New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

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Coming of Age

Greying residents present new humanitarian and safety challenges to boards. It’s time to get serious about seniors.

Mrs. Smith had lived in her apartment with her husband for 33 years. Two years ago, Mr. Smith died – and his widow hasn’t been the same since. She rarely goes out, and the neighbors notice a smell coming from her apartment. The board investigates and finds that she has bags of garbage piling up in her home. It later turns out that she is suffering from depression and dementia.

In another case at another building, Mr. Jones, a long-time resident, forgets that he has left his stove on and a catastrophe is narrowly averted when someone smells gas and alerts the super, who locates and deals with the problem. Finally, there is the board that refuses to let a senior citizen give its super’s phone number to a hospital service. The reason? Liability.

This is the dawning of the Age of Octogenarians. All over the country, the first of the great mass of post-war Baby Boomers is turning 62. That’s not so bad – people run for U.S. president when they’re 10 years older than that. But that’s just the group waiting in the wings. In the grand play that is co-op and condo life, “all those people who were 60 when their buildings converted in 1985 are now over 80,” says attorney James Samson, a partner at Samson Fink & Dubow. “You have co-ops that are quasi-retirement communities.”

And if your building has an elderly population – and what property doesn’t? – you should be concerned. For humanitarian reasons. For liability questions. And for safety’s sake. On the one hand, a co-op or condo is a business concern designed to increase shareholder/real estate value. On the other, it’s a community. At least that’s the rationale co-op boards have long used to exclude potential buyers, even those with impeccable finances. You can’t call yourself a community if you don’t commune.


The Thin Grey Line

New York City has one of the country’s highest concentrations of people 65 or older. How do boards cope? “You have two types,” says Jonathan Klein, president of the New York branch of Wentworth Management. “One is reactionary and deals with issues when the issues become apparent. [The other is] proactive – boards [that] put together [or coordinate with] programs like Meals on Wheels, or a lecture series, or other services they can make available to seniors.”

“As a legal matter, a co-op is a stockholder company, so it would not have any more obligations than GM,” says attorney Emily Klotz, a specialist in law for the elderly. “On a moral level, it’s a person’s home, and the co-op has chosen to include this person as a member of the stockholding community. If you’re going to assume the responsibility of having that person as a stockholder, you should be equally responsive to exigent circumstances that the person may be facing. If a person looks like they haven’t bathed in a week or is having difficulty speaking and is slurring words, maybe it’s time to call a family member or a doctor or APS,” she notes, referring to the Adult Protective Services program of the New York City Human Resources Administration’s Department of Social Services.


The Trouble with Seniors

Bathing and speaking problems are fairly minor compared to what some have seen. Management executive David Kuperberg, president of Cooper Square Realty, recounts cases where residents “become a hazard to themselves and others in the building [with] large collections of newspapers and other junk” that could be flammable. There are also “bad odors, infestations from pests and vermin, and noise complaints such as TVs played really loudly.”

“We’ve had every kind of situation,” says Steven Hyatt, executive vice president of Wentworth New York. “I recall a woman in one of our buildings who imagined we were sending poison gas through the radiator. She’d run through the hallways saying she was being poisoned.” APS assigned a social worker to her, “and though she’s still delusional, she doesn’t act out that way.”

Klotz recalls a woman in her 90s “who was highly demented. She would walk in the lobby naked or with her fur coat on and naked underneath. And though she had the money, she was not paying her monthly co-op maintenance.”

The woman also had a touch of the Collyer Brothers Syndrome, named for those famous recluses of 1930s and ’40s New York whose obsessive-compulsive disorder and disposophobia resulted in a townhouse filled with 100 tons of old newspapers, assorted junk and rubbish, and, eventually, the two brothers’ bodies. After the woman’s co-op board finally revoked her proprietary lease, “a marshal came in to list her assets,” says Klotz, “and the hoarding had been so bad he couldn’t see the couch.”


Drawing the Line

Collyer Brothers Syndrome is just one of the examples that abound at a roughly 500-unit co-op in northern New Jersey where the board secretary says that more than 40 percent of the high-rise’s population is 62 or older. “We have had one individual visit the lobby and proceed outdoors while dressed in lingerie with no dress or coat,” he says. “We’ve had an elderly individual relieve him/herself in the elevator cab. Our superintendents were called to investigate the odor of natural gas to find that an individual had disassembled the apartment’s stove [and] then turned the gas jets on full and could not fathom why the stove was not lighting.”

The quality of these complaints varies from the decidedly serious – natural gas can explode – to the remarkably trivial. Some aren’t matters of public hazard or even quality-of-life, but aesthetics. The co-op, however, is about to take a hard line: banning senior citizens from giving the super’s phone number to a hospital service. This position is partly based on frustration – phone calls to family members or their surrogates have met with less-than-helpful replies (ranging from “I’m sure my parent is okay” to verbal tirades and letters from attorneys directing the board to suspend contact with the offspring) – and partly based on liability fears. “What if the super [were unavailable when an emergency call came in because he was] out filling the [co-op’s] truck with gas or something?” says the secretary. “In this day and age, lawsuits are the first things that will happen.”

Still, some argue that this is a specious argument since the situation would be the same if there were a fire or a flood, and the super had to be called – even if he were away getting gas for the truck. “You’re [not] going to let the guy die,” says attorney Samson. “The board can protect itself [from potential liability] by having the resident sign a release.”

The New Jersey board secretary insists that his position is reasonable and describes his frustration in dealing with the issue: “Calls to health and human services [organizations] are met with questions: ‘Is the individual dangerous to others? Is the individual dangerous to him/herself? Do you have proof?’”

It’s a matter of balancing the needs of the many with the concerns of the few. “Just like the 35-year-old investment banker wants gym equipment in the basement and mothers want you to establish a playroom, the elderly need some help too,” Samson says. “Maybe nothing more than setting up a community room. Or, you could go beyond that and organize a bingo night or a card night. It doesn’t take much. Which would you rather have, all these old people sitting alone in their apartments or coming down once a week to play cards?”

As study after study shows, staying active and social can help seniors keep their wits about them, which can only be good for the building as a whole.


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When the Board Steps In


What happens when particular residents get to be too old or impaired to take care of themselves, and the family – for whatever reason or rationale – drops the ball? What must a board do then to protect the building? “We have the responsibility of maintaining the sanctity of everyone’s homes,” says Jonathan Klein, president of the New York branch of Wentworth Management. “There are times when somebody has to step in.” The steps you can take include:

Establish helpful policies. Look at it as a form of enlightened self-interest: you’re establishing policies now that may just end up helping you and yours in a few years. For instance, impaired hearing becomes an issue, “so we have strobe-light fire alarms” in addition to standard aural alarms, says Mel Atkinson, national operations manager of the Michigan-based CSI Support and Development Services, which provides consumer-cooperative housing for low-income seniors in four states. “We avoid plush carpets and heavy carpet-padding” to help minimize trips and falls. “These kinds of things are specific to the housing we do, but people are living longer [in general] and these are the kinds of things we all may have to be thinking about.”

Some of what CSI does can translate directly to New York co-ops and condos, particularly those that may be becoming what social scientists call NORCs, or Naturally Occurring Retirement Communities. Organizations such as the National Aging in Place Council, the National Academy on an Aging Society, and, the granddaddy of them all, the American Association of Retired Persons, offer ideas and lists of resources on their websites and elsewhere.

Support the idea of home-care aides (but be careful). An easy-to-overlook issue is that of home-care aides, particularly 24-hour caregivers who move into a shareholder or unit-owner’s apartment. When anyone, whether a senior or a chronically ill younger person, needs a home-care aide, there’s no question that one must be necessary.

“You have to be careful, when a person is taking in an aide, to interview that aide and to make it clear that only that aide can reside in the apartment – not their family-members,” says Steve Greenbaum, director of property management at Mark Greenberg Real Estate. “We had an aide for a very old person in one of our co-ops, a 60-unit building in Cedarhurst, Long Island, and this lady would have her cousin, her cousin’s kids, all her extended family staying in the apartment, using the laundry room, playing in the hallways, hanging out at the pool – they used the building like a private club. We finally sent a legal letter to the shareholder’s family; they were kind of shocked all this was going on. They ended up terminating that aide and the problem went away.”

Speak with the resident or his/her family and/or contact Adult Protective Services. “The first step when there’s an issue is to speak with the occupant,” says Steven Hyatt, executive vice president of Wentworth New York. “If that doesn’t resolve it, we contact APS, which will intervene and try to either locate a family member or provide an unrelated caregiver to do a cleanup.”

Check out the person’s medical condition. A more extreme but sometimes necessary step is to invoke Kendra’s Law (Statute 9.60 of the Mental Hygiene Law), in which a court can order certain individuals with mental illness to receive and accept outpatient treatment, or (Statute 9.37), involuntary admission to a hospital. Before things reach that point, it’s critical to make sure that you are not dealing with a case of what’s called reversible dementia. “Mental illness isn’t necessarily what old folks have,” says attorney Emily Klotz, a specialist in law for the elderly. “They may have dementia from not eating properly, or drinking too much or not enough water, and their electrolytes go out of balance. That’s reversible dementia.”

Petition the court. If APS is unable to resolve the situation, the next step is to take the resident to court under what’s called a holdover action for a nuisance. And, usually during court proceedings, parties try to work out a solution to have that resident’s affairs handled.

The legal system offers two general options. The most common is for a co-op board or other interested party – a neighbor, even – to petition the state supreme court for a guardian to be appointed under the state’s Mental Hygiene Law, Article 81. The board itself would not be the guardian. If a guardian is applied for, any eviction proceeding is stayed for a minimum of 30 days until the court determines whether the person in question has the capacity for self-care.

Still, court-sanctioned eviction can be difficult. The Brooklyn board president of an 88-unit co-op recalls the five-year struggle his board had when dealing with dementia with one of the property’s long-time residents.

“He was in his 70s and he was argumentative, abusive, and violent.” The resident was confrontational: he kept trying to pick fights with the super and was even caught on the co-op’s security camera writing on the elevator wall with feces. The board called in various city services and even went to a hearing. But the case was initially dismissed when the shareholder had a “lucid moment” at trial and convinced the judge that he could actually take care of himself. Frustrated after years of struggle, the co-op had all but given up. Then the man became unable to pay his bills and his family members had him declared bankrupt – and the marshal took him away.

“It was sad but it was necessary,” says the board president. Indeed: boards need to recognize that aging is inevitable, that many buildings’ populations are becoming older, and that even the proudest and most practical of us may be going to need help. Ultimately, that may mean a nursing home or similar facility. But until that last resort, growing old is less onerous if you’re part of a community – and as far as boards are concerned, anything they can do to strengthen the weakest link makes the whole chain a lot stronger.

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