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Condominium Living: Too Risky for Seniors?


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The Allure and Tradition of Condo Living

In our recent book Choose Your Place: Rethinking Home as You Age, my co-author, Amanda Lambert, and I dug deep to find the best places for older adults to live. There are so many choices. We loved learning how people are being more creative and flexible. They are defining senior living for themselves. (More about our books here.)

Of course, many choose options that have been there all along. We spoke to people who live in condominiums and love it. The positives range from being able to choose a familiar neighborhood, access to nearby stores and businesses. People can choose to be in a city that offers an abundance of art and culture. At the same time, one can enjoy long term friendships in the building. But, are there risks to condominium living?

Similar but Different: Cohousing

There are similar benefits in a newer model, cohousing. We interviewed people who helped create and literally build cohousing communities from the ground up. In this scenario, residents come together with a shared idea of community living. They are very specific about the responsibilities that come with maintaining the bricks and mortar as well as the relationships of the people who live there.

While we were writing the book, I compared these two living arrangements for myself. I remember thinking that I liked the idea of cohousing. But, I just didn’t find the well defined resident responsibilities all that appealing. Shared meals in the community space, an expectation for everyone to be involved in regular meetings and problem solving. It sounded like a lot of work, to be honest. Condominium living sounded more carefree and hands-off. Let the board figure out the maintenance and repairs.

After Surfside, Is Condo Living Forever Changed?

Then, the Surfside condominium disaster happened. It has been horrifying to realize the loss and tragedy for the residents and their families of that building. Soon, we started hearing about many other condominium buildings in Florida and across the US that may be at similar risk for structural failure. How terrifying to consider that your comfortable home could crumble to the ground. It has become evident that there are risks to condominium living.

While the direct causes of this disaster are still being determined, one thing is clear. The decisions of the condo board contributed to the outcome. In a recent New York Times essay, some critical weaknesses of condominium management are revealed. In part, it states: “Crucial decisions about structural, fire and electrical problems must always be made by professionals, not members of condo boards…To understand why, it’s helpful to grasp the politics of condo living. Members of these boards are volunteers; some serve for only one or two years. They often find themselves between a rock and a hard place. If the board sets aside reserve funds for building repairs, they are often criticized and, in some cases, defamed and replaced by new board members opposed to raising maintenance fees or passing special assessments. The general attitude has often been, “Why pay today for what you can put off until tomorrow?” ”

Does Cohousing Offer a Better Way?

On reading this, I thought of the very different management structure of most cohousing homes. Cohousing communities tend to use a process called Dynamic Governance. It is described in our book this way: “Dynamic Governance uses the governing principle of consent as the basis for decision making. Unlike consensus, the focus is not on agreement. It is a process by which each member is able to explain their reasoned objective to a proposal. The group then problem-solves to find a solution to the objection. This system allows for a relatively quick decision-making process while at the same time bringing in the wisdom of the group.”

To be honest, dynamic governance doesn’t sound to me like a “quick decision-making process.” It sounds like it could be painstaking and long. However, when you talk to people who live in cohousing and put this into action, they describe it as effective and inclusive.

Many Questions Remain

Could Dynamic Governance work in a condominium community? Would it only work in a smaller building? Could it help reduce the politics seen in condo living that promote the “kick the can down the road” mentality that increases risk to life safety? We need to assess how condos can improve overall security for residents.

The obvious reason that sorting this out will be so significant for older adults is money. Most are on fixed incomes or have carefully budgeted to meet the upfront purchase costs of the condo. They don’t necessarily realize that those monthly condo fees can increase. They may not fully understand how vital the reserve funds are for expensive structural maintenance. And, many will certainly not be able to afford them.

The answer to these questions are not immediately available. But, what is clear to me is that condominium residents deserve safety and peace of mind.


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