Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Adding Value, Not Chaos

My family doesn't so much "go" out to eat, or "get" on an airplane. No, think invasion and temporary occupation. Entering a restaurant, we recon the dining room. That couple in the corner is already glaring at us...let's try another corner. A small IED appears to have detonated under a table over there...good, we should sit nearby. 
The six of us are evenly split:  three for the men and three for the women, but when it comes to leaving a memorable impact, we guys are shock and awe. At a vocal 2-years, a clever 4-years, and a perfectly innocent 40, we're full of potential. Though in all fairness...when it comes to firing plastic straw wrappers, my 8-year old daughter can send a clean shot up her brother's nose from over three feet away.
Getting on an airplane flight, we distribute ear-plugs and Valium as we navigate the aisle and thank God that our 4-year-old can't yet read the instructions on the emergency exit - though I'm convinced that his determination and his kid brother's brute strength would be adequate to yank it free and save us all if necessary.
So, you can imagine my wife and I's apprehension as we pulled into the driveway of the Airbnb we rented last Spring. We've long since had to face the fact that we are "that family." I just feel bad for the neighbors....

They aren't as innocent as they look...
And what if the Airbnb we rented had been in one of your communities? A recent news article by Berding | Weil picks up the ongoing discussion about short-term, or vacation rentals in CIDs. The 
article talks about the impact that a family like mine at it's worst, might leave on the otherwise quiet and subdued neighborhood that you manage. At the core of the "vacation rental" issue is what? Well, concisely - Standard of living - and what a drop in standard of living will do to home values. 
Seemingly unrelated, and on the opposite side of the continent, HABITAT Magazine reported that an Upper West Side Co-op has been billing owners $1000 per month during private remodels in Manhattan. But it's not really unrelated because, again, at its core is the same issue. The disturbance of remodeling is lowering the standard of living for the neighbors and thus is reasonably penalized with a fee. Maybe you agree, and maybe you don't, but you can certainly understand the concerns.
There is another side to these issues where vacation rentals and remodels actually add value, but this post is hardly the place to hammer out thorny issues such as these, rather it is an opportunity to look around a community and think more deeply about what really does raise the value of homes?
Everyone has an opinion. As a Contractor and Project Manager/Consultant my customers often declare their perspectives and opinions on what adds or detracts from home values. One board member is determined to remodel the clubhouse while another is lobbying for new roofs. As you know, opinions are rarely aligned. You, the manager of these communities, face the same irreconcilable perspectives, personalities, and problems daily. 
While a quick visit to the Chili's bathroom may be the opening for a spit-wad battle - eliciting glares from the corner table and sending soda swirling as sticky hands commandeer plastic straws and shred napkins gunning up for battle, a not so dissimilar HOA battle between the re-roof contingent and the remodel contingent may send owners packing as the 2 sides lawyer up for battle.
The firm and authoritative voice of maturity can avert disaster in the Chili's dining room and can do the same at your Board Meeting. What raises the value of an HOA? You do! Be convinced that your role is to raise the standard of living in each community you touch. Be bold and be prepared to demonstrate professionalism by enlisting other professionals to speak truth into the chaos. Then be confident that you are the best person for the job, and relax. Rise above the storm by seeing the bigger picture - then bring your customers up with you.
Oh, and if you see my kids and I walking into Chili's without my wife - you better hope you have a quick-draw with your spit-wad straw and a handy kids-menu shield....

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Nothing Gets Less Attention...

A guy walks into a Peet's Coffee first thing in the morning wearing gray slacks, black shoes, white shirt, jacket - no tie. He orders a medium coffee with room for cream. (sounds like the opening to a joke...)

Who is going to remember this guy 10 minutes later?

No one. His presence is unremarkable and routine.

Unless the barista ignores him. Pretend like he's not there and, if I know coffee addiction - soon he's racing around the dining area upsetting tables and pitching chairs at the espresso machine. (I may be exaggerating, but it helps my allegory)

The same with routine maintenance. Send a contractor to put a coat of paint on a railing or replace a square of sidewalk, and your unremarkable action may be completely unnoticed.

Why? Because even when paint is wearing thin, signage is fading, and community mailboxes are not closing just right - they are still unremarkable.

But wait until they start pitching a fit, and suddenly they get some unflattering attention - and so do you.

Take a moment today to notice the guardrail system ordering the medium coffee with room for cream. Take note of the light poles wearing a white shirt and dark jacket. They may need your attention. Ignore them and they will soon be wandering around the dining room pitching chairs.

I've played out this analogy as far as I dare...And I still haven't come up with a punch line for the joke.

Alas, don't count on me for humor, but you can count on UPSI for help with both the routine maintenance and also the deferred maintenance which has started giving you trouble.

Solving Problems: Engineering Solutions

Friday, February 2, 2018

Hey Siri, When Did The EPA Ban Asbestos? **** I'm Sorry - It Seems They Didn't.

Asbestos Fears Went Out With Jazzercize  - Right?

I remember over 10 years ago, I met with a seasoned (and maybe slightly cynical) manager on a job site in San Leandro. I was doing my best (and failing) to show off my contractor skills, by speaking demonstratively about the particular rot problem at hand. In his wisdom, he listened for just a bit and then gave me a piece of advice I haven't forgotten.
"You really don't have to be alarmist - it doesn't help."
I still think about that statement when I write these newsletters and converse with customers. Even though something may be a big deal - no one is impressed with my ability to blow it out of proportion. That advice has been swirling in my consciousness as I have pondered writing this article. What follows is not earth-shaking or paradigm shattering, but it is a substantive shift in understanding about something which has become doctrinaire over the past 3-4 decades.
We all know that you don't have to worry about asbestos testing in a building built after 1978 - right?
Remember, I'm not being alarmist, but about 50 red lights went on in my head when I was confronted with this inconvenient truth a few weeks back. I've spent the last few weeks checking and double checking my sources.
I, of course, started with the internet and quickly found NESHAP, National Standard for Hazardous Air Pollutants. As I read, I was struck by a growing and overwhelming sense of...boredom. Wow, that was a lot of words, and some poor soul had to type every last one of them.
But when I clicked on the link to Renovation and Demolition of Buildings I sat up a little, squinted at my screen, and probably turned my eyebrows down in that emoticon way of expressing - Hmmm?
I'll quote it here, and be prepared to read it a couple times:
....Air toxics regulations under the Clean Air Act specify work practices for asbestos to be followed during demolitions and renovations of all facilities, including, but not limited to, structures, installations, and buildings (excluding residential buildings that have four or fewer dwelling units). The regulations require a thorough inspection where the demolition or renovation operation will occur. The regulations require the owner or the operator of the renovation or demolition operation to notify the appropriate delegated entity (often a state agency) before any demolition, or before any renovations of buildings that contain a certain threshold amount of regulated asbestos-containing material. The rule requires work practice standards that control asbestos emissions...Any demolition or renovation operation at an institutional, commercial or industrial building is regulated by the Asbestos NESHAPAt a minimum, the thorough inspection requirement applies. The notification requirements apply to any demolition and to renovations over a certain threshold amount of regulated asbestos-containing material.
Go ahead and read it again if you need to. But basically that just said that EVERY ONE of your condos is subject to NESHAP requirements, regardless of the date built. My next move was to find out what others were writing about this, and I quickly found the AMI EnvironmentalWebsitewhich stated:
"Yes. Even if your building was constructed after 1980, you still need to test for Asbestos-Containing Materials (ACM's) before starting renovations because all buildings (except for residential structures with four or fewer dwelling units) are subject to the EPA's Asbestos NESHAP Standard." 
Knowing that the internet never lies, I nevertheless felt impelled to talk directly to an expert and phoned a friend of a friend, Michael Lee, Certified asbestos Consultant (CAC) and Environmental Consultant from National Analytical Lab (NAL). His opinion fell in lockstep with what I had been reading. We talked for over 20 minutes and he never budged.
There is no magic date back in the era of Jazzercise skin suits, jelly shoes, and fanny packs which marks the end of asbestos in a condominium. Again according to AMI Environmental:
"Contrary to popular belief, not all asbestos-containing products have been banned. In fact, there are still asbestos-containing products being manufactured today that are allowed for use in the United States. These include vinyl-asbestos floor tile, roofing felt and coatings, pipeline wrap, non-roofing coatings, and some cement products, among others."
No demolition should be occurring if a "jurisdictional building" (condos with 4 or more units fall under the jurisdiction of NESHAP and the EPA) has not had an asbestos survey completed for that building or that phase of the construction of a building. The age of the building doesn't matter.
There's also a misconception that if the affected area is under 100 square feet, then no one need be contacted or alarmed. False. Feel free under California Contractor's Licensing Law to do this work without an EPA permit - but you better still take the air containment precautions required by the EPA, or risk the unwanted attention of OSHA, EPA, and probably a few other snarling acronyms.
In a response letter to an inquiry the EPA stated - "For any facility, irrespective of the date when the facility was constructed, the Asbestos  NESHAP requires the owner/operator, prior to a renovation or demolition operation, to conduct a thorough inspection either of the whole facility or the portion of the facility that will be affected by the renovation or demolition operation."
What would Michael Lee recommend? Get the buildings tested. Of course, he would love to be the one to test for you, but there are many labs capable of doing this work. Michael's lab can get samples tested in as little as 24 hours - and obtaining samples isn't as difficult as you might think. But that won't help you if the roof turned incontinent overnight and the remediation company won't start work without a certificate on site.  This happened to me.
Let's face it - no one wants to be exposed to asbestos, not anymore, so it only makes sense to get the survey completed. 
How to go about it?
How much?
Talk to Michael at NAL or Juan at Cal-Environmental Testing, or any other qualified Industrial Hygienist and they will guide you on the path to getting your building certified. Or give us a call at UPSI and we'll help you unravel the mystery for your specific situation. In the mean-time do your own research on this and bring your various boards of directors up to speed. The laws are on the books, and though like speed limits, they are inconvenient - they aren't going to go away any time soon.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Christmas 2017

I recently heard a friend describing a Christmas memory from his teenage years; He was sulking in the back seat of the family car as they traveled some distance on Christmas eve to participate in a far flung cultural event. His parents had grand designs, but my friend just wasn't having it.

His frustrated parents finally confronted him on his attitude asking, "so what do you want?"

He replied sarcastically, "I don't know - how about some chestnuts roasting on an open fire?"

...Tis' the season for unmet expectations.

We all try, especially this time of year, to do the right thing - the kind thing, to be generous and gentle, to fulfill all the expectations of the season. And inevitably we won't get it all quite right. Ours or someone else's expectations will be, to some degree, unrecognized. Or worse - ignored.

We all have expectations and personal paradigms that are simply unattainable and unknowable by even our closest loved ones - no less our co-workers and customers.

Happiness largely comes from things going as we had hoped they would: met expectations. The Christmas season is a great time to explore ways to gin up some more happiness. 

Why not make this Christmas season the one where we each relax our expectations and add some grace to our personal paradigm? Dial back those expectations, and make happiness just a little more accessible. Meanwhile, invest in someone else, and surprise them with a little happiness.

Thank-you, our amazing customers and associates, who have made 2017 a great year, by blasting through our expectations and giving us another reason to be happy. 

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Condition of the HOA Construction Industry

This posting almost didn't hit the presses. Every revision sounded like I was either complaining or making excuses. To you, the Community Association professionals who, alas, specialize in fielding complaints and excuses, I knew that track was a non-starter. 

But having gained a reputation for being mildly controversial, and having largely gotten away with it, here's my shot at giving you the state of the construction side of the HOA industry - running the risk of sounding like I'm, well, complaining and making excuses.

Does the following sound familiar?

Contractors are really:
  • Hard to communicate with,
  • Picky and turning down work,
  • Expensive; charging too much.
 Well, there's more truth there than I would like to admit...but there are reasons.
The market is flooded with work. From a pure economics perspective, 2017 placed the liability of demand in the HOA Customer column and the power of limited supply in the Contractor column. When customers are begging for help - at "any cost" - the cost is inevitably going to go up. At the busiest of the summer, I had told customers that there was no way I could get to a job quickly unless I sent technicians on overtime - because the calendar was completely full. ...Time-and-a-half with a 4-hour minimum - APPROVED! Time after time I just shook my head and sent the technician. Many of us pulled back to the corner of work we knew we could do best, and had no choice but to turn down the other work. 
Hard to communicate with - I suspect that there are some who will blame me for this also - though I tried...I really tried. And I know my team, and other great contractors who were doing their best also - and failing.

Why is the market flooded?

  • Heavy rains and leaks last winter backlogged repairs into the spring and summer. The regularly scheduled summer work never had a chance.
  • The economy, in general, is on an upswing and customers are ready to spend money on maintenance.
  • Deferred maintenance is catching up with so many HOAs and, favorable economics or not, the time is NOW to do those repairs.

But the problem isn't limited to the quantity of contractors to hire. Contractors are also facing a shortage - Laborers.
In our far-reaching recruiting, I've had restaurant waiters from Florida responding to employment ads. The demand for construction labor is crazy high. When was the last time you drove into SF? All those buildings rising from the congestion require armies of labor to keep them climbing.

I'll admit, I'm as guilty as the next contractor. It's been hard to honestly keep up with the demand. I hate to turn down work, but at some point - we have to say no, or risk failing you, our beloved customers.

The short-term good news!
  • So far this fall and winter have been reasonably dry. Summer projects naturally fall off as winter approaches, and the bloated summer labor force should be able to start catching up on the backlog.
  • With all the water last winter, it's possible that a majority of undetected leaks were finally addressed, and the leak work-load will be decreased this winter.

That didn't sound too much like complaining - did it?
There are some legitimate reasons for contractors acting like...well, contractors. We, contractors, are an odd variant of human. We need, shall we say, refinement. Many thanks to the customers out there who have been patient and offered those kind and timely admonitions. The partnership is appreciated.

And a Bonus: Interested in the future?
Me too. Here are some parting thoughts:
  • What will be the effect of the North-Bay fires on materials, labor, and architects?  We will not know the true effect until everybody starts to rebuild all at once.  
  • Hurricane Harvey and his conspirators could draw manpower away from California.  
  • Political forces have left many laborers feeling uneasy about working in America.  If that worsens, what might be the consequence to the labor pool?  
  • Also, looming ahead is AB721, the deck structural inspections bill, which is a two-year bill and may be approved.  This bill in its present form would require inspections of 15% of all elevated decks and walkways, requiring an immense amount of destructive testing.  Who will perform all of this work, when we are at full employment, and now every multi-unit development in the state needs to conduct these inspections all at once?

The good news is that we have time to plan.
The HOA industry is poised to be a driver for sociological change in this millennium. Join me - in making it good.

Have a great Holiday Season!

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Diffusion of Responsibility

Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death on March 13, 1964. Dozens in her neighborhood are reported to have heard her cries for help - while none responded. Reports of the atrocity prompted psychologists and sociologists to look in depth into what has been referred to as the "Bystander Effect," or more broadly, "Diffusion of Responsibility." Being aptly named, the definitions of these similar concepts are easy to imagine, but some real-life scenarios may define them better:
Just the other day I lingered at the edge of a playground with my infant son as my other children mixed with the mob. Several of us adults hesitated as a mother tried in vain to coax her daughter down a bright green ladder. Unwilling to set my son down into the salad bowl of playground mulch, I sent my teenage daughter to offer assistance. She was just barely preceded by a mother who finally broke from the perimeter and extended a helping hand. Why did at least 8 other adults stand suspended in indecision while a mother struggled?
Or, we've all breezed past a distraught person on the side of a busy road, and thought - why me? 
Or, in a less-obvious scenario - We've all experienced that awkward split second on a crowded elevator when someone else should be pushing the button.
The HOA application may be obvious to you already, but first stick with me for the math. Imagine there are 2 of us and "Problem Dinosaur" is 100% important to us both. I will bear 50% of the responsibility to resolve Problem Dinosaur. Simple math, right? Under these conditions, I will probably decide to help resolve the Dino Dilemma. 
Now, adjust the importance variable. Suppose Problem Dinosaur isn't 100% important to me, because my kid is going through a divorce and I'm 50% distracted. Now, I am still going to bear half of the Dino Problem, but I am only going to bear half of what I perceive the magnitude to be. I am now bearing only 25%. With all due respect - forget about you and your 50% - I'm only thinking about me.
Imagine now that we move the other variable and there are 100 of us facing Problem Dinosaur. Besides the organizational nightmare of coordinating a 100-warrior attack on a single Dinosaur, an inevitable problem will arise...No one will feel much responsibility for dealing with Dino. We all agree that Problem Dinosaur is a 100% problem, but I'm only 1 person out of 100 bearing 1% of the burden of responsibility. In this scenario, I will post vicious comments to Facebook because this is, like, a totally HUGE Dinosaur. But, I won't take meaningful action because "They" should be dealing with the problem. 
So about those HOAs...
The most efficient and effective HOA boards I've worked for are the ones where at least one member has taken personal responsibility for their community. Sometimes this is an old guy was nothing better to do, sometimes it's a young woman who has purchased her first home and determined it's not going to lose value. Whatever the cause, when one person decides they will be responsible - the whole benefits.
Recent newsletters have spoken directly to the deferred maintenance dilemma. It seems clear to me that the current deferred maintenance dilemma facing so many HOAs has its roots, at least partially, in this concept of Diffusion of Responsibility.
Diffusion of Responsibility for the HOA Board of Directors
 While a HOA board of directors is intended to work as a single body, there is no avoiding the fact that each in the group has his or her own personal agendas. Each director will assign a "responsibility value" (Remember Problem Dinosaur?) to themselves repeatedly for each issue and decision. 
This is critical:  The efficiency and effectiveness of that board depends solely on the relationship between each responsibility value and each individual director's personal agenda. There are always at least 2 variables: 
  1. 1.     How important is the problem,
  1. 2.     How important is the problem to me!  
How important the problem is to me will always, to a degree, depend on the diffusion of responsibility.
Diffusion of responsibility can be manifested in both action and inaction, though historically, the case with HOAs is that inaction is the evil subtly excused through diffusion of responsibility.
A new landscape maintenance contract is allowed to sit for another month; delinquencies are not sent to collections; special assessments never get off the ground; siding or deck repair contracts are not solicited, or when solicited lay unsigned. 
Again, remember, each director arrives at the board meeting with his or her own personal agenda. Consider the dilemma of a special assessment to raise funds. Is it even imaginable that a board of directors populated with paycheck-to-paycheck owners will ever get a special assessment or dues increase off the ground? NO! - but WHY?
Why? ... in part, diffusion of responsibility. There are so many other people who can be imagined responsible (The other board members, previous boards, possibly even a list of community managers), that when it comes down to making that hard decision the path of least resistance (do nothing) seems best. And, because so many others share in the responsibility, little to no importance, thus minimal guilt is felt by the individual directors.
I won't be so bold as to say the cause is always abdication, selfishness or arrogance. Other reasons to not get serious include fatigue, busyness, health issues, family stress, insecurity, peer pressure - and the list goes on. But one variable continues to remain elusive...how to make HOA governance important to the individuals who are tasked with its execution. What will make the problem important to me?
I believe the more we plumb the depths of the relationship between individual and shared or diffused responsibility, the closer we will come to an answer to the deferred maintenance crisis troubling so many HOAs.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Riding the Glacier, With an Amazon Delusion

What's the difference between a government which exists in perpetual partisan gridlock, and AmazonPrime which can deliver a park bench to my front door tomorrow?

Tons of Liability insurance? - Probably
Smarter people? - Likely
Desire? - You bet

I joined AmazonPrime because it made a whole lot of sense. My family orders everything - shoes, tools, jewelry, headphones, vitamins, furniture, clothes, coloring books, and baby food on Amazon. In the 21st century, finding a brown cardboard box on the front porch every day and knowing the UPS driver by her first name is normal. 

Browsing the Sears catalog is not. 

I thought of this comparison as I tried to make sense of a particularly difficult homeowner in the middle of a kitchen water loss renovation. I don't have space here to elaborate on the delays which nudged this owner of already questionable mental stability even closer to the brink. Sewer leak, bad advice, slow response, stubborn resistance, insurance dispute, board apathy, busy vendors - need I go on? By the time this owner was presented with a plan for repairs to their stripped kitchen, they were demanding their pound of flesh - and they weren't exactly being nice about it.

I was called to help and was up to my eyeballs before I realized I was in the swamp with crocodiles. It wasn't long before I wanted out - you know? Months passed as no kitchen materialized. As decisions were metered out, I felt sorry for the owners, even though I routinely checked my truck for IED's before pulling away from their townhome. 

And then, as construction finally began, the harried homeowners obsessed and anticipated each step in the process as if it should be delivered by a Fed Ex driver. That's what made me think of AMAZON.

The owners imagined:
Order cabinets, place in cart, choose next day shipping.
Select granite, place in cart, choose next day shipping.
Select flooring - you get the idea...
If you've ever been within a hundred miles of a kitchen remodel you know this is a ridiculous concept - but to be fair, they had been riding the glacier of HOA politics and were ready for some action.

So here's the contrast...A rising cultural expectation of immediate gratification vs. the tortuous path from problem to resolution in HOA-Land.

I know you've experienced the helpless feeling too. Telling a homeowner that, what should be a very simply resolved issue, won't even be discussed until the quarterly board meeting. I don't want to come across as naive'. I understand the need for process and protocol to beat back chaos and anarchy. But set aside the fact that, yes, they should have read the CC&Rs before buying that condo and embrace the possibility that there is a better way.

I said, "there is a better way" with confidence, and even from this side of the computer screen I sensed a flicker of hope as you imagined I had found the holy grail. And there is a better way but - let's face it - we're still looking for it. And we must continue to look for it or go mad.

Davis-Stirling predates the iPad, smartphones, and Amazon. In previous posts, I described the outdated construction methods that went into building many condos and townhomes. Granted, Davis-Stirling may not have been grossly defective like some of those buildings, but what's being done to bring outdated HOA governance into the 21st century?

Like in construction, some processes just take time. But just like construction is taking technological leaps forward, so can HOA governance, and I would love to create some dialogue in the following newsletters to get your thoughts. Here are just a few ideas to ponder:
Professional boards are probably a bad idea - right? Or are they? Is there another way to incentivize board participation?

Board decisions without an official meeting are bad - right? Or are they? What if there was an app...?

Vendor checks should only be signed and sent once work has been inspected by a committee member - right? Or should they? What if there was an escrow account that paid vendors timely, but at the same time, a Bond to hold them accountable?

I know you have some great ideas, and critiques of mine. Let's have 'em