Ryan Poliakoff in Board Operations
It's extremely common for condos and co-ops to have rules that regulate decorations and lights, especially when those decorations are placed in common areas like hallways. Some of these rules are designed to keep the property neat and tidy, but some may address safety concerns, such as electrical items can cause fires. Every co-op / condo board has different policies concerning how strictly they enforce decoration rules around the holidays. Make sure you're thoroughly versed in your own so that you can address them knowledgeably.
In the United States, the Constitution guarantees that the government will not prevent us from freely expressing our religious beliefs. But apartment-house corporations and condo associations are not governments — they are private entities run by homeowners. And federal courts have generally ruled that freedom of religion does not extend to these organizations: While you may not discriminate against one religion, a rule applied evenly to all religions is usually enforceable.
In response, some states have passed their own laws that guarantee the right of owners to place religious symbols on their doors or mantles. However, these laws usually have small items in mind, like crosses or mezuzahs, and they may not guarantee that you can place any kind of holiday decoration on your door. Non-religious decorations, such as strings of lights, are generally never protected. So even though you may be celebrating a religious holiday, freedom of religion may not apply.
When enforcing holiday-decoration regulations, a co-op or condo board may seem like an evil cabal of despots to some shareholders and unit-owners. So communicate the regulations in a friendly and understanding way, and give your residents options. Be open to a friendly call, which is better than an angry letter. Let residents know they may have a right to put an item on the agenda for the next board meeting and have it discussed — preferably, given the sensitivity of the issue, in an open portion of the meeting so that residents can give their opinions. This can give you a chance to explain your good reasons for a restriction that may see unreasonable. And sometimes, if you keep an open mind, your residents' reasons may cause you to take a second look at the regulations and be convinced to ease up on a restriction that initially seemed like a good idea.
Keep in mind, too, that the holidays can call up strong emotions. If you're perceived as unbending and overly restrictive, residents may contact the local media, and you could be facing the prospect of fighting a messy public battle.
It's all well and good to argue for unrestricted expression of your holiday cheer, but co-op / condo rules are universal and have to work for everyone, regardless of their religion, philosophy or upbringing. Most co-ops and condos are multiethnic and multicultural, and part of being a good neighbor is respecting that everyone has the right to celebrate their own holiday. So you can't allow a lobby Christmas tree without also allowing for residents who might want to display a menorah or a symbol of Kwanzaa, for instance.
And that's as it should be. Whatever one's religion or culture, one thing is universal: The holidays are a special allotted time for all of us to think about each other.
Ryan Poliakoff is vice president of The Ocean Palms Association, Inc. and the co-author of New Neighborhoods: The Consumer's Guide to Condominium, Co-op and HOA Living, available through New Neighborhood Publishing.He blogs at Ryan Poliakoff on Condo & HOA Living.
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