why it’s being considered. Taking a moment to reflect on the rule will help the board avoid both personal and political pressure.
When making policy, be mindful of local laws and ordinances and mirror them when appropriate. Doing so gives the policy more validity and possibly another avenue of enforcement. Always ask association legal counsel to vet new policies to make sure that they don’t run afoul of existing laws, open the association to liability or conflict with the association’s existing rules.
When crafting rules, always keep penalties for violating them in line with the policy being violated. An outsized penalty for a minor infraction will become a problem. When a rule is initially implemented, consider leniency for a time. A progressive system of a friendly reminder, followed by a written warning, then an official violation notice and penalty is one way to go.
2. Violation enforcement: be fair and consistent
“As a board member, one of the roles is to use the ‘better business judgement’ rule. This means that decisions are made in good faith, as well as fairly,” said Amanda Busey, community manager for FirstService Residential. Everyone must be expected to follow the rules and the rules must be fairly enforced. If residents believe they won’t get fair treatment, they have no motivation to comply with a policy. Your professional community association management company can help enforce rules in the right way. If needed, they will also follow up to make that sure that the situation is resolved.
Residents must be notified of a violation properly and in accordance with the governing documents of your community association. They must have an opportunity to respond, with their side of the story, as the process allows. It’s important to remember that the resident has the right to legal counsel if they feel that they are receiving unreasonable treatment.
If your community association has been a little lax on policy enforcement, it’s not too late! You can revitalize your community and your rules. Start by talking to your legal counsel. Then send a notice to homeowners and residents, letting them know that the rules will be enforced beginning on a specific date. If there are policies that are of special concern, include those in the communication, as well as details of the steps of the violation process.
3. Extreme responses seldom work.
Knee-jerk responses are called that for a reason: they are an immediate instinct, especially in the face of a big problem. And they almost always backfire in the long run. Maintaining perspective when creating violations for policy infractions is critical to the process. Be careful about not over-penalizing minor infractions (especially for first-time offenders) and consider reasonable exceptions when warranted.
4. Simple language and rules are best.
People cannot follow a rule they can’t understand. Following rules shouldn’t be difficult either. That applies to penalties as well; they must be as clear as the rules. Policies should never result in standards that homeowners have to work hard to meet.
5. Communicate frequently and clearly.
Ask for resident feedback before crafting a new policy. Is the issue really important to the community as a whole? Is it something the board should invest time in addressing? If so, great! Identify possible areas of resident resistance or pushback on the rule and address them. Once a consensus on the proposed policy has been built, and the policy is drafted, if may need to be voted on and added to the community association’s bylaws or governing documents. That isn’t always the case, so consult with your attorney and governing documents before proceeding.
Communicate the new policy and its consequences through every channel available to make sure that homeowners and residents are aware of it. Use social media, emails, posted signs, community newsletters and other means to make sure everyone has time to comply before violation notices are issued. A quality community association management company, such as FirstService Residential, will have a system and tools in place to assist with these vital resident communications.
6. Review the rules regularly.
It’s a good idea to take a look at all of the policies on record each year and assess them for validity and relevance. Does a rule made several years ago still make sense? Is it needed? Make sure that that no new legislation has been passed to render rules obsolete. Then update or eliminate policies as needed.
7. Make exceptions when needed.
Leave room for personal judgment when appropriate and reasonable, and allow for leniency if warranted. Your community is exhibiting both common sense and when the board recognizes that not every policy works for all residents in all situations.
8. Anonymous complaints can be dangerous.
Think of a complaint from an unverified source or an unnamed source as gossip. People who make credible complaints are willing to stand by their words. You can’t, as a board member, know if the complaint is justified or malicious in motivation. As with any complaint, verify it independently before taking action. Consider implementing a written complaint form that states that a name and contact information must be provided before any action will be taken.
Keep all of these principles in mind when creating, implementing and enforcing new policy in your association. They will help the process go more smoothly and help ensure a happier, more cohesive community. For more information on how a professional management team and communication tools can assist your association, contact FirstService Residential, Virginia’s leading community association management company.