A 300-unit high-end co-op in Queens staged a large hallway renovation. Such aesthetic decisions can often lead to uncivil wars between the residents and the board, but this design scheme went forward without a single shout.
The reason? The board members conducted a survey. It was simple, too: the designer hired to do the renovation created two potential new looks for the hallway. These pictures were put up in the lobby and everyone was given a chance to answer questions about which option they preferred. “Overwhelmingly, they picked one design,” recalls Steve Greenbaum, the director of management at Mark Greenberg Real Estate, the co-op’s manager.
Surveys matter. They can be useful on several fronts: for branding the building; prioritizing capital projects; distinguishing the wish lists of the old and new guard; adding amenities; hiring/changing staff; and creating a greater sense of community. But how you design them and when you use them can make a big difference in how well your property is run.
Getting the Measure of Things
The first question to ask yourself: when should you conduct a survey? “You don’t want to do one every time you have to make a decision,” Greenbaum says. It is, after all, a representative democracy and the board is empowered to act on behalf of the property. “A board would find it hard to function if it had to run every decision past the residents,” he notes.
You should employ surveys on big issues, such as lobby redesign or what to do with extra space. In fact, the best time to take a survey is when the board feels the need for feedback, whether it concerns a new boiler or better discipline for the building staff. According to Greenbaum, it’s important – critical, even – to survey shareholders on “emotional” issues, such as whether the management company is doing a good job; if the building staff is reacting in a timely fashion to requests; and, especially, if there are any capital or cosmetic changes to be done to the building itself. Such usage defuses potentially controversial issues through transparency.
If designed correctly, surveys not only accurately reflect what residents want to see, but also cut down on intrigue and gossip.
“I used to live in a co-op in Manhattan, and there was all kinds of intrigue,” says Ron Cohen, a former board member of a 303-unit condominium in downtown Brooklyn. Disgruntlement was high, and gossip nearly ceaseless. Ignorance was the cause. “People feel much more connected” when communication is open and clear between the board and the residents, he says. The better the board, the happier the building and the more people “really want to make sure it’s a good place to live,” he adds.
In February, for instance, Maria Civille’s 116-unit co-op in Staten Island sent out two brief surveys. The first was rather innocuous and only went to users of the gym: should the exercise equipment be updated to include a spin bike? The second question went out to all the residents – shareholders and sub-tenants alike – because it was, well, a little more incendiary: should the co-op become smoke-free?
The survey answers are still coming in, says Civille. While the building couldn’t ban smoking without a change to the proprietary lease, the issue has come up often enough for the board to consider putting it on the next list of items for the annual meeting – if the surveys generate a strong-enough response.
According to experts, taking a survey is a good way for a board to take the pulse of the shareholders and to ensure that residents feel connected to life in the building. “We feel it’s important to survey people on various issues,” observes Michael Berenson, the president of Akam Associates, a management firm. “It gives the board a sense of how the community feels.”
Surveys also insulate the board. “If people complain about the new lobby design, you can point to the survey and say, ‘Hey, it’s what the majority of you wanted,’” Greenbaum says.
Simple and Precise
Surveys should be kept short so potential respondents won’t be put off. One key mistake boards make is asking open-ended emotional questions, such as, “What do you think of the super’s work ethic?” Focus instead on tightly worded questions that elicit original suggestions that can be put into action, such as, “What amenities should the building add?”
It is important for the board to stay focused on the purpose of the survey: collect facts, gather opinions, and find out what course the shareholders believe the board should be steering.
“One survey we sent out was just a short questionnaire on what they thought about a transfer fee,” recalls Berenson. “We said, ‘The board is considering a transfer fee. What are your thoughts on a two percent gross tax on the gross sale price? Or one percent? Or three percent?’ They’ll give you different options. They might say, ‘Do you think existing shareholders should be grandfathered in?’”
Typically, the board should send out a survey that gives people a two-week time frame to respond. This is what is done by Cohen, who adds that when interest is high in the subject, such as it was in a survey last year about pool amenities, upwards of 40 to 50 percent of residents will respond.
Digital or Old-School?
It seems like a no-brainer, but it isn’t: do you deliver your surveys via the web or paper?
Civille’s Staten Island co-op was suffering what most co-op boards suffer from – a surfeit of paper and not enough time to manage it all. But three months ago, the board instituted a computer-based communication system that helps to prepare and shoot surveys to shareholders.
“Everybody’s got smartphones and computers. I think two people in our building don’t have computers,” says Civille, explaining why the board decided to go digital. After years of laborious efforts to communicate with residents – board members would take turns sitting in the package room for two hours a week to answer questions or would paper the walls with news and announcements – Civille thought the communication outreach could be made smoother and more streamlined with a computerized system that allows for digital surveys.
But others argue that paper surveys should not be abandoned. While technology can be useful, the old-fashioned, paper-under-the-door survey is sometimes considered superior. After all, even in the most technologically savvy buildings, not every person has e-mail. With a paper survey, everyone is assured of being asked his or her opinion.
Legally, a board is not required to act on the results of a survey, but it probably should. “I do think there is an obligation to respond,” says Greenbaum. If you are going to ask for a shareholder’s opinion, be prepared to follow through, he advises. “Or else, they won’t respond in the future.”
In the final analysis, follow-through and communication are what surveys are about. “It’s getting the community involved,” says Berenson. “The worst thing that could happen is that the board goes to an annual shareholders’ meeting, and they made a decision to build a gym, and they invested $100,000 to build this gym, and they didn’t get any input from the owners. Then you get an annual meeting that could get contentious because [the owners] feel that [they] didn’t have any input on how to utilize that room. Extensive communication is an integral part of running a building effectively.”
A COMMUNITY PORTAL
When Ron Cohen, former board president at Oro, a Brooklyn condominium, wanted to send out announcements about board matters, or communicate with the managing agent or superintendent, he would turn to BuildingLink. But when he had information to share about restaurants, social activities, and other non-board-related activities, he would turn to Google Groups.
BuildingLink – a web-based property management platform – can be used to track packages, create repair orders, and send blast e-mails. It also allows the Oro’s board to communicate with the unit-owners on condo business.
Google Groups, on the other hand, is used by the board as a residents-only service to which members have to be invited. Cohen describes it as “a second communication vehicle, besides BuildingLink. People can communicate with each other about problems, about things they like, about events that are going on downtown and in our community, and about the immediate area.”
The manager, the super, and the staff don’t have access to what’s being said on Google Groups, explains Cohen. “It is for the community. Although not 100 percent of the building has joined, the vast majority has.”
While the board uses BuildingLink for most of its official business, it does use Google Groups for some building-related business. Before every board meeting, a notice goes out over the system, saying: “If there is anything you would like the board to take up and discuss, tell us, and it will be discussed.” Afterward, a summary of the board meeting is posted on both Google Groups and BuildingLink.
Does Google Groups cost anything? “Just time,” Cohen notes.