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Revamping the Rules

Dear Mary:

It’s been 15 years or so since we updated our house rules, and we’re finally getting around to it. To say that they’re outdated would be a gross understatement. For example, we tell residents not to play their phonographs too loud! We can easily make changes to reflect today’s terminology. But we suspect there are other ways to update the rules that might improve compliance. What should we keep in mind as we work our way through this document?

— Updating on the Upper East Side

Dear Updating:

I assume you still want residents to keep the volume down on their phonographs and cassette players! But it sounds like you’re definitely due for an update. 

In addition to updating current rules, you’ll probably want to identify new ones to cover issues that didn’t exist 15 years ago. Electric mobility devices, comfort animals and the Airbnb ban are just a few examples. Your attorney can help you compile this list and ensure that your rules are in alignment with your bylaws.

But I’ll focus here on three general “rules of house rules.” It’s not enough to follow just one or two of them; you need to cover all three. Here’s the what and why:  


1. Create clarity. Your house rules need to be clear and unambiguous. If they aren’t, don’t expect your residents to comply. You have a rule about guests? Make sure you clarify who is and who isn’t a “guest.” No e-bikes in the storage room? Fine — but what about e-scooters? Residents can’t put tile on their balconies? OK, but can they put down carpeting? Bonus tip: Include the “why” in your rule. That helps you write rules that align with building goals. It also helps residents. If they know the reason for the e-bike rule — that it’s not safe to have any lithium batteries in the storage room — they’re more likely to recognize and accept that the rule must apply to e-scooters also.


2. Communicate. A clearly written rule that nobody knows about is, in many ways, worse than no rule at all. While it may cover you in a legal case, it’s also a recipe for frustration and extra work. There’s frustration for the board because residents will never meet your expectations for compliance with a rule they don’t know about. There’s frustration for the residents because they may interpret any enforcement of an unpublicized rule as a “gotcha.” And there is extra work because you’ll have to deal with rule breaking after it happens rather than preventing it in the first place. The bottom line: You need to communicate the rules to your residents. And not just once! This may require a combination of emails, newsletters, posted signs, etc.

3. Enforce. If you don’t enforce a house rule, several undesirable things can happen. If residents see that you don’t follow through on transgressions — and they will find out — why should they take you seriously? They won’t. Nor will they confine their conclusion that you “don’t really mean it” to just that particular rule. All you’re doing is undermining your own credibility. And if you don’t apply the rule consistently, you open yourselves to accusations of selective enforcement. Yes, you can use your business judgment to make exceptions. But how you handle those exceptions has to make sense. (See “The Perception of Fairness” in Habitat’s February 2023 issue.)

Consult with your attorney to ensure your updates, additions and decisions on exceptions all pass muster. And regardless of the specifics, use this approach: Create clarity, communicate and enforce. You’ll increase your chances of getting compliance. And you’ll cut down on frustration and extra work. Good luck!

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