Over the past few months, social distancing restrictions have been loosened throughout California, only to be reinstated, region-by-region, a few short weeks later. As much as we all try to get back to “normal,” COVID-19 is still a part of daily life. Therefore, rolling restrictions on businesses and public spaces are likely to be around for the foreseeable future.
Right now, homeowners association boards are faced with a unique challenge: as fiduciaries to the association, California civil code requires board members to make fiscally responsible decisions to protect the value of the association’s assets (the homes within the HOA). However, right now many homeowners are in tight spots financially, making code violations especially stressful.
As a homeowners association management company with decades of experience serving Southern California communities, many of our clients have recently asked: What’s the right way to respond to code violations during the pandemic? The fact is, COVID-19 is like nothing ever seen in modern times, so there aren’t any clear-cut “black-or-white” answers on how to proceed.
That said, based on our expertise and advice from legal counsel, we have developed a few practical tips for boards and association members to handle code violations during COVID-19.
For Board Members
As a board member, you have a fiduciary responsibility to the association that doesn’t lessen, even during a pandemic. This means protecting property values by making sure that the association does not fall into disrepair. During this unprecedented time, you’ll need to balance short-term challenges against long-term benefits.
Here’s what you can do to make this period easier to manage:
- Practice compassion – Many households are under tremendous financial and personal stress right now that may impact their ability to pay assessments or fines. Stay patient and be sympathetic to their needs.
- Remain fair and impartial – Even though this is a very personal issue for homeowners, you must enforce the rules equally across the entire membership. Issue violations where appropriate but stay flexible with regards to escalation.
- Communicate frequently – Homeowners are more likely to follow rules – temporary or otherwise – when they understand the reasoning behind them. Clearly communicate start and end dates for temporary rule changes and provide additional reminders as changes take effect or come to a close. Look to your homeowners association management company for advice on wording for communications and new onsite signage.
- Listen to your membership – Pay attention to what your association needs during these difficult times. Does the community need additional street parking because more members are working from home? Are residents undertaking more home improvement projects? Are more residents competing to use common areas like grills or picnic spaces? These needs should inform your short-term decision-making. Ask your community manager to find additional ways to solicit input from members, including encouraging virtual attendance at open session board meetings, issuing membership surveys or creating a dedicated email account for suggestions.
- Assess amenities on an individual basis – You’re likely receiving pressure from homeowners to re-open shuttered amenities, but there are simply no guarantees as to when or how to open amenities safely. City or county guidance might stipulate one thing, while practical implementation for your association remains impossible. These decisions are up to each HOA board and depend on the layout, budget and supervisory capabilities of every association. Whatever you decide, take a careful, thorough approach. Consult with your homeowners association management company and legal counsel. Draft a plan that outlines multiple scenarios for opening, remaining closed or re-closing should circumstances require it. Once again, communicate these rules (and the reasons behind them) to your membership clearly and frequently.
This pandemic has thrown many aspects of daily life into upheaval, including the day-to-day in your HOA. Your HOA board is working hard to balance state and local requirements and protect your property values while trying to minimize the amount of disruption to your association.
If you do end up receiving a code violation during the pandemic, here are some suggestions for how to proceed:
- Remain calm – Emotions are understandably running high right now but try not to take your violation notice personally. Your HOA must enforce all rules unilaterally, so even under the special circumstances of this pandemic, the board will likely continue to issue violation notices.
- Contact your HOA manager – If you want to dispute your violation or have difficulty paying a fine, contact your manager. They will explain your course of action for a dispute and can submit your request for a fine deferment or reduction during the next closed session board meeting. Board members are not fully aware of the circumstances in your life unless you explain them. Don’t be afraid to speak up.
- Get more involved in your community – During this pandemic or otherwise, our advice remains the same: if you’re dissatisfied with an HOA rule, you have the power to initiate change. Submit your comments in an open session board meeting, join a sub-committee and propose a new solution. HOA rules and regulations are meant to evolve with the community.
- Utilize your member portal – Your community has a secure member portal where you can pay fines, access correspondence and view the status of your violation. Use this convenient resource to manage your violation from home.
- Read all communications from your association – The board may have implemented temporary new rules that are subject to change quickly. Keeping an eye on these changes will lessen your chances of accidental re-violation.
Above All, Remain Flexible
As society reacts to myriad changes resulting from this pandemic, we’re truly entering never before seen territory. To board members and homeowners alike, we say: stay flexible. Things are going to change. There are no perfect solutions. The most you can do is try your best to keep up and maintain a positive attitude as life continues to shift.
Have questions about how your association is managing the COVID-19 pandemic? Our experienced HOA managers are available to help.