August 20, 2021
This is our monthly advice column, Ask Mary.
Dear Mary: In my condo we have a few unit owners who are always asking for things that go against the rules or policies of the building. Sometimes the requests involve local laws or other guidelines. How to deal with this time-consuming tsunami of “requests”? – Flooded in Inwood
For now, let’s focus on the co-owners with genuine requests. We will deal with “council antagonizers” in another column. Can I use a grill on my balcony? Can I sublet my apartment while I am in my summer house? Can we get a common charges allowance for the amenities that we were unable to use during COVID-19[female[feminine? i know my alteration is over by three weeks, but can’t you waive the penalty?
First of all, take a deep breath. It is not about your skill or your good intention. Make a conscious effort not to react defensively. Then follow a strategy that can help you deal with immediate demand while reducing future demands. Here are some guidelines:
Have you communicated on this? Don’t assume people have read the statutes and house rules then memorized them. They may simply not know the local rules or laws, and a simple explanation may suffice. People can usually live with rules that make sense, so always provide the “why”. To quote laws or security concerns if applicable. Remember to tell everyone, not just the requester.
Are your rules and policies clear? You may have communicated, but the rule is vague or difficult to understand. Ask someone who didn’t write the rules to reread them to see what is unclear. Resolve any ambiguity. You may want to consider putting your period in “Clear language.” (This is a set of federal government guidelines; New York City has a shorter version.)
Are your rules or policies outdated? It’s a lot of work to keep up with that. But if you haven’t reviewed your rules and policies in 25 years, you have to accept that some of them no longer make sense under current conditions. For example, you probably didn’t expect a pandemic. Or anticipate emotional support animals. Or imagine non-smoker residential buildings. Maybe it’s time to take a fresh look.
Is the demand really reasonable? Would you accept the request if there was no existing rule? The rules should serve your building, not the other way around. But while boards often feel the need to add restrictions, they usually don’t remove them. So if it’s not a matter of law or safety – and if everyone was doing it, maybe it’s time to withdraw that rule or policy. Maybe it’s okay to bring a kid’s bike through the main entrance.
Does it make sense to allow an exception? It’s always tricky. You don’t want to get the message across that the rules don’t apply equally to everyone, or that anyone who complains loud enough can do whatever they want. But sometimes it’s the right thing to do. So if you decide to make an exception but keep the rule in place, you need to be extremely clear as to why you are doing it. And you must communicate it to the owner of the unit. Yes, we will waive these late change penalties since your contractor has had a heart attack.
Follow these guidelines to reduce this tsunami of demands to a manageable flow. In the meantime, always respond in a timely and respectful manner to inquiries from unit owners. Don’t have an answer right away? Just acknowledge the question so they know you are there. Engage when you answer. So do it, even if it’s just to say that you don’t have an answer yet. And remember: good communications and good relationships with unit owners are the keys to a peaceful building.
Marie federico serves on the board of directors of his 240-unit condominium on the Upper West Side. Thanks to his advice, Organizational behavior strategies, she helps leaders use behavioral science to improve their organizations.