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Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



Subterranean Co-op Blues

Ron Brawer

Treasurer, Green Turtle Realty Corp.

In 1975 or so, I came home to Manhattan after some years trying to make a living with my guitar and harmonica singing the blues in Europe and North Africa. I needed a place to crash. Soho and the West Village, my previous stomping grounds, were too expensive by now and I wanted a loft for my band – the band I was going to form – to practice in. I found a cheap place in a no-name area on the top floor of a seven-story loft building way the hell uptown on West 22nd Street. Five years later, the four of us who were renting floors each kicked in $6,500 as a deposit on the building, sold the other two floors for an average of $25,000, and took a 12-year, 12-percent mortgage from the former owner. It was 1979 and we owned a building in Manhattan.

Real estate moguls that we were – okay, idiots that we were – we promptly sold the commercial ground- floor space, giving the buyer a mortgage. We then used the windfall to help pay off our own mortgage and also subsidize our monthly rent rather than plow the dough into a reserve fund. (Yes, of course, it’s a co-op so those monthly “rent” bites are called “maintenance,” but old habits die hard.)

In 1998, I got promoted from secretary – taking minutes at monthly gabfests we wrongly called “shareholder meetings” – to the elevated position of treasurer. By then I’d been married and divorced, raised two kids here – both born in a bathtub in the loft, wacky fun people that we were – and worked as music director for NBC for 14 years. In short, I had acquired enough worldly sense to realize what disastrous shape our little building was in. After 25 years, still no C of O (as I write these words, I get a call from our architect – I swear! – and we just now got our C of O) and no reserve fund in a building that is 85 years old with its original plumbing systems now corroding, a museum-quality oil burner, a rickety elevator, inefficient heating…

A big problem for us continues to be The Same Old Problem: how to keep the “rent” affordably cool in a neighborhood – after 15 years of marketing success as the Flatiron District – that has become explosively hot (i.e., noisy, congested, malled). Here we are: writers, musicians, academics, artists – spiritual folks livin’ in a landmarked world. It’s a typical Manhattan conundrum; many of us would like to move, and we could sell our co-ops for a zillion euros. But what do you buy with that? A split-level in Omaha?

Add to this a botched sale two years ago that caused our little hippy happy family to divide into two festering factions. This schism has stifled constructive activity and problem solving because now there is second-guessing, personal criticism, nasty e-mails, and vituperative outbursts at board meetings. (Yes, we’ve evolved to calling those monthly sessions “board meetings” instead of “shareholder meetings,” though we still pay “rent.”)

In a large co-op, one or the other faction on a divided board can eventually be ousted and replaced. In our building, there is no one to oust because no one else can replace them. With our six residential units, one unit is a more-or-less-permanent sublet, another owner travels much of the year, and a third owner refuses to get involved in the mishigas. One faction now wants to hire a management company to ease tensions and unite us against a mutual enemy – an ersatz “Evil Landlord.” The other faction feels that a wiser investment would be group therapy. While we squabble, our systems continue to deteriorate as our legal bills increase.

A new wrinkle: three months ago, our president resigned. I don’t blame her. But her resignation cannot take effect until a new president is chosen at our next meeting. Since we all know that meeting will be a horror show – the airing of age-old grievances to prove why this one or the other one shouldn’t be president – we’ve solved the problem in typical fashion: there has been no meeting in three months and none scheduled for the future. And so our resigned president has resigned herself to staying on as acting president, a role – given that she once starred on Broadway – she was born to play.

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