The Middle GroundMay 18, 2022
Community associations have become unhealthy microcosms of a divided nation. It’s time to recognize the ruptures and bring neighbors back together again.
By Kelly G. Richardson, Esq., CCAL
Reprinted with permission from the May/June 2022 issue of Common Ground TM magazine, the flagship publication of Community Associations Institute (CAI). www.caionline.org
There is a universal yearning for a return to normalcy. For more than two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a disruptive factor across every part of our lives. Meanwhile, our society and our communities have sustained great relational damage from multiple ruptures of the social fabric.
Consider the divisions that have recently torn apart cities, communities, and even families: racial justice issues; an unusually divisive presidential campaign; continuing “red versus blue” political schisms; fear and isolation caused by the pandemic; vaccination and masking decisions; and so on. These deeply important issues pushed us apart, and social media helped push us even further.
TWO TERRIBLE social trends have burgeoned, causing canyons at organizational and personal levels. The first is the prevailing unwillingness to listen to anyone who disagrees with us. If we think someone is wrong, the prevalent response is to refuse to dialogue with them. The common response is to disconnect—to refuse to hear what the other person has to say—because they are wrong and, therefore, bad.
The second trend is interpersonal alienation. The impatience and unwillingness to tolerate differing viewpoints has created separation and isolation, worsened by the confinement compelled by health department directives, doctor recommendations, or simply the fear of catching a potentially fatal illness.
These trends have fostered an increasingly unhealthy environment for common interest communities. Board meetings often are more unruly, disagreements are more likely to become hostile, and neighbors refuse to cooperate with each other. Our community associations are unhealthy microcosms of a divided nation.
If we want to restore community, we must be realistic. Our associations will not return automatically to a healthier culture. It will take planning and sustained action to refocus on what really matters. Being “right” must take a back seat to being neighborly—even with those who disagree.
Thriving common interest communities are groups of neighbors interacting with each other toward a common good. But how can healthy neighborly interaction be restored after the wrenching separations we have experienced?
I consulted four experts in psychology and sociology: Don Forsyth, a professor of social psychology at the University of Richmond in Virginia; David G. Myers, a professor of psychology at Hope College in Michigan; and Nan and Dave Dhuet, a pair of veteran counselors in Eagle Rock, Calif.
Being “right” must take a back seat to being neighborly— even with those who disagree.
Community association residents seem more alienated from each other than at any other time. Board meetings are often disruptive as attendees feel free to argue with the board and even hurl accusations. Board elections are increasingly divisive, with the focus often being on deposing the current board more than what the community needs from its board. Discussion becomes replaced by announcements of decision, as boards are tempted to take their deliberations to private meetings or email discussions. Perhaps worst of all, neighbors seem to have no problem accusing their boards or community managers of hideous acts, knowing the untrue allegations are designed for a larger purpose— to discredit the volunteers’ efforts.
Forsyth calls himself a “groups guy” and has written a best-selling book, Group Dynamics, now in its seventh edition. He says that the societal damage from politics alone is serious and that neighborhoods have been fractured. It’s something he’s noticed in his own community; he says his neighbors don’t talk with each other when they’re out walking their dogs anymore.
Myers, author of the textbook Psychology, observes, “The percentage of both Republicans and Democrats who ‘hate’ the other party soared from 20% in 2000 to near 50% in 2016. Would you be unhappy if your child married someone from the other party? From 1960 to 2019, the percent of folks answering ‘yes’ shot up from 4% to 40%.”
It stands to reason that property values might even be affected in more divisive and alienated communities. Those in turmoil struggle to keep board members, vendors, and even management. “Properties in disunity are not attractive to homebuyers,” says Dave Dhuet, a lay counselor of many years.
Dave Dhuet says that one root of the problem is that several generations of university-educated people have been told to think adversarially and that how they feel is their truth. Nan Dhuet, a licensed therapist for 37 years, also observes, “Part of the problem is isolation and its tendency to breed deception.”
The Dhuets, Myers, and Forsyth all note the role of social media in the separation of community members from one another. Forsyth says that people now no longer connect to their geographical community but instead connect at a distance online to people who agree with them. Instead of standing out in one’s front yard chatting with nearby neighbors, one signs on to a social media platform and joins like-minded people.
Myers writes, “Separation + conversation => polarization. When like minds discuss, their attitudes often become more extreme.” Dave Dhuet asks rhetorically, “If we eliminated social media, how much less would this problem be?” Myers notes that the result of the ability to link to other like-minded people is that “partisanship veers toward tribalism.” Because of the complete lack of accountability in social media or bulletin board comment sites, Forsyth says simply, “The internet is of no help to us in building unity.”
American attitudes toward property and themselves also contribute to a tendency toward separation. A fundamental part of the American Dream is the notion of real estate ownership, a focus on me and my, not us and our. In the American culture, the dream is my dream, not your dream. Similarly, our dream is not a concern because the only dream that matters is mine.
The self-centered attitude of Americans results in the “my property, my home, my castle” attitude that predominates American thought about real estate ownership. That attitude also makes successful common interest community living more difficult. Shared ownership is often the butt of sitcom plots or humorous television commercials.
“Americans are individualistic, not collectivistic,” Forsyth observes. “We would be more successful in community if that emphasis shifted.”
The view is shared by Dave Dhuet, who says, “Maybe if we can ease it up a bit on the individualistic thinking, all can become winners to a certain degree, if we recognize that some of this thinking has been a disadvantage.”
"Building an identity and a sense of purpose for the community and distinguishing the community from others will create unity “faster than anything else.”
Returning to “business as usual” will not automatically return the community to healthy relations. Something more must be done to address the ruptures—the societal trends pushing neighbors away from one another.
Each of the experts had recommendations.
Refocus. According to Forsyth, there’s no one way to do it. Communities need to try different things, pursuing efforts that are “deeper than a community potluck.” He recommended a focus on the shared goals. “What are we here for, what is our purpose? Homeowners associations have shared values in property ownership, but you better add more to it—such as quality of life, well-being, safety, and diversity, for example.”
He says that building an identity and a sense of purpose for the community and distinguishing the community from others will create unity “faster than anything else.”
Myers also emphasizes the importance of refocusing on the reasons for the homeowners association: “Turning today’s closed fists into tomorrow’s open arms requires recognizing the relative modesty of our overblown differences, finding our deeper commonalities, defining a larger ‘us,’ communicating across group lines, and discovering transcendent goals.”
What could those “us” statements be? It could be something as simple as emphasizing the special nature of the community, such as its history, architecture, or amenities, or it could simply be talking more about “us” as the association community. What if our expressions changed to intentionally include collective personal pronouns “we” and “our” more often? So, instead of discussing “finances,” the term is “our association finances.” Look for opportunities to insert “we/our” in as many statements as possible. Maybe what makes the community special is that we 25/125/1,250 homeowners live there—it’s special because it’s ours.
Perhaps something as simple as creating a logo for the community or building (or enhancing) a website with positive photos depicting the community could begin to build that sense of “us.”
The repair involves more than just holding a few social mixers; it involves reminding owners of the common bond and the value of their community. How more quickly could our communities heal if we can step aside from arguments about the color of the fencing and instead focus on the big picture issues?
Unite. Each of the experts agreed that a powerful unifier is identifying a common outside force as a challenge. In times of natural disaster, an earthquake, hurricane, or flood may be that challenge that unites a community in response. What is the challenge now? It could be as simple as acknowledging the forces and trends that tear our communities apart—not the issues themselves but the division and separation from those issues.
Forsyth urges community associations not to address controversial issues or create dialogue on such subjects to engage debate. He feels strongly that this will result in more damage to the community, and an agreement should be had that issues such as politics will be out of bounds.
What could be such a unifying “enemy”? Could it be acknowledging the forces (not the issues) that tear us apart as neighbors? Remind everyone that they choose to live in the association and that a disunited association benefits much less. Acknowledging the physical isolation that has befallen us and the loss of neighborly atmosphere in our communities is something most of us feel could be a unifying “enemy.”
Communicate. Associations cannot communicate enough to their members. In this age of unofficial community Facebook pages, Nextdoor, and mass group emails initiated by homeowners, it is critical that members receive updates from the association and not only the wildcatter information providers. Those sources often have incomplete information and very complete personal agendas.
Forsyth recommends ratcheting up the level of communication with members. Nan Dhuet urges positive and inclusive updates which confirm that everyone is highly valued and that everyone counts.
One important communication is simply to acknowledge the elephant in the room—that we have been through a very difficult several years in our country, and that everybody has experienced it in the association.
“The president can be that person who acknowledges what they have been through but tells them we’re going to get through this, that we’re going to do it, that the outcome is worth the effort of rebuilding what needs to be rebuilt,” urges Dave Dhuet, who also recommends that associations look forward to the future and avoid too much focus on past damage.
Find some wins. One way of returning commitment to community is to find wins that can be celebrated. Forsyth recommends associations focus on successes because success builds cohesion. It could be anything, he says: a fundraiser, a contest, or some other fun event. He says associations need to do things that show the community is winning, that it is accomplishing goals consistent with its identity, and then the association must announce the successful outcome.
Successful efforts can help remind the community why it exists, that it has power to do good, and that it takes care of its owners.
It is difficult to envision anything more important than the priority of healing within our common interest communities.
What is the desired outcome of all this? Is it a “Stepford Wives” community in which everyone robotically smiles and says only wonderful things? Nobody wants that. How about a goal of becoming a
community of people who place priority on caring for their association neighbors and value their shared community living arrangement as paramount over political or other divisive issues?
Myers writes that the “utopian goal is not a 1984-like uniformity of public opinion. Rather, our challenge is to affirm both our diversity and our unifying ideals, and so to renew the founding idea of America: diversity within unity. E pluribus unum: Out of many, one.” Concurring with that idea, Forsyth says simply, “Unity is not necessarily agreement.”
The goal should be for homeowners to feel safe—and not just from crime. “People need to feel valued and accepted, and that is the kind of community we need,” says Nan Dhuet. Dave Dhuet adds that the goal is to create a “safe environment where homeowners are all seen as worthy and wanted.”
Managers and boards cannot assume that just doing a “good job” will be enough to restore health to communities. It isn’t reasonable to assume people will automatically return to where we were. Such a healing will require major intentional effort.
This effort must be sustained, as a community will not return to unity simply by holding a single successful community event. Furthermore, the success of community events may need to be measured differently for a while.
A long-term strategy is critical for boards and managers to focus on rebuilding the sense of community with shared key values despite varied opinions and backgrounds. Volunteer leaders can lead the way by insisting upon civil and respectful behavior, not only in the meeting audience but also around the board table.
Community associations consisting of alienated neighbors who refuse to interact except in battle will suffer, weaken, and keep their attorneys busy. But that phenomenon, awful as it sounds, also jeopardizes the most basic advantage of common interest community living. If we have nothing in common, what is left to justify the association’s existence? So, it is difficult to envision anything more important than the priority of healing within our common interest communities.
In recovery programs, one begins the first step toward healing by admitting one has a problem. We’re all part of that problem. Can we now begin working to be part of the recovery?
Myers says, “This is the great challenge in times of conflict—to embrace diversity within unity.” Let’s take on that challenge.
Kelly G. Richardson is a fellow in CAI’s College of Community Association Lawyers and a CAI past president. He is a partner of Richardson Ober DeNichilo law firm in California.
©Community Associations Institute. Further reproduction and distribution is prohibited without written consent. For reprints, go to www.caionline.org/reprints. CAI is the world’s leading provider of resources and information for homeowners, volunteer board leaders, professional managers, and business professionals in community associations, condominiums, and co-ops. Visit us at www.caionline.org and follow us on Twitter and Facebook @CAISocial.