The Inspectors

Common Ground™
July/August 2014
By Steve Bates

They spend their days upholding association rules, all while enduring anger, curses and personal threats. It’s not an easy job, but someone’s got to do it. The Inspectors

Charles Stewart tries to keep a sense of humor. Karen Contreras engages in daily prayer. Both know when to turn around and walk away from an abusive homeowner.

Stewart and Contreras are among the community association employees and volunteers tasked with enforcing CC&Rs. They field complaints from homeowners, inspect properties and, if necessary, inform residents that they are out of compliance with one or more rules.

The covenants enforcement officers endure anger, curses and even personal threats. They remind violators that they are only doing their jobs on behalf of the board and that compliance is necessary to ensure safety and support property values. But these arguments are ignored frequently. Emotions often run hot.

There might be no job—volunteer or paid—more difficult on an association staff, particularly in small communities where almost everyone knows everyone else and staffs, if they exist, are bare bones. Not surprisingly, stress and turnover are high.

“Burnout is a huge concern,” says Julie W. Joyner, CMCA, AMS, PCAM, community manager at Woodlake Community Association in Midlothian, Va. “People only call us when they’re upset about something. We listen, but that’s a lot of negativity to absorb.”

“It can be a thankless job,” says Stewart, who is responsible for rules enforcement for Home-Land Neighborhood Management, based in Brandon, Miss.

“You have to be prepared for anything,” says Contreras, a modification and compliance administrator for the East Highlands Ranch Homeowners Association in Highland, Calif.

Monica White, resident services manager for the Ashburn Village Community Association in Ashburn, Va., just finished training two new staffers on how to enforce rules. “It’s a hard position to keep someone in. There is a great amount of turnover,” she says. “When I interview people for this position, I tell them: ‘You can’t take anything personally.’ I tell them to see each situation like the homeowner sees it.”

Contreras says she has been called a Nazi and a non-Christian, among other things. “I don’t have a very thick skin,” she notes, adding that daily prayer helps. “I do have some sleepless nights. But I wouldn’t have been here for nearly seven years if I wasn’t doing somewhat of a good job.”

She tries to listen to complainants as best she can, but if they start to curse, she hangs up or walks away. On the flip side, Contreras says there are some wonderful homeowners, including those who thank her for her work or ask for advice on compliant paint colors. “That really keeps me going.”

Stewart has been monitoring several communities for three years at Home-Land Neighborhood Management and held a similar position at an association for seven years. He says it takes a bit of time to get used to the abuse that goes with the job, but being diplomatic, demonstrating resolve and keeping a sense of humor help a lot.

“One or two times a year I’ll get threatened. They say, ‘I’ll come to your house and beat you up.’ It helps to look at the overall picture,” he says. “How many people are supportive of what you’re doing as opposed to those who are angry at you?”

A Day in the Life

The rules that the officers deal with cover a wide range of issues. The most common violations tend to be routine matters, such as pet behavior, parking, unmowed lawns and improper modifications to homes.

A typical day for Stewart begins in his office, where he spends about one-third of his time. Many homeowners report complaints and send inquiries by e-mail or text, and he responds in the same manner. Issues involving barking or loose dogs are among those that prompt him to call the county government.

The balance of Stewart’s time is spent on patrol. He cruises the streets methodically, sending text and photographic evidence of violations to the office and talking to owners about the issues.

On occasion, he picks up dirty diapers or other trash. That’s not in his job description, but when people see his commitment to the community, it helps.

While some associations wait for residents to submit complaints, others, like those that use Stewart’s company, go looking for violations proactively by inspecting every property at least once per year. (See Inspect or React?)

Though there are variations, associations have fairly standard processes for handling rules violation allegations. Once a complaint is lodged, the volunteer or staff member charged with inspections investigates during a site visit. If a violation is confirmed, a written notice or conversation with the owner follows.

“I always talk to the people first,” says Julie A. Peterson, CMCA, manager of Park Grove Condominium Association in Downers Grove, Ill. She braces herself for angry reactions. “That’s what I’m here for.”

The next step is where enforcement officers really earn their pay: trying to persuade owners to comply short of involving the board. Association officers interviewed for this article say that most complaints are resolved without the need for board action.

Often, they’ll extend informal compliance deadlines if they believe the offender will do the right thing eventually. “We just want to see something happen,” says Joyner.

“Most people want to be reasonable,” says F. Scott Jackson, founding member of Jackson DeMarco Tidus Peckenpaugh law firm in Orange County, Calif., and a member of CAI’s College of Community Association Lawyers (CCAL). “They may have a misunderstanding of the strength of their case.” He advises that the officer and violator “get together over coffee and work it out.”

Enforcement officers hear many of the same comments repeatedly from violators, and they have responses ready:

  • It’s my property; I can do what I want. Response: When you purchased your home, you signed a statement pledging to abide by the covenants and other rules that the association enforces.
  • I pay my assessments; that should be enough. Response: You have additional responsibilities to the community.
  • My neighbor is doing the same thing or worse. Response: All violations will be addressed.
  • I’ve got a friend on the board; you won’t win. Response: The full board will decide the case.
  • I won’t pay a fine. Response: The covenants give the association the right to collect that money, though this is usually a last resort.

Some associations try mediation to resolve violations. But if infractions continue, the next step is a hearing before the board. Providing due process is essential to maintaining confidence in the system and for withstanding any legal challenges. Continued noncompliance with rules can result in a fine. The most serious violations require litigation.

“Some board members feel that the slightest violation is the equivalent of mass murder,” says Henry Goodman, a principal with the law firm Goodman, Shapiro & Lombardi in Dedham, Mass., and a CCAL member. He adds that common sense should be the guiding principle. “How severe is the infraction? Is it worth incurring legal fees and other expenses?”

However, some boards wait too long to involve legal counsel in matters that likely are headed to court. “This is consistently a problem for boards,” warns Gary M. Daddario, a partner with the law firm Perkins & Anctil in North Chelmsford, Mass, and a CCAL member.

It takes more than a photo of a violation to win in court, Daddario adds. “Almost every association gets hung up on the evidence issue.” A photo might not prove who is responsible for a violation. And witnesses—such as the complainants—often decline to testify.

Occasionally, a board decides not to enforce a rule, such as one limiting each home to two pets. “It could be two parakeets or two dogs,” says James Noyes, president of the River Valley Ranch Master Association in Carbondale, Colo. “We don’t enforce that. If dogs bark at night, we’re going to be talking about noise abatement.”

Substantial revisions of existing rules, such as a proposal to make a condominium building tobacco smoke-free, should be put to a community vote, legal experts say.

Covenants officers, and experts on association business, offer tips for those starting out in rules enforcement work. (See Don’t Lose Your Cool.) Thorough documentation of violations is essential from the start.

“Keep a clear record of everything. Log everything. Type up everything,” advises Peterson. “Give the board everything they need for a thoughtful decision.”

Making it Easier

Some associations are experimenting with initiatives designed to reinforce positive aspects of the community and to anticipate and minimize negative reactions to violation notices. In a newsletter, Joyner and her staff highlight attractive projects and properties. They send out notices before inspections and allow residents to schedule alternative times.

A good association website can help. Many provide rules, policies and forms that are needed to report a violation or to ask the architectural review committee to allow a modification to a home. “Many homebuyers don’t really read through the documents thoroughly” when moving to the community, observes Ian Hause, executive director of the River Valley Ranch. “Usually, infractions are due to lack of familiarity with the documents.”

Noyes says the quality of an association’s rules enforcement is only going to be as good as your board. He urges boards to “make it easy for the staff to do its job” by providing clarity on policies and priorities and by supporting them when they are challenged or abused by residents.

If you are a board member, “I don’t think you can delegate responsibility” for rules enforcement, says Jackson. “You can delegate work. Some areas are relatively clear. But the buck stops with the board.”

No association can expect full compliance all the time, concedes Hause. “My goal is to keep most of the people happy most of the time.”