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Toby Johnson's Journey: From Math Professor to Co-Op Treasurer in Brooklyn

Toby Johnson has come full circle. He grew up in a co-op in Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens, and after earning a doctorate in math from the University of Washington, he returned to Brooklyn — specifically, 90 Sterling Place, a four-unit co-op in Park Slope. An assistant professor of math probability at the College of Staten Island, he serves as board treasurer. Johnson spoke with Habitat about the challenges of budgeting for repairs and his building’s switch to electrification. 

Small is beautiful. When my wife and I were looking to buy an apartment in 2018, this was the first place we looked at. We liked that the building was small and casual, and we were perfectly willing to inconvenience ourselves walking up to the fourth floor because it would be a better value. Since someone from each apartment is on the board — we were interviewed by all our neighbors — I knew I would be joining at some point, which happened when the treasurer stepped down a year later.

From creaks to leaks. For a while, things were very uneventful. Our biggest project was rebuilding the basement stairs, which were getting really creaky, and there was some water damage on our back wall facade that we patched up. Then, in 2022, we noticed a lot of water in the basement, and it turned out the building’s kitchen sewer pipe leading into our main sewer line was cracked. When we got that fixed, the plumber told us our main sewer pipe was about to break, too. Two weeks later, it did. We had to dig up the basement and install a new one, and we took the opportunity to install some new drains as well. It cost about $25,000, which may not sound like a lot, but for a small building like ours it was. Fortunately, we had been budgeting for repairs and had pretty substantial reserves.

After that, we had our Local Law 152 gas pipe inspection. The boiler part of it went fine, aside from us not having the required backflow protector. But we ran into trouble with the basement laundry room. We have two washers and dryers, and one of the dryers was sharing a gas hookup and vent with the other one. That triggered a DOB inspection, and we were fined for the dryer problem, for not having a trapped and vented drain for the washer, and for our gas pipes not being connected to the ceiling in a sturdy enough way. 

Resolving all the violations would be expensive, and on top of that we’d have to shut off gas for the building. That’s when we started looking into electrification — specifically, heat pumps.

Neighbor to neighbor. We did research online and checked out the website Park Slope Parents, an information resource for neighborhood parents, where people had posted about their heat pump conversions. That helped us identify a couple of vendors. Installing heat pumps, along with decommissioning and removing our gas boiler and upgrading our electrical system, would cost about $150,000. The big problem for us was financing. Our mortgage was fully paid, so we couldn’t refinance. Fortunately, our board president had sent some emails to the New York City Energy Efficiency Corporation, a nonprofit green lender, and we became the first building to get one of their Multifamily Express Green Loans. It’s a $120,000 loan, it has a 7% interest rate, and it comes with a $12,000 incentive from Con Edison, so that pretty much paid for everything. We did have to increase maintenance, but there was no assessment.

Worth the price. Installation started last June and was just completed in December. Each apartment has its own compressor, two of them on our roof and two in the backyard, which are hooked up to indoor units that provide air conditioning and heat. So far, everything seems to be working great. Heat pumps use massively less energy than gas boilers, though gas is a lot cheaper than electricity. For our apartment, we’re paying $130 a month for electricity, compared with about $50 before. Still, that’s not bad at all. The building’s common gas line has been disconnected. Individual apartments still have cooking gas lines, though now that our building’s electrical connection has been upgraded, everybody is set up to switch to electric stoves.

Spreading the word. I’m happy to take part in fighting climate change, as is everyone else. But when it came down to it, electrification made a lot of sense for our building. For one thing, all of us were all happy to get rid of our radiators, and being able to control the heat in our apartments is great. We were always opening our windows in the winter because it was 75 degrees inside, while the ground-level apartment was always running a space heater because it was so cold. It’s also nice not having air conditioners in the windows anymore. Yes, it was tough going into this project because we didn’t know what we were doing. But I would encourage other buildings to do this. In fact, I want to write up a big account of our experience and put it on Park Slope Parents. I just haven’t gotten around to it yet.

Johnson’s comments have been edited and condensed for clarity.

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