These days, there are few people who don’t have a business website, a Facebook account and even a Twitter handle. It’s the same for buildings.
As the rise of online social media invades nearly every aspect of our daily life, co-op, condo, HOA boards and savvy property managers have also embraced the medium as a powerful new tool for connecting and communicating with residents in their communities.
Email listserves, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and—more recently—custom mobile apps, have supplanted the mailroom bulletin board as the primary means of inter-building information exchange.
It didn’t happen overnight, however. Boards and management companies have modernized and broadened their means of communicating with residents through trial and error while exploring the benefits and maximizing the usefulness and impact of these new tools.
There are no current statistics showing what percentage of buildings in the South Florida area are using websites to communicate with their residents. But local board members and management companies report that nearly all of the larger buildings have some form of web communication ranging from email blasts (emailing the entire building at once) to full websites.
An Online Presence
Green Cay Village’s homeowners’ unit in Boynton Beach updates its website several times a week, highlighting current events, offering emergency email alerts, copies of all declarations, amendments and rules and regulations and a property manager blog. Last year the site was updated to be accessed by mobile devices, such as laptops and smartphones.
The Nova Homeowners Association in Davie website features updates on current events, minutes of board meetings, letters sent to owners, and the use of photos and social media, namely Facebook and fan page features. Owners are also allowed to pay maintenance fees online via PayPal, which the community attributes to an uptick in owners making payments on time.
But in the Sunshine State with its large population of elderly retirees, the trend is catching on with the senior demographic, but more slowly. “Here in South Florida we have a huge snowbird and retirement age population and most of them don’t even have email. We are talking about people in their 70s and 80s who did not grow up on computers,” says Ken Direktor, a lawyer with Becker & Poliakoff in West Palm Beach. “I am advocating for notices to be sent by email, not to mention that they save money. The turnover to more computer-friendly board members is sort of like an evolutionary change because it’s a generational transition.”
Companies like AtHomeNet, HOASpace.com and NeighborhoodLink.com are some of the providers that offer websites to community associations and HOAs. Some management companies also provide the service to their communities as part of an overall package.
On most of the more progressive residential buildings that are more computer-savvy, a condo’s website is often used to alert residents about what is going on at the property from when the lawn is being mowed to when streets are being paved to when certain projects are being done. Residents can also send work orders, track work orders, check for packages, pay assessments and pull up their own personal payment history. There are links to make it easy to find information about the Florida condo act as well as other useful local and national data.
Some buildings have even put message and chat boards onto their websites so that residents can “speak” directly to each other about the building and other matters.
Gripes and Snipes
Sometimes, the outlet can be a forum for negative comments, Direktor says. “You can have an owner post some material that is critical, vitriolic even about another resident, about the board or about the association, and obviously that is extremely non-productive because it reflects poorly on the entire community.”
“Our HOA website is primarily information and data sharing,” adds Edwin J. Latalladi, CPA, CMCA, AMS, and executive director of Ibis Property Owner’s Association in West Palm Beach. “Residents can find a lot of forms on the site so they don’t have to come in in person, it’s readily available to them. They’ll find forms like an architectural change request, information for a permit or any type of license that’s required on the property.”
“One of great things about websites is that they can provide the opportunity for feedback in terms of allowing reader's comments on articles and by providing online message boards,” says Peter Schulz, Green Cay Village Condo board president and creator/editor of their community website. “The problem is that there are some really hateful and vile people out there and, without monitoring feedback 24/7, a site can rapidly degenerate into a creator of problems in its own right. I tried allowing online feedback a few years ago and the comments were uncivil to the extreme. I couldn't take down the offensive comments as fast as they were being posted. So I changed the site to only allow the comments to appear after I had reviewed them. And with that, all comments stopped. The haters moved on to other prey and the watchers went elsewhere for their entertainment.”
A Community Forum
Buildings are also using their websites to advertise available parking spots and other amenities. Some are allowing current residents to advertise their units as rentals or to sell their furniture or other household items.
Those looking for dog walkers, cat feeders or house sitters may also find luck in their own building with a few clicks of the keyboard.
“A lot of communities will allow properties that are listed to be posted on their website,” says Direktor, “Because they want to advance the sales of property because that’s in everybody’s best interest.”
Individual websites have become virtual shopping centers, real estate agencies, city clerk offices and chat boards all in one place. For some lucky residents, there’s absolutely no need to leave your front door anymore.
Other systems can also text emergency announcements and make automated calls.
Some condominiums have video monitors in the elevators which broadcast fun and important events that are going on throughout Florida. With those video monitors, they have the ability to go beyond the basics and even create their own building news channels if they want to go that route.
Even if your building gets a snazzy website, you can’t simply rid yourself of all paper documents.
According to Schulz, the Florida statutes that govern co-ops, condos, and HOAs’ do not permit electronic communication to take the place of physical postings and hard-copy mailings. Therefore, websites and e-mailings can only be used in addition to hard-copy.
In every building, there are always some people who aren’t comfortable with going online for just about anything. Some don’t even own a computer or have an email address—and there are few buildings that keep a computer room in the basement filled with old public computers that no one uses anymore.
That means that buildings still have to be sensitive to those who may not have virtually arrived in this century—and prefer everything to be done via snail mail and actual newsletters. In a few years, even those who don’t own a computer may have to give in to progress and head over to the local Best Buy or nearest Apple store.
The best foundation for a strongly built community, though, is for the place to be well-managed. Communicating what’s happening in the building is the key to building trust and community spirit.
Danielle Braff is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The South Florida Cooperator. Staff Writer Christy Smith-Sloman contributed to this article.