New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

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Across the Great Divide

Oy ve! Ole! Ti can-neese? A few decades ago when you moved into many a Brooklyn or Queens co-op, chances are the only foreign language you’d hear would be smatterings of Yiddish. How times have changed. Over the years, that Brooklyn/Queens co-op has become a multicultural enclave that, in addition to its original Jewish base, now includes Spanish, Asian, and Russian speakers. The building has become a melting pot of dialects, a modern-day Tower of Babel.

Connie Lau has seen that growth – and its effects – first hand. She lives in a four-building, six-story co-op complex in Queens that has gone from 60 to 75 percent Asian in the last four years. And the bulk of those people do not speak English. In an attempt to leap cultural barriers and foster better communication, Lau, the board president, and the other directors make themselves available to the shareholders whenever there is a query about a notice, announcement, or policy. “We’re a little more hands-on than most,” she notes. “We tell everyone that they can come to us at any time with questions.”

Lau says the board became proactive out of necessity: when she joined four years ago, 60 percent of the residents were Asian and almost half of them could not speak English (all speak their own dialect and Mandarin, the official language of China). She would sit at board meetings and think, “None of the shareholders know what’s going on; we put up notices and nobody abides by them.” Afterwards, she would speak to many of her neighbors and later realized: “It’s not that they don’t want to – it’s that they just don’t understand.”

But the board – which includes an Englishman, an Italian, and two Asians – felt it would be unfair if it issued only Chinese translations of public notices; it would also have to translate all the other languages in the building as well. As a compromise, the board members made themselves available to residents to translate anything that anyone didn’t understand. “Right now,” she says, “the process is working out fine. They know they can come knock on a board member’s door and get something translated.”

Communication and coexistence can be tricky. Especially when you are trying to understand someone who doesn’t speak your language and also has a different cultural orientation. And, as anyone who has tried to solve a large or small problem knows, clear communication is crucial. “Either you bring in someone who can speak to them,” notes Arlene Stern, a manager for Vintage Management who handles a property with a large Russian contingent, “or we do a lot of pantomime.”

But it is not just a question of overcoming the language barrier. Often it is a matter of leaping the cultural divide, too. Lau faces that issue every day in her co-op, where many of the residents came from China and have trouble with the concepts of co-ops, house rules, and alteration agreements, among other issues. “You have to make them understand what a co-op is,” she says. “In my building, we have a lot of people from mainland China, and the culture back in their country is quite different from that in America. They don’t have a lot of [housing] rules and regulations to follow [in China], and for them to move into a co-op, where there are a lot of rules and regulations, is very hard. You have to make them understand that our purpose [as the board] is to make their living area a better place.”

Illegal subletting is often an issue, says Lau. “They just want to buy an apartment as an investment, and generate more income, and think they can do that with a co-op.” Steve Greenbaum, director of management at Mark Greenberg Real Estate, agrees, pointing to a Flushing cooperative in which the manager faced “what you call a ‘hot-bedding’ problem, where you’d have ten mattresses in a one-bedroom apartment.” It was a cultural divide, adds the manager, that the board was forced to cross.

Lau reports that financing and ownership rights are other areas of confusion: many of the building’s Asian residents do not understand the guidelines and financing restrictions. “When they purchase an apartment, they don’t understand that they have to submit paperwork and get approvals before and after they buy. They have money, and once they buy it, they think they can do whatever they want. They think they can turn a studio into a one-bedroom. They don’t understand alteration agreements. They think the apartment belongs to them. They sign the lease, but they don’t understand a word of it.”

Some managers say that cultural differences are not just about language, with Greenbaum citing the religious concerns of properties with large Orthodox Jewish populations. “You want to be cognizant of the issues,” he notes, such as forbidding contractors to work on secondary Jewish holidays and perhaps adjusting one elevator for the Sabbath (which another manager says should only be done when there is a great number of Orthodox residents). In such situations, the elevator cab stops at every floor so that ultra-observant Jews do not have to press the call button in violation of their beliefs.

But beware: the language/cultural barrier can be used as a means of skirting the rules as well. Lau says that some of the residents in her co-op use their ignorance as an excuse to be disobedient. “We cracked down on a lot of illegal sublets; the [shareholders] took advantage of the board not speaking their dialect. They thought the board would not get involved.”

Your main step in correcting these problems is to be certain that all the residents understand what is happening in the property. Important notices – water shutoffs, elevator repairs, annual meeting dates – can be printed in English and whatever other language is widely spoken within the property.

“With Chinese, it’s very complex,” says Lynn Whiting, director of management at Argo. “You have many different dialects. There’s Cantonese, Mandarin, and so forth. There’s a lot to contend with.”

Some turn to bilingual members of the staff or the building to do the translating. (But be certain that those translating are at ease with the written and spoken word. For, as one manager notes: “A lot of people who can speak it, can’t write it.”)

Be wary of computer translation software. After assuming management duties at a Brooklyn cooperative with a large Spanish population – many of whom did not speak English – David Baron, a principal at Metro Management, thought it would be a good idea to send out notices to the shareholders in both English and Spanish. He bought a software program that converted English words into Spanish ones and set about translating his notice. What he ended up with, as a bilingual Hispanic told him, was sheer nonsense. “It was a literal translation,” he says. “It was not conversational and, from word to word, it made no sense.”

Some managers say it is important that members of their or the building’s staff be fluent in the languages of the residents in the property they are handling. Argo has two large co-ops that have Russian-speaking staffers on site. “It’s always useful to get someone on the board that is multilingual,” observes Barry Reiss, a longtime resident and board president at a 345-unit cooperative in Forest Hills, Queens, which has a large Russian-speaking population. “When the Soviet Union opened up its emigration policies in the middle-seventies, there was a tremendous influx of the Russian-Jewish population into our area. We have some on our board who speak Russian. That helps.”

According to Dan Wurtzel, president of Cooper Square Realty, which manages a number of predominantly Russian-speaking co-ops in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, it is a requirement that at least the manager or his assistant at these properties “have bilingual skills. To the extent that we’re dealing with a Russian community, we have to be able to accommodate and communicate with them in a way that they feel most comfortable. You have to work with them or they’ll throw you out on your ear. You have to gain their trust.”

Baron carries this accommodation to a remarkable degree: besides translating notices into a range of languages, he says he has even had sign language practitioners assisting the hearing impaired at annual shareholders’ meetings, and he is currently investigating the possibility of hiring a Chinese interpreter for a shareholders’ meeting at a largely Chinese-populated property.

However, many feel it is the responsibility of the shareholder or unit-owner to get legal notices/documents translated. “It is a logistical problem,” says one. “You can’t translate everything. It becomes a question of time and expense.” Some lawyers also argue that signs, notices, or documents should not be translated at all because you cannot be certain that the translation is accurate, and you might therefore be liable.

In the end, boards should use common sense when approaching such issues as language and multiculturalism “People have to be sensitive to cultural and language differences,” says Greenbaum. “We interviewed at a building where there was a large Russian population, and they demanded we have someone on staff who spoke Russian. I don’t have a problem with that. You have to be accommodating.”

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