New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



Jay Lewis

In more ways than one, Jay Lewis has spent his life learning on the job. The Washington, D.C., native, who earned a bachelor’s in history at Pennsylvania’s Franklin & Marshall College and a master’s degree at Columbia University’s Teachers College, was a longtime high school social studies teacher in Hyde Park, New York, eventually graduating to the position of school administrator and dean at Hofstra University. Lewis, 71, spoke with Habitat about how his work skills — from managing staff to overseeing the physical plant at large school buildings — are proving useful in his duties as president at Kew Gardens Terrace, a 107-unit co-op in Queens. 

Lewis’ comments have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Stepping up. My wife and I moved from Suffolk County to Kew Gardens in 2004 to be closer to both our jobs. I was asked to join the board in 2020 when a vacancy occurred midyear, and I was treasurer in 2021 when our outgoing president, Derek Alexander, approached me about taking his place. After living here for 17 years, I felt it was time to give back to the community. And this building, which is almost 100 years old, has a lot of work that needs to be done. It was a no-brainer.

By the numbers. Fortunately, the path had been charted by Derek. We had recently done a $1.1 million facade repairs project, followed by a $425,000 installation of solar panels and a new roof. Now we’re coming up on the end of a $1.75 million replacement of our old Otis elevators, which date back to 1924 and were increasingly being held together with Scotch tape. To fund all this work, we did a mortgage refinance in 2020 that yielded $3.25 million, but because that was when interest rates were at an all-time low, our payments now are just slightly more than they were prior to the refinancing. There was also a 15% maintenance increase, and a number of our capital assessments were made permanent. Over a five-year period, we generated about $5 million for our capital budget. 

Facing facts. Nobody likes to pay more maintenance, but we’ve explained to shareholders that it’s unavoidable when you’re servicing an aging building and dealing with inflation. Both have been pretty unpredictable for the last couple of years, so we’re rather proud that our finances are stable. There were no maintenance increases for two years, and for 2023 and 2024 they’re in the 3% to 4% range. We’re slightly above the neighborhood average, but our maintenance is still pretty low.

Money back. That said, there was resistance to the solar project because people questioned whether we should be spending money on something that was discretionary. But it’s clearly delivering what we hoped it was going to deliver. We’ve got some considerable tax breaks as a result of that installation, and people are enjoying a 40% to 50% reduction in their electricity bills. It’s set up so that electricity goes into the grid for a certain dollar value, which is distributed proportionately based on the number of shares people own. We’re now two years in, and the project is going to pay for itself in another two years, right on schedule.

Going green. The building was stuck with a D energy-efficiency rating for a long time, but thanks to the solar panels, we got upgraded to a C. Now we’re in the process of deciding the next step of whether we should switch from No. 2 fuel-oil burners to natural gas or go straight to electric. In my mind, it makes sense logistically to move straight to electricity because there would be conversion costs to gas and then more costs to go electric. We’re working with our managing agent, FirstService Residential, which has its own energy division, and we’ve commissioned a RoadMap 2050 energy study to use as a planning tool. Once the elevator replacement is wrapped up, we’re looking at recalibrating our steam heat system in 2025 and replacing our windows in 2026. We’ve got 900 of them, so that’s a real quality-of-life issue here. Based on some preliminary estimates, we’re talking about a $1.5 million project, which means we’d have to do a capital assessment over a five-to-seven-year period.   

Doing the job. Taking over as president has been pretty much what I expected. It hasn’t required any more time than I envisioned based upon what I saw while I was treasurer. And I felt like I had the skills to do it. I mean, when I was a high school principal, I had to oversee the physical plants in addition to the educational programs and student management and all those sorts of things. 

As for the rewards, there’s a sense of personal satisfaction at getting things done. And our shareholders seem satisfied. There’s never anybody else running for the board other than the people who are currently on it. Having been an administrator in public education for many years, my gut tells me that if you’re not hearing a lot of complaints, then people are probably happy with how things are progressing.

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