Whether you're in an urban high-rise or a sprawling suburban condo development, it can be hard for a new resident to get to know their neighbors. Do you strike up a conversation in the elevator or the laundry room, or hang around the bulletin board in the lobby hoping to meet your fellow owners? And what about the residents who aren’t as socially skilled as other, more gregarious residents, yet who want to make friendly connections with the people living next door?
Many communities offer on-site amenities such as a pool, gym, or tennis courts that put folks in contact with their neighbors and help foster a sense of neighborly cohesion, but boards and management can help as well by providing opportunities for residents to socialize with each other. Better inter-resident relations makes for improved community involvement, morale, and overall quality of life.
It's About People
“The way I look at it is condos are just bricks and mortar, and a roof—what really makes it are the people,” says Jim Schneider, general manager of the Seven Lakes Condominium Association in Fort Myers. “You can have a nice condominium but if you don’t have the people you don’t have a good condo association. Community building builds fellowship. It helps people to work with each other and be part of a community. You can’t just isolate yourself and say 'We’re not part of this community. We’re going to close the gates and not worry about anything outside.' That’s no way to live.”
Raymond Pi Lara, president of the Master Association at Riviera Isles, a gated lakefront community of 1,355 estate homes in Miramar agrees. “One of the great things about having people in a close-knit community is that you’re all working towards the same goal,” he says. “We have a clubhouse, swimming pool, tennis court and nice buildings and structures on the property and we all want to keep it nice. A lot of communities we have seen, especially in this economy, are not investing in their infrastructure and they say ‘we’ll fix it when the economy gets better,’ and that’s a mistake. By the time the economy gets better, what will those things look like? And how much will it cost to repair them? At our board meetings we always talk about reinvesting money that we collect from association fees back into the community, whether it’s painting, landscaping, restoring our pool area or maintaining our gym.”
Toy, food and clothing drives during the holidays, conducting local beach clean-ups, a tree lighting ceremony, a Hanukah candle lighting ceremony and free musical performances are just a few of the events that the Seven Lakes Condominium Association hosts annually.
“We have the local high school chorus come and put on shows for us,” says Schneider, whose HOA was named the 2010 Community of the year at the Florida Communities of Excellence Awards. “The residents like the concerts, and the students like it because it gives them a chance to perform. It builds a lot of community pride. We also have a 50-member chorus group who sing at Christmastime and put on a spring concert. They have even gone caroling at nearby communities. They are a very active group.”
Bake Sales—and Beyond
In the midst of gloomy financial times for so many Florida shared communities, homeowners associations have found innovative ways to hang together and build a sense of community.
Lakes of Meadow in Miami are known for its popular family-friendly programs and for hosting regular holiday community parties and fireworks displays. The Ritz-Carlton condo-hotel in Fort Lauderdale has been cited for its volunteer work supporting local children's charities, environmental and arts programs, and The Tuscany Bay HOA in Boynton Beach and the Golden Horn South Condominium Association in Hallandale both have been recognized for their efforts organizing and training volunteers for Community Emergency Response Teams and creating emergency preparedness and survival kits for neighbors.
Association-organized events can become community-wide annual highlights. “Our annual Easter egg hunt is very popular. About 400 kids showed up and we had 4,000 eggs,” says Pi Lara. “We had carnival rides and pony rides. We also sold tables to local stores and restaurants, so it’s not just for the kids, it’s also for the adults. Our big event is National Night Out. It’s usually the second week in August. We have a deejay, lots of rides and a rock climbing wall. And we sell tables to locals businesses and restaurants for that too. Winn Dixie came out and sold hot dogs and french fries. One of the big realtors will come with an ice cream truck. Our vendors will donate items and we raffle them off to benefit the association. It really brings everyone together—the residents, the vendors, and members of the community. “
Not only do community events spark communication between residents, but it may have an effect on the building’s bottom line as well. Savvy community events can also provide a special opportunity to renew current customers.
If management or the association doesn’t offer events, it might be for a variety of reasons. For some, it’s budget, while for others it’s a lack of interest or participation from the residents. Numerous factors can contribute to a lack of community involvement.
“The key word is communication. If the board is not communicating with members of the community, that's where they fail,” says Jay Mangel, president of Exclusive Property Management in Pompano Beach. “If you don’t communicate with members with what’s going on in the community with a newsletter, building website or a bulletin, they feel left out and they don’t want to be a part of what’s going on in the community. We always push the associations to be very communicative with residents, because if the community knows what the board is doing they are less likely to come to a meeting and harass them. You’d be shocked by how many boards don’t want the community to know the real problems. I’m in favor of telling them everything—the good and the bad —so we can all work together.”
Schneider, Pi Lara and Mangel all agree that the board, management and residents are all responsible for building a sense of community.
“It has got to be all three,” says Schneider. “The board has got to have the willingness to provide the facilities and support the group and management has to go out and do the same thing. It comes down to the residents/volunteers who want to do that stuff. It’s a combination of all three, but the residents/volunteers are the big issue, they have to really want to do it. You have to have everybody working together. If people are not cooperating then it’s just not going to work.”
“The management company, board and residents are all responsible for building a sense of community,” adds Pi Lara. “We deal directly with the owners and they become really involved with what’s going on. The board works closely with them and they attend our board meetings on a regular basis. It’s all of us working together. But it had to start at one point, and that was the influence from our property management company who wanted to bring everyone together.”
Where to Start
Creating a roster filled with fun events is easy to do with some brainstorming and imagination. To help kick start the ideas, check out the internet and see what other buildings across the nation are up to.
The holidays are a perfect opportunity to schedule events such as photos with Santa, a great family event, decorating contests, holiday parties, New Year’s Eve or Day gatherings, charity events, and more.
“We encourage the board to put out a mailing, because not everybody stops and look at the elevator,” says Mangel. “Also, have non-holiday events. We are hosting an open house where people come and share ideas. We are also doing a barbeque just because, so people can meet their neighbors. I also encourage family communities to budget in things like pony rides, water slides and bounce houses for parties. The holidays are great to have a party, but everybody is busy during the holidays. Why not have a community gathering in the first week of June, when the kids are out of school and before camp starts? Throw something together, that way people feel involved in the community and they are not feeling like it’s December and I got ten friends having parties so I don’t know if I can make it to the association party.”
In an increasingly busy world where connections happen more online than in life, putting forth a little effort and capital to invest in your community's most important asset—its people—can earn your association very real rewards.
Lisa Iannucci is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The South Florida Cooperator. Staff Writer Christy Smith-Sloman contributed to this report.