Containing condominium disputes

Five tips for property managers who find themselves stuck in the middle of quarreling parties
Tuesday, November 18, 2014
By Marc Bhalla

Property managers often find themselves sandwiched in conflict involving members of the condominium communities they manage. While few wish to exacerbate such conflict or take sides, it can be difficult to avoid becoming ensnared in emerging condominium disputes. After all, property managers can significantly — even if unintentionally — impact how these situations ultimately play out.

What follows are five tips for property managers who find themselves caught in between quarreling parties:

Don’t overstep the PM’s role

Property managers fill a range of roles, but they should not add playing Judge Judy for bickering community members to the list. Condominium bylaws may provide property managers with a great deal of discretionary power — for example, the power to define what constitutes a reasonable level of noise — but they shouldn’t feel obligated to apply its full force. Property managers already have a heavy workload.

If property managers are simply investigating an issue, they should make that clear. Take a positive approach, with a mentality of trying to gain understanding rather than assigning guilt. Property managers shouldn’t take responsibility for delivering instant resolutions — it’s unrealistic and a lot to bear.

Consider the community

In theory, it should not matter who within a community is involved in a conflict. In reality, the identity of those involved may impact the situation significantly. Regardless of whether a conflict involves a chronic complainer or the board president, try to shelve personal history and consider the overall community’s interests.

If an issue were to proceed all the way to court, an important test in assessing the actions of the condominium corporation — which a property manager is representing — will be whether the parties were fairly treated. As a personal check-in, consider whether another reputable and knowledgeable property manager would take the same approach in comparable circumstances. Property managers who can say that any member of the community would have been treated a certain way foster an environment of equality and equip their condominium corporation to present well in the event it has to appear before a judge.

Set shared expectations

Many times, conflict in a condominium environment escalates as a result of a misunderstanding or misperception. Perhaps a resident is unaware that the condominium corporation’s business can only be conducted at duly constituted board meetings, which typically take place no more frequently than once a month. Or perhaps an affected person is not aware of the property manager’s regular hours on site.

A lack of reply may be perceived as an indication that no one cares when, in fact, the manager was not scheduled to be in the office or the board has not yet had a chance to review the concern. Acknowledging that a communication has been received and advising when a reply can be expected can stop a conflict from escalating due to misguided assumptions. This is not about providing solutions but trying to keeping everyone abreast of the process.

Listen, explain process

As is painstakingly obvious at many annual general meetings: people want to be heard. In the condominium context, community members have a limited opportunity to express themselves. Therefore, it’s easy to see how someone may feel their concerns are being ignored.

Time-permitting, property managers may find it helpful to listen to community members’ concerns and respond by noting them and explaining what the next steps will be. This can be as simple as acknowledging that a community member’s concern is important and that they need to present it in writing in order for it to be addressed by the board.

Keep the board informed

Property managers may already make a communications binder available to their directors and write concise management reports, but a great deal can take place in between board meetings. They should also inform the board of any conflicts in which they find themselves acting as intermediary. This becomes particularly important if property managers sense a conflict has the potential to escalate or are in need of direction from the board. The sooner property managers and their boards both have the information required to respond to such a situation, the better.

This article is not intended to encourage property managers to do more when they find themselves wedged in the kind of conflict that naturally emerges in a condominium environment. Rather, it is intended to show property managers that it’s impossible for them to shoulder everything, but that they can take small steps to stem conflict.

By communicating respectfully, appreciating the importance of issues to impacted parties and helping to clarify the process, timelines and next steps, property managers can, ideally, neutralize disputes and perhaps even facilitate peaceful conflict resolution.

Marc Bhalla leads the Elia Associates PC team. He focuses his mediation practice on condominium conflict.