Fighting Apathy #4: Leading a Condo Association Resistance Movement Part 1


Sometimes Condo Boards do dumb things.  Sometimes they make bad decisions – maybe because of ignorance, maybe because of stupidity, maybe even because of greed or corruption.  They might fire a beloved employee, take away an oft-used amenity, raise fees, or award a contract to an insider.  Maybe the Owners of the Association have been apathetic, allowing the Board to get disconnected from the needs of rarely seen Owners.  Maybe the Association has been engaged, and the Board simply is off base.  Either way, the Board has done something that the Owners don’t like.  And the Owners want to take a stand.  A question Owners constantly ask in some permutation or another boils down to “How can we make the Board do what we want when they’ve done something we don’t like?”  What people are asking is how to lead a Condo Association Resistance Movement.  

In Fighting Apathy #4, first I’m going to edit that problem statement to a better one – “How can we Owners engage with the Board effectively, efficiently, and get to a resolution that works for the Association?” – and then I’m going to give you the secret for answering it.  First – this is targeted at something where there is a community anger.  Not a one-off issue where you need something like architectural approval for your new cream drapes.  This is for issues that affect many people.  

We're tired of being pushed around by our Condo Board!
We’re tired of being pushed around by our Condo Board!  And we like carrying pitchforks!

In this article, I’m going to spill the secrets of how to work a Board over.  The reason I am happy to do this is because leading a meaningful resistance takes a lot of energy and effort from a lot of Owners.  A Board has to have done something very, very bad to trigger an event like this.  If they’ve done that, they deserve to have a resistance movement against them.  But in nine times out of ten – often the Board has made a difficult – but justified – decision, and because of that, Owner interest wanes and after an initial complaint session, Owners get bored of the issue and wander off.  This article is very much for serious issues only.  It is the “break in the event of emergency” glass for Owners.  And I don’t mind sharing it because I know it won’t be abused.  It simply takes too much energy.  

There are five phases to this: Forming a Resistance Movement, Getting Educated on the Problem, Figuring out What you Want, Negotiating and Going for the Long Haul.  In today’s installment, we’ll cover the first two.  Throughout this – the key is to be polite and professional.  Be a movement, not a mob.  

Forming a Resistance Movement

You don't quite need this level of infrastructure to form an effective resistance... but email helps.
You don’t quite need this level of infrastructure to form an effective resistance… but email helps.

First and foremost, you need to form a genuine movement.  Remember, this is a democracy.  If the people (i.e., Owners) are upset – they need to make it clear to their elected officials (i.e., the Board) that they’re upset.  This is the first test that causes most Resistance Movements to fail.  Lots of people will show up to mindlessly yell and complain after a Board decision they don’t like – but after they get it out of their system, they go back to being uninvolved and apathetic.

Forming an organized resistance is a challenge in a Condo Association because people tend to be anti-social – you may not know your neighbor’s name, and if you know their name, you may not know their email. Researchers at RPI have said it takes about 10% of a population to affect change in opinion – Freakonomics has a nice writeup here on this concept.  In a Condo Association, where apathy often rules, I bet you could get away with 5%.  I’ve very rarely seen a concerted 5% of the same people stay engaged on any issue, even a monstrous Special Assessment.  So you need to organize 5% of your unhappy people from a mob – into a movement.  Get a list of names and emails and start coordinating and communicating.  And most importantly – make sure everyone is behaving as a team and behaving politely.  Turn the angry mob into Condo Association Resistance Movement.  That’s step one.  If you can’t get a group together who genuinely cares – you’re obviously not going to be successful in leading a revolution.  

Get Educated on the Problem

Depending on your level of engagement in your Condo Association, you may know a whole lot, or next to nothing on the issue.  This is something you must fix immediately among your group.  You need to get access to all available information on what the problem is.  For example, if you’ve had a Special Assessment sprung on you and you’re mad about that, you need to learn everything you can about it.  Documents like Engineering Assessments should be made public to the Association.  If they are denied to you, legal action should strongly be considered.  If you are being denied documents you should have access to under your state’s Condominium Act or your Bylaws – that is very, very bad.

If it was a sensitive issue- like a personnel or contract termination – where the Board can rightly deny full information, you need to take a more nuanced approach.  Using your Condo Association Resistance Movement, politely email the Board that you would like a statement that details their thought process and key metrics that led them to make their decision.  If they refuse, show up as a group and ask again – politely – at the next Board meeting.  

This is a very important step in the process, one that differentiates your resistance movement from being a “mob” vs. an actual “movement.”  If you are rabble rousing, being mean, being jerky, etc. – the Board is going to tune you out and wait you out.  If you start the dialogue from the get go in a positive, constructive manner, you’re setting a tone for future collaboration – which is what you want.  Email the Board politely that you represent X (use the actual number) number of Owners – in fact, CC all the Owners in your movement – and note that as a group, you have concerns over a decision that has been made.  Your group wants to learn more so you can better understand the Board’s thought processes.  That’s it.  No drama.  No histrionics.  You must keep your movement organized and in line and polite.  

Another possibility in this phase is you realize the Board was justified in their actions.  A good Board should be proactively communicating – which would circumvent the part where you as a community got mad.  Sometimes Boards screw up at first and they can make up for it by communicating their thought processes behind a tough decision after the fact.  It’s still a mess, but it leads to a resolution.  This often happens in Special Assessments, which many Boards handle poorly in communicating.  Once people realize how screwed up the building is, they get over the “I don’t want to pay money” angst because they realize they would like to have a new roof that doesn’t leak (or whatever else is broken and requires an Assessment).  

However, it may be that you’re not happy with what the Board presented.  You still want change.  And your group hasn’t lost its focus.  So it’s time to figure out what you want.  

Read on for Part 2.  

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