The pandemic and its domino effect on the economy, government regulations, and our relationship with technology have created big changes in the way property managers do business. From contactless everything to sanitizing protocols to support for struggling residents, the year has challenged every part of the property management space. But those challenges won’t go away next year. And while it’s hard to predict exactly what’s in store for 2021, community association managers (CAMs) can look to the association management trends that came out of the previous year to prepare their businesses and their associations.
Which Community Association Management Trends Have Come Out of COVID-19?
In Buildium’s 2021 Community Associations Industry Report, community association board members and managers weighed in on how 2020 affected them.
The report explains:
Community association managers and association board members were less likely to report negative effects from the pandemic and recession in comparison with their peers in the rental sector. Respondents hinted that this is because many community associations—populated mainly by homeowners, who tend to be more financially stable than renters—just weren’t rattled by the pandemic to the extent that rental properties were.
This muted impact makes even more sense when you consider that many community associations offer suburban, single-family properties—which have experienced greater demand due to the pandemic, according to the Buildium report and other sources like Redfin.
That doesn’t mean, however, that they were completely unaffected. Community associations and their managers have adapted their operations for the foreseeable future. And while there are still a lot of big question marks for 2021, there are plenty of things that CAMs can start thinking about.
Not all associations have felt the same financial pinch that some rental property managers have felt during COVID-19—at least, not yet. As one board member in Texas told Buildium, “Since our dues are annual, we have yet to see any impact from the current market situation. We are not increasing dues this coming year. We do expect to have some residents have trouble paying their annual fees.” As a result, the impact of the pandemic is on the horizon for many associations as we near 2021.
Those that have already collected dues, however, did see an immediate impact. Like rental property managers, community association managers have been working as a go-between for homeowners and associations, helping residents figure out how to make ends meet. Many CAMs, according to the report, have waived late fees (79%), created payment plans with residents (71%), or helped residents apply for local aid (20%).
To keep associations in the black, 36 percent of community association managers have recommended that associations either create or increase reserve funds for emergency maintenance. But one big question that looms as 2021 approaches is: Will HOAs suspend special assessments (the additional costs that residents are required to pay if the reserves don’t cover the expenses)? On the one hand, there may be upcoming maintenance that can’t be put off. But will residents be able to pay for assessments? What happens if homeowners are pushed to the brink of forbearance with government relief in question? These are complex questions that all associations will have to answer on a case-by-case basis.
Essential Day-to-Day Operations
The nature of the COVID-19 virus has forced associations and community association managers to rethink how they and their residents interact, deal with emergency situations, handle day-to-day maintenance—and simply operate. There really isn’t any part of running an association that the pandemic hasn’t touched. But community safety, maintenance, and governance are three of the biggest areas that CAMs have had to revamp.
Of course, keeping residents safe has been a top priority for community association managers since the beginning of the pandemic. They implemented new cleaning procedures in line with CDC guidelines to sanitize high-traffic areas regularly, and common areas were made as zero-touch as possible, according to Buildium’s report. Some associations have adopted online reservation systems to control the number of residents in a common area at a time.
They have distributed masks and provided disinfectant in high-traffic areas. They have also increased communications and added signage to remind residents to practice social distancing and proper hygiene.
In some cases, they’ve had to shut down common areas and amenities altogether when they couldn’t meet the CDC safety guidelines. But the decision hasn’t always come with the support of their residents. One board member in Naples, FL told Buildium, “We’re limiting pool use, and member activities are almost nonexistent. We’re wondering if snowbirds will be coming back.”
When the pandemic first locked down much of the country, many community association managers (46 percent of those surveyed) initially suspended non-essential maintenance projects until they could figure out how to perform maintenance safely. At the same time, with so many residents working from home, associations’ total number of maintenance requests increased.
Community association managers told Buildium that they have now created protocols for their maintenance teams that meet CDC guidelines to protect residents as well as staff members. Those measures include:
- Enabling online maintenance requests (59%)
- Providing PPE for maintenance workers and following proper social distancing guidelines (57%)
- Allowing residents to decline non-essential maintenance (48%)
Amending CC&Rs and Condo Documents
Covenants, Conditions & Restrictions (CC&Rs) and condo documents now have to reflect the new normal in which residents and associations live, as well as their community and common area bylaws. Many associations have revised their documents to allow for virtual meetings (more on that in the next section). Others have had to rethink what a quorum looks like if members are ill. Still others have had to create new procedures and protocols to handle emergencies, whether that be an emergency repair or an outbreak of sickness among residents. Those revised documents will continue to govern associations for years to come.
PropTech and COVID-19
According to Buildium’s report, community association managers were already adopting proptech more quickly than their rental counterparts, mainly because they manage larger portfolios and employ more staff members.
Even so, the pandemic accelerated association management trends around technology adoption. Contactless business transactions, including online payments and document signing, became essential in 2020.
Between 70 and 90 percent of association board members in the survey want managers to handle all of their processes digitally from here on out. Those processes include:
- Accounting and budgeting (91%)
- Payments (90%)
- Communications (87%)
- Tax prep (70%)
- Maintenance (69%)
Community association managers have also had to increase and modify their communications with association board members and residents. For many associations, this has included regular emails to keep residents informed of safety protocols being put in place and updates on amenities and common spaces.
In some cases, community association managers reached out simply to check on their residents and let them know that they were available to help. “Most homeowners are elderly, and the COVID-19 stay-at-home order has been emotionally trying for many of them. The board has kept in touch with them through monthly bulletins about how to stay safe,” one board member told Buildium.
One of the biggest challenges for associations has been finding a way to hold the meetings required in their bylaws. Many associations have turned to Zoom, Google Meet, and other virtual solutions to hold meetings and elections.
Community association managers and boards have had to consult with their legal teams to ensure that meetings and elections follow the association’s rules. What most associations found, however, is that states often don’t require a specific location for meetings. As long as residents are made aware of the meeting and how to log on well in advance, a virtual meeting is just fine. The good news? Community association managers have actually seen meeting attendance numbers increase as a result.
Community association managers and boards now realize the cost-efficiency and convenience of virtual meetings, contactless transactions, and other digital solutions. So, those solutions won’t be going away. Instead, many community association managers will be amping up their digital presence to stay competitive in 2021 and beyond.
Bottom Line: There are a lot of unanswered questions as we move into 2021. But we can look at the association management trends we saw emerge in 2020 to make an educated guess. If there’s one thing that has remained constant, it’s community association managers’ need to remain flexible, roll with the punches, and find creative solutions to keep their businesses healthy. Regardless of how 2021 pans out, the community association market has proven itself to be a resilient piece of property managers’ portfolios during a year that’s impossible to pin down.Read more on COVID-19