First Question: Your web site says you began organizing condo associations in your neighborhood, Edgewater, forty years ago. Why do you care about condo associations? What led you to focus your activism on them?
Sheli Lulkin: Like most of us, I care because I own and live in one. My condo is the biggest investment of my life and I would be a fool not to protect it. I never paid much attention to condos until my father gave one to my sister as a wedding present. He had to explain it to me. Of course then I wanted one, too!
Second Question: You live in an association yourself. Have you lived in it this whole time? Have you enjoyed being on the association board of directors?
Sheli Lulkin: I lived in my first condo for two years and moved when I was accepted into the Ph. D. program at Loyola University. I bought another condo near the Lake Shore campus and lived there for twenty-seven years. It was a duplex and great, but because of my health, I wanted to live on a single level. I moved down the block where I have been living for another fourteen years.
Except for the first one, all my homes were built as condos. The first was a conversion. I do not think that I would buy in a conversion again, or at least I would be very careful. One reason is the declarations are not thas good. The other reason is that you usually can not control your a/c and heat. I have served in many positions on boards. The “boys” always have a hard time finding a secretary. Then you have to prove yourself and work your way up.
Sometimes I enjoy being on the board and sometimes I don’t. It depends on the composition of the board and whether there are other women. I hate being the only woman because it brings out the worse in some of the men, gay or straight. Many of the board members are retirees. Some liked getting together for breakfast and making their decisions. The Palm decision put a stop to that.
The board sets the culture of the association. People want to live in associations for many reasons, ranging from carefree maintenance to living near a good school. You have to be careful to match yourself to the right condo. One family bought three units in the same association so relatives can be near and yet maintain their privacy.
Third Question: What are the causes of owner “apathy” in these associations? Owners seemingly not wanting to get involved in the life of the community.
The apathy sometimes moves in with you and can depend on why you moved in. If the new owner has poor health or is writing their “great novel” they might want privacy. Some younger people are on a career path and can not afford the time for an extra project. I met some one who specifically wanted a condo for the tax write-off but chose one without guest parking so that relatives wouldn’t visit. If you want to be alone, make sure the association has a good management company and employees. If you are gregarious you might enjoy a small building where the owners work together.
Fourth Question: What do you like about the attorneys that service the condo industry and specialize in association law? What don’t you like?
Sheli Lulkin: We are fortunate that our attorney is tops in the field. If your attorney is not a condo specialist you don’t want them for anything complicated. Good advice to the board can save you a lot of money by helping you avoid lawsuits or not paying for on the job training.
Beware of associations who hire relatives who do not have the specialty you need. This is an area where you need to do your homework and check references. Compare bills. Ask who will do the work -- the attorney or a paralegal. Use your good friend Google to check what people have written about him or her.
On the other hand, lawyers get paid and are glad to have clients. Rare is the attorney who says, you don’t need an attorney for this. Sometimes all you need is to talk to a government agency or just talk it out. Maybe, you need a rule change or mediation. Include the unit owners by survey or a meeting.
Fifth Question: It seems that over the years you have worked closely with Aldermen in Chicago’s City Council and legislators in the State capital. How do they view asssociations? Can you name some whom you consider especially knowledgeable and interested in associations?
Sheli Lulkin: I hate to tar and feather them, but elected officials count votes no matter how good or caring they are.
That is one of the reasons we have ASCO. We have 35 members, but we represent about 8,000 voters. One of the lazier legislators in Springfield practiced condo law and whenever it (not he or she) had a difficult case, they introduced a bill to cover it. On the other hand, I have sat with a legislator who would say, “You’re not the first with this complaint. How widespread is this problem? Let me do some research.”
Representatives Sara Feigenholtz, Greg Harris, Ann Williams and our own Kelli Cassidy are among the best. State Senator Heather Steans is very sensitive to our issues. Senate president John Cullerton always has an open door. Aldermen who are especially responsive are Michelle Smith, Tom Tunney, Brenden Reilly, Harry Osterman and Debra Silverstein.
There is a direct correlation between responsive officials and the number of condo units in their district/ward. The elected officials whose associations are organized are more responsive.
Sixth Question: There is this idea that there’s always fighting, unproductive conflict, in condo associations. Is that true?
There is also death, foreclosure, divorce and cliques. The same can happen in rental buildings, neighborhoods and congregations. It all depends on the leadership and the cultural atmosphere. Associations are democracies where people have chosen to live together.