Do good associations make good neighbors?

There is a good chance that you belong to a community association, now or in the past, or know people who do. Last year, there were over 1,600 registered associations representing over 156,000 apartments in Hawaii, according to the 2012 Annual Report of the Hawaii Real Estate Commission. That doesn’t count the community associations for homes, townhouses, and new developments.

Now the Honolulu City Council has adopted Bill 3 (2013), which imposes a fine on property owners who don’t maintain their property by removing trash and cutting the grass – basically acting as a community association to enforce restrictions on the “common area.”

I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on whether we need these community associations and how we can be good neighbors.

There are four main reasons for having a community association:

* To take care of common areas such as entryways, hallways, landscaping, elevators, and parking lots.

* To manage common amenities such as security, recreation rooms, swimming pools, and parks.

* To keep up property values by overseeing the quality of exterior residences and landscaping.

* To foster a sense of community by organizing neighborhood events. (Optional)

I belong to a community association in Hawaii. I’ve been managing the association’s website, and last year I stepped up and joined the board of directors.

It has been a great experience, learning the behind-the-scenes struggles of our association – at times satisfying, surprising, frustrating, and disappointing. There are four things about associations that I think it is worthwhile to remember:

1. The association is a business. This was a new perspective for me; I always thought that we are community first. But the association’s job is to make sure that everything runs smoothly and fairly. It is not about keeping maintenance fees as low as possible.

2. Know the financials. Associations should have a 20-year cash flow plan, and expenses should be paid without using deposit accounts (which must be returned to the homeowner) or reserves (which are used for repairs and renovations). Associations should conduct a reserve study at least every 10 years. Whether you are on the board or not, you should read the financial report every year.

3. Manage the meeting. Whether it’s a board meeting or an annual meeting, publish an agenda – and stick to it. Redirect questions and comments to the appropriate place in the agenda. To help the meeting proceed quickly, hold an “Owner’s Forum” at the end of the annual meeting to listen to grievances or issues, after the “business” of the association.

4. Communicate often. Board members: get information to homeowners quickly, make sure you have an updated website, and respond promptly to questions and concerns. Homeowners: show up for meetings, talk to board members if you have a concern (most of us want to help), and remember that board members are volunteers and your neighbors.

“Good fences makes good neighbors,” wrote Robert Frost in his poem, “Mending Wall.” Do you think community associations make us better neighbors? What do you think about the Honolulu law that allows the city to tell us how to maintain the exterior look of our homes? What are your experiences with community associations?

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