New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



A Messy Job

No matter how old you get, most people can still hear their mom's voice in the back of their heads, gently reminding them that it's time to take the garbage out, it's time to clean the room, or it's time to rake the lawn. Growing up and moving out of the house was supposed to relieve you of those chores, or at least allow you to do them at your own pace. But chores are a fact of life, and without mom around to keep everyone on schedule, how do they ever get done?

For condos and co-ops, doing the chores means keeping the building clean and taking the garbage out and recycling to the curb. Self-managed buildings, some without a super on staff, have to tackle this messy and smelly work themselves. Deciding who does the sweeping, who mops the hallways, who lugs the garbage, and the best way to organize all the tasks is up to the board members. They're the ones who get to play "mom" when trying to keep things clean in the building.

There are really only two options to consider when managing building cleanliness: doing the work in-house or hiring someone - a cleaning service, a part-time super, a housekeeper - to do it for you. For cash-conscious boards, doing it in-house does save money, but unless you've got a few residents who love to spend their weekends and evenings vacuuming hallways and sweeping sidewalks, you'll probably have to implement a rotating work schedule to make sure things get done.

The most important thing to remember about building cleanliness is that it's not just about aesthetics; buildings can be fined for not keeping everything tidy outside. The New York City Department of Sanitation requires all buildings to keep their sidewalks and gutter areas (18 inches from the curb into the street) swept and clean at all times, as well as any air shafts, backyards, courts, and/or alleys. Shoveling snow and cleaning up ice is another city-mandated task. Snow and/or ice must be cleaned from the sidewalk within four hours after snow has stopped falling, or by 11 A.M. the next day if the snow stopped after 9 P.M. the night before. And be careful where you put it: snow may not be thrown into the street.

Buildings can also be fined for not following proper garbage and recycling procedures. Sanitation has separate collection schedules for each borough, and collection days can vary within the borough. Recycling is collected once a week. For recycling, paper, newspapers, boxes, and cardboard (corrugated cardboard should be flattened and tied) must be separated into clear plastic bags or placed in green-labeled recycling bins. As of July 1, 2003, the city began recycling plastic bottles and jugs; those should be put in clear bags or placed in blue-labeled recycling bins along with metal recyclables. If you're not sure about when the city picks up garbage in your area, contact the sanitation department by dialing 311 or e-mailing

City cleaning rules stop at the front door, but inside the building, all public areas should be kept clean: lobbies, hallways, stairwells, mailrooms, laundry rooms, elevator cars, public rooms, and any other common spaces your building has. Figuring out exactly what needs to be done, and how often, is the first step towards figuring out what type of cleaning program your building should set up.

"If [a board] can live with having their floors mopped once a week as opposed to every other day, then that's fine. Some small buildings have the elevator opening to a floor with only one or two doors. Where there are larger common areas, then that takes time," says Peter Grech, a building operations consultant and president of the Superintendents Club of New York. "The minimum should be swept once a week or mopped once a week. The lobby should be more of a daily routine."

Boards that want to set up a rotating work schedule should first go through the building and decide exactly what tasks need to be included, and then divvy the jobs up into sensible groupings. Sweeping the street and cleaning the front door could be one job; vacuuming the hallways and changing the hall light bulbs could be another. The next step is to figure out who does what and when. The board could designate one person who is responsible for coordinating the schedule and assigning the tasks to the residents, or a sign-up sheet could be posted in a prominent, public area that would allow the residents to choose which tasks they want to do. Fairness must be considered: If certain jobs are more noxious or taxing than others, it's imperative that nobody winds up getting stuck doing them again and again. Public awareness is also crucial; the clean-up schedule should always be posted in the same place to ensure that everyone is aware of their duty and can't plead ignorance. A public schedule also helps apply pressure to those who aren't carrying their share of the work.

At Brooklyn's Tova Gardens, a 20-unit Park Slope co-op, keeping everything clean is a group effort. Vacuuming the halls, sweeping the stairwells, cleaning the laundry room, and taking garbage from the curb to the street are some of the jobs included in the building's "sweat equity" program. That program requires residents to be responsible for a variety of rotating tasks throughout the year. While some include cleaning jobs, other jobs include gardening and collecting maintenance from the shareholders. But the building does hire a cleaning service to come in once a week and clean the lobby and elevator cars. "It's nice to have one area of work that doesn't have to be thought of every time," explains former board president Richard Trostle.

Financially, the program helps the co-op save money that would be spent hiring a cleaning service or a super. But philosophically, Trostle thinks it helps get everyone more emotionally invested in the upkeep and maintenance of the building. "There are great aspects of being a self-managed building," he says. "Everyone has a greater sense of what goes into maintaining the building; a greater sense of personal pride in making it look nice."

Marc Hirshfeld's West Side co-op also relies on its residents to clean the building, but it uses a financial motivation to get the work done. The co-op is made up of two brownstones that share a common basement and boiler. Three people divide up all the work, with two vacuuming the hallways in each separate building and one sweeping the sidewalk, curb and front courtyard.

The residents bill the co-op quarterly as independent contractors, with the fee coming out to about $50 per month per person. "It seems to work fairly well, there's no serious complaints," Hirshfeld says. "It's kind of self-policing, but considering the people responsible for the separate hallways live in those buildings, there's a proprietary interest in keeping it neat."

He says that in two of the households, teenagers have done some of the cleaning work in the past, earning them a little pocket cash and getting them involved in caring about the building at a younger age.

If residents in the building are not able to contribute to the building's upkeep, there is a variety of services out there boards can pursue. One of the simplest options is to go local, and work out a deal with a super from a neighboring building who would be interested in doing some extra work or just hire a part-time super from elsewhere. The Superintendents Club has a website where buildings can post "help wanted" notices and supers can post "situations wanted" listings.

Before interviewing anyone, boards have to determine what's involved in cleaning the building, what services they want to include in the work, and determine how long it should take to get it done. Grech recommends that boards try and do the work themselves first to figure out the amount of hours involved in a regular cleaning; that makes it easier to figure out how much a board should be paying.

If the right super cannot be found, another option is to ask around on your block and find out who's doing the cleaning work in the different buildings. Kate Staples' seven-unit Upper West Side brownstone co-op has had the same person vacuuming the hallways, replacing the light bulbs, and taking garbage to the curb for nearly 15 years. Staples says he works with many of the brownstones on his block.

Sometimes even the building's physical structure can assist in the cleanup. Julia Turchuk's 16-unit Jackson Heights co-op was built in 1920 and features dumb waiters in every apartment. Every night, the building's janitor buzzes the apartments and the residents send the garbage downstairs via the dumb waiter.

A messy lobby or public area can be a quick way to ignite shareholder fury. Building upkeep is a regular, weekly task that must be done properly. If your building is small enough and the residents are willing to pitch in, a chore program can be instituted that will sort out the tasks. But all residents must be willing to do their work fully and on time; a missed garbage collection day can be a smelly problem. If your building is considering paying someone to do the work, ask around, get references and make sure the potential hire is clear about what needs to be done and when. After all, it's a messy job, but somebody's got to do it.

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