Dr. Brandon Hamilton, Ombudsperson for Tree Farm Estates
I grew up in Gary, Indiana. After high school and a period in the Navy, I went to colleges in Chicago, Boston, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles. With all of this travel, I never thought about purchasing property. I also decided to stay flexible so that I could accept employment anywhere. I worked in Boston, San Diego, Valparaiso (Indiana) just to name a few cities. After completing my doctorate in business, I decided to settle in the Chicagoland area. I purchased a townhome in Tree Farm Estates, just on the southern outskirts of Chicago in the Village of Calumet Park.
I had never lived anywhere long enough to recognize that now, as a homeowner, I also became a part of a community. I don’t want to take that distinction for granted. Let’s talk about the word community. Some have defined a community as a group of people living in the same defined area, sharing the same basic values and sharing an organizational framework. Sociologists and geographers define a community as any set of social relationships operating within certain boundaries. The Village of Calumet Park has very small boundaries as it is just one square mile with about 8,000 residents. I knew nothing of the history and sociology and culture of this little village, so I had to learn from neighbors. I also became an active citizen, attending numerous municipality meetings. I had some vary courageous conversations with elected officials. I soon was appointed the Director of Community Relations for the Village. For those that move into a condominium or homeowner associations, your community is also a population that is geographically focused and with a collective identity and with a collective purpose. I started to get a better grasp of the word community as I read the Declaration of Covenants, Conditions, Easements and Restrictions for Tree Farm Estates Townhome Association. This was difficult to grasp at first reading because there were a lot of terms and definitions that were new to me. As I became comfortable with this governing document and my new home, I was invited by some neighbors to attend a meeting to discuss forming an association. After just a few minutes of this meeting, I realized that the current owners were actually forming an organization that would gather complaints to express to the developer’s lawyer, the person currently running the association. I was inexperienced with shared ownership, but I did not think that our community should be a complex mass of needs and problems but rather a diverse web of collaborative citizens. The developer’s lawyer informed us that we had to officially form an association and select a management company as our Board of Managers. I was elected president of the Board of Directors as the owners recognized my experience as an officer of many not-for-profit boards. We decided against a management company.
We became self-managed by combining the roles of the Board of Directors and the Board of Managers. Influenced by a tradition of 19th century romanticism, some sociologists have regarded community as necessarily beneficial to human needs and social interaction. There can be numerous community platforms for common interest communities: There are communities of action, communities of practice, communities of place, communities of interest and communities of circumstances. We knew that we are clearly a “community of place” united by geography. However, many of us moved into the townhome complex without knowing that this is a shared ownership community. You would certainly, therefore, view this association as a “community of circumstances,” united by challenges not of our making. But even this framework is not bad as we learned to focus as a community on dealing with various situations collaboratively. As I diagnosed our community socially, politically, culturally and economically, I saw a need to create a more effective community model. Some of the owners had gotten to know their neighbors well enough such that we could accept that we developed into a “community of interest” focusing on a passion for the same values and activities. Members of a community of interest generally share the same common interest focusing upon depth of passion for that interest. We realized that the Board of Directors needed to push toward more hardcore discussions about the applicability of the bylaws, declarations, rules and regulations. As leaders of the community of interest, our Board of Directors began to evolve into a “community of action,” using collective power to develop policies and make changes. We needed to understand our community and the various social groups that formed. We had to learn how to gather commitments from primary groups, secondary groups, ingroups and outgroups. Primary groups are the enduring owners. Secondary groups lack the emotional bonding or sharing of common values. Ingroups share a sense of identity. Outgroups have no sense of loyalty to the association. This community of action framework is very effective when there is community commitment. We are still struggling at Tree Farm Estates with forming committed committees to help us share best practices.
I am now the ombudsperson for Tree Farm Estates with a focus on educating unit owners and the Board of Directors about the Common Interest Community Act and complying with the laws governing common interest community property.
Whatever the definitional difficulties, all communities, both real and symbolic, exist and operate within boundaries. These boundaries serve to demarcate social membership from non-membership. Whatever framework you see in your association, there are actions that you can take to build an ideology of community in your condominium or homeowner association boundaries. You can invite your neighbors over for a meal. You can mentor a youth in the association. You can help simply by picking up litter on the property if you see it. It is my hope by sharing my leadership experiences at Tree Farm Estates that your association learns to work together to make yours a community where you are all proud to be members.
Dr. Brandon Hamilton