New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



A School of Hard Knocks

Read this article in the digital edition.


Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be on your building’s board of directors? Do you really know what your board does and how it goes about running your co-op? How can you prepare yourself if you decide to run? As a four-year veteran member and now president at Park Terrace Gardens in Inwood, I might compare the experience to having a baby; you don’t know what it’s like until you actually experience it.

My board experience began in the mid-1980s when our building on the Upper West Side was converted from a rental to a cooperative. It was a 48-unit, early-20th-century building showing the effects of age and neglect. I was on the conversion committee that conducted meetings with residents, met with the landlord (seller), hired an attorney, and went through the whole messy and fearsome process. For those of you who have done this, I needn’t explain.

One of the things that made it so interesting was what I realized about the nature of New York living. If you think about it, most New Yorkers like the relative anonymity of living here. We don’t want the small-town “everyone knows my business” attitude, and our contacts with other tenants are brief, mostly pleasant, and superficial. When a rental building is converted to a co-op, all of a sudden you get to know everyone, with all their quirks and complex personalities. It was a big adjustment, and the factions, clashes, and confusion were as you might expect.

My service on that board, once we had successfully worked our way through conversion, was like a tour in boot camp. You go in cold and learn by experience. I learned to work with the four other board members, with staff, management, lawyers, architects, engineers, contractors, the city, and most of all, with the residents. Coming to terms with my personal limitations, the difficulty of doing anything at all – not to mention doing it right for the right price – getting out the board’s message to shareholders, and balancing the needs of original buyers with those of the new, wealthier young professionals buying into the building was daunting and hugely time-consuming.

I also learned about boilers, leaks, upgrading of wiring, and the replacement of the façade, roof, and structural steel. And I learned that emergencies always happen on three-day weekends, forcing the co-op to pay double time for labor. I served for two years and tried to set up systems for an easy transfer of information and procedures to the next board members.

When I moved to Park Terrace Gardens nine years ago, I had no intention of running for the board. I knew what was involved and felt that I’d done my share in my old building. After a few years, however, I was persuaded that my previous co-op experience might be of use to my neighbors, and so here I am.

Park Terrace Gardens is composed of five separate buildings, a large and beautiful garden (with an occasional skunk residing), 387 apartments, nine staff members, nine board members, and an on-site manager and assistant manager. As with all New York buildings, we have rising costs (taxes, insurance, utilities, labor, compliance with city laws, services), physical plant maintenance, and repair issues large and small. Our board members are smart and dedicated, but of course we do not always agree and have our share of conflicts. We have a number of committees that serve in an advisory capacity to the board and residents with strong opinions and needs.

If you do run for your co-op’s board and get elected, you will find yourself loved, hated, admired, scorned, accused of all kinds of dereliction of duty, and ignored. It’s part of the job. You will need to set aside personal and committee priorities to make decisions for the well-being of the whole co-op. You have fiduciary responsibilities that can weigh heavily, and you will spend far more time on co-op business than you ever thought possible. You will learn the importance of communication with residents and how seemingly small problems can escalate.

You will become familiar with your building’s infrastructure and physical plant, its legal issues, and the many problems that crop up every day. There is a great deal of satisfaction in keeping your co-op running well at the least cost possible, in getting to know your neighbors and doing what you can to help them. That elusive sense of community is possible even for resistant New Yorkers.

The most important lessons for me have been: listen, be kind, control your temper, and above all, keep your sense of humor.

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