When conflicts arise between residents in a condo building—and in my near West Chicago suburb there are now 294 condo buildings comprising nearly one-fifth of all of the housing here—they can set up ways of talking and jointly finding solutions instead of engaging in legal warfare or conducting a long Cold War.
Dwellers in condo buildings are not just tenants who must follow the landlord’s rules. They are owners who have to run their building together, collectively. So, many conflicts can arise. The toughest conflict is a resident not paying her monthly fees.
You make think there’s no conflict here. It’s cut and dried. They just have to come up with the money. Well, to a mediator, it’s a conflict: you want them to pay their monthly assessment and they are effectively choosing not to.
You say they have to and your by-laws say they have to but they’re showing in practice that they don’t have to!
You certainly hope they do: it takes money to keep a building in shape, especially some of the older Oak Park buildings. The money comes from this monthly fee each condo resident pays as well as “special assessments”—extra money each unit owner has to chip in. But in the current economic crisis there are buildings in which one or more owners stop paying these monthly fees, or they do not come up with the money for the special assessment. The Association’s board of directors has to decide what to do about it. Here are three possible routes:
1) the traditional route: commence collection, and then legal action, and allocate all the costs of collection to the homeowner; the money will just come out of the proceeds of the sale when the unit finds a new buyer; some condos get a judge to allow them to forcibly evict the owner and then rent out their unit until such time as the rental income equals the assessment fees owed the Condo Association;
2) do nothing: many people in smaller buildings are not even organized into a regularly-functioning Association; and so they shy away from aggressive legal actions, perhaps wisely so; but also do not want to talk face-to-face with their non-paying and non-complying neighbors; if the association has a professional property manager they let this person take whatever measures he or she sees fit.
3) ask a person on the board or in the Association who has some training in being a third side facilitator to intervene to get the Board and the non-paying resident or non-complying resident talking. If the conflict threatens to escalate, they can hire a professional mediator. If the association has a property manager, the board can ask the manager to promote and set up an informal conversation between the non-paying resident and a board member, or to bring in a mediator. This may be either in lieu of or in addition to a formal board meeting that the non-compliant owner may be entitled to under the by-laws.
The problem with the “commence collection” strategy, if pursued by itself, is its cost in terms of financial risk and human relationships. If it facilitates a foreclosure, everybody will lose, even though the resulting “paper trail” may make it possible for the Association to eventually get paid the back assessments owed--in Illinois, up to six months' worth of assessments.
If the Association has a functioning board with enough energy and support to get a judge to allow it to evict the non-paying neighbor, renting out or even purchasing the unit is a lot of work, responsibility, and risk. Plus, in certain cases it may be very harsh and distasteful to force a “delinquent” unit owner out of house and home and can cause more tension and conflict among those remaining.
Certainly the condo association can consult with its attorney and be clear on all legal options. A letter from the attorney is not a bad idea: the Association needs to protect itself and in fact is legally required to intervene to obtain compliance. But somebody needs to be communicating directly with the non-complying resident! Probably not the Association’s attorney, but a board member, another resident, the property manager if the Association has one, or a professional mediator needs to be facilitating a conversation that connects the parties and seeks solutions.
Condo boards and condo residents can find new, more peaceful and more effective ways of defending the association’s collective interest. Many times there are routes to resolution that can be revealed through mediation that could never be discovered through the immediate employment of adversarial collection methods. As San Francisco-based mediator David Stein says, "a condo is after all a community. Like a community, it can come together to explore possible ways to deal with community problems".