Recently I dealt with an issue in a condominium association where the tenant of a unit owner was out of control. The boorish and, in some cases, criminal behavior of this tenant made life miserable for many of the residents of an otherwise quiet condominium community. Despite the HOA board’s attempts to have the unit owner intervene and resolve the situation, nothing was done until the situation spiraled so far out of control that the judicial system had to become involved.
This experience led me to think about a greater concern in our society, of which HOAs are merely a microcosm: Where has our civility gone? What has happened to basic decorum? Has the proverbial common courtesy been thrown out with the bath water?
One might think it odd that a lawyer muse on such topics when the nature of my profession is built upon debate and dispute, and my paychecks frequently come from owner-board disputes. Nevertheless, I cannot view the acerbic interaction in many associations without wondering if the problems could not be resolved by taking a step back and a deep breath.
The law, in its imperfect and rudimentary way, attempts to foster some level of civility and courtesy in HOAs. Some examples of “legal civility” include requirements that notice be given of meetings, opportunities for hearings before a fine may be levied, and the mandate of parliamentary rules of procedure.
In moments of frustration, often weeks and months in the making, HOA board members (and owners) all too frequently say and do things that are regretted during quiet reflection later on. Sometimes reverting to “the law” is not the best solution. Rather, civility, respect, and friendship go a long way toward soothing feelings, quieting anger, and solving the practical problems of noise, litter, parking, and pets. Pertinent examples include conducting open forums before board meetings that allow owners to speak (with time limits so that all may have an opportunity to be heard), board member visits to owners about a violation before any enforcement action is taken, and community activities that allow neighbors to greet and get to know one another.
Like the condominium association with the troublesome tenant, there are situations when the effectiveness of civility and courtesy has passed. In those moments, running to the courthouse for judicial intervention may be the only option. Hopefully, though, boards will use the twin swords of civility and courtesy to head off problems before a jog to the courthouse becomes necessary.