Diary of a New York Co-op Board President
Updated: Feb 12, 2019
Diary of a New York Co‐ op Board President
Living in a co-op has its pros and cons, but when it comes to a big building project, a co-op can turn into an un-co-op — as in uncooperative.
By Kathleen Hughes
April 27, 2018
Buying an apartment in a New York co‐op building can seem like such a great idea — at first. But just wait. There is often a steep learning curve that runs from happy optimism to weary cynicism.
This is one such story, as I remember it.
As most New Yorkers know all too well, when you buy a co‐op, you don’t technically own the apartment itself, unlike a condominium. Instead, you are buying shares in a corporation with a group of strangers, and then you sign a lease.
And while co‐op is short for cooperative, that can be a misnomer. Some buildings should be called un‐co‐ops, as in uncooperative, when it comes to dealing with any kind of change or building project.
The learning curve, by the way, gets even steeper if you also volunteer to join the board of directors and become its president.
Dec. 17, 2010: It is the apartment of our dreams! The West Village in Manhattan. Historic, lots of light, exposed brick in a small, seven‐story building. Yes, it needs a lot of work, and that will be hard to manage while we are still living in California. But we will never find anything like it. Just have to get through the co‐op board interview. I really hope they like us!
Feb. 23, 2011: Wow. The interview did not go well. Terrifying experience! Turned over every bank statement, tax returns, and, boy, felt like we were on a witness stand. But by some miracle, they approved us. We are in. But worried.
May 2, 2011: I have joined the co‐op’s board of seven directors and will host the board meetings, using just a Home Depot folding table and orange folding chairs. I do hope they like us! I’m making such an effort. Placed a light on automatic timer in the window so we seem to be there 24/7.
July 30, 2012: Starting demolition. Good thing I rented a fifth‐floor walk‐up nearby — even though it meant leaving my husband behind in Los Angeles. My heart races when I get the frantic call. Panic! Gravel is pouring into the neatly done apartment below. I can’t apologize enough. We are fixing the hole in the very old floor to prevent this. Delivering bottles of Paul Hobbs pinot noir to the neighbors.
The Other Side
We talked to other shareholders and board members to get their perspective. Read it
Sept. 20, 2012: The board did not approve our architect’s plans to install central air‐conditioning. We wanted to run coolant lines up the stairwell of the building to a condenser on the roof. That is a no‐go. We are told there might not be enough room for everyone to do the same thing, under the building codes. Have to find a solution that could accommodate everyone.
I hate those big, ugly, loud window A/C units. Buying loud fans instead at Bed Bath & Beyond. Still too hot too sleep, even with all windows open. Why do taxis honk continuously at 3 a.m. when the taxis in front of them clearly can’t move?
Feb. 8, 2013: Remodel almost done. Found the perfect Danish table with enough chairs for everyone in the building at annual meetings! Antique green leather seats. What to serve at board meetings? This might be too much: smoked salmon and cream cheese on toast squares. French bread, assorted cheeses, grapes, strawberries, mixed nuts with M & Ms.
Oct. 24, 2013: Fellow board member knocking loudly on door. Our toilet has backed up, and sewage water is leaking through their ceiling below. I cannot apologize enough. It is just over a year since the gravel from our demolition rained down on the same apartment. We are so sorry.
Aug. 26, 2015: Elderly woman upstairs smelled gas, and that was it for the gas riser for the entire building. No gas for five months and counting. Everyone is getting fed up with takeout. Walls are going to be opened for a new riser, and that is when it hits me: We could run coolant lines for everyone in the shaft when it is open! I am so smart! It is a brilliant idea. Starting to host meetings and finding a majority of my neighbors seem interested in central A/C!
Oct. 15, 2015: Still hosting meetings and inviting A/C experts. Down to serving grapes with trail mix. What was I thinking with all that food? But this is exciting! All sorts of experts weighing in on how a co‐op could install central A/C and toss those ugly window units. The group is very grateful to me. I am getting this done. We have no idea what it might cost yet.
June 21, 2016: Whew. I was elected president of the board. Studying Robert’s Rules of Order. Better navigate this project. We just need better communication. I have been working on a long history of the building and just sent it to all the shareholders. Everyone will surely love it and be grateful to me.
July 22, 2016: Too hot to sleep. Broke down and ordered a small, white Friedrich A/C window unit. It makes noise, blocks the view, requires a Plexiglas panel and is not attractive.
Aug. 22, 2016: I propose rewriting the House Rules. My first draft leads with the need for kindness and respect. Our building manager provides a boilerplate sample from another building. The lawyers weigh in. We are a little bogged down about whether dogs need to be approved. Can you really interview a dog? We are not addressing the pet birds already living on the first floor.
Sept. 12, 2016: One neighbor complains that my window air‐conditioning unit is dripping water on the awning below. The service guy offers to run a drainage tube down the front of the building. That does not seem like a good idea on a landmark building. We are trying to use the air‐conditioning unit less often, but it is really hot in here.
Sept. 13, 2016: All hell has broken loose. A member of Team A/C suggested this should be a building project, paid for partly by the co‐op. She argued that it does not make sense for a majority of shareholders to build an A/C system on their own when the work will involve common space like the roof and the shaft, and may require an electrical upgrade of the entire building.
But a few members of the board already have their own central air‐conditioning systems, installed during remodels — and they don’t think this spending is fair. The building is now a hodgepodge of different systems. There are three condensers on the roof, one in the basement and two inside apartments.
The building manager agrees with the opposition. It is clear we did not present the idea in the best possible way at the board meeting tonight. Tensions mounting.
May 19, 2017: The board members cannot even agree on the wording of minutes. We are as divided as the rest of the country in the Age of Trump. I receive an email from a fellow board member: “Congratulations for making the board completely dysfunctional.” I feel bullied. I am telling the building manager I feel bullied. I am forwarding the emails to her one by one.
The down couch in my living room has given out, and the feathers are now flying all over the apartment. Someone complains that the birds on the first floor have been screeching.
June 10, 2017: It is so hot. I have ordered two of the biggest stainless steel fans I can find from Restoration Hardware, and my daughter is assembling them. The little window unit is not strong enough to cool the entire apartment.
Board discussions remain heated. “Are you calling me selfish?” asks one director along the way. I make the mistake of saying, “Yes! Yes, I am!” Apologize later in a phone call. Presidents are not supposed to lose it. This has gone downhill so quickly.
Nov. 25, 2017: Frantic pounding on the door late at night by fellow board member. Heart racing, I leap out of tub to learn our overflow drain has leaked, flooding the apartment downstairs. It is our third strike on the same ceiling, once with gravel, once with sewage and now with bath water. My husband mops their floor.
Dec. 4, 2017: Finally! The board passes a spending plan for installing central air‐conditioning, dividing estimated costs between the co‐op as a building project and the individuals who want air‐conditioning now. But we are not united. Oh no. A majority of the board — five — were in favor, but two were very, very opposed. (Those in favor of the plan believe it is in the best interest of the building, would increase the building’s value and be accessible to all apartments in the future.)
Dec. 20, 2017: Heading into the holidays. The new buyers upstairs are upset that the board has not yet approved their remodeling plans. Their plans include A/C lines running up to the roof through the shaft. It feels like an end run by a new player. They issue a litigation hold letter to the board — five days before Christmas. (I have not done any shopping yet.)
What is a litigation hold letter? Board members are not allowed to delete emails or use a shredder because our new neighbors may be planning to sue, and they might need the material. The letter from their lawyer says, “We have reason to believe that you have documents and materials in your possession, custody or control that are relevant to claims that may be asserted against you and others.”
Really? For the record, I have complied. Naturally, I am thinking of Hillary. Lesson learned on deleting emails. I no longer want to be president of this co‐op board. I no longer care if anyone likes me. And they are welcome to my emails. I have saved every last one.
Jan. 5, 2018: Note to self: Never go against your instincts. A majority board vote on spending for the A/C project will not end this story. A special shareholder meeting has been called for Jan. 15 to vote on ousting three of us from the board. (I am one of the three.) Half of my neighbors have signed. No reason is given, but one neighbor tells me over the phone that she does not want to pay anything for the A/C project.
Jan. 8, 2018: At first, I try writing a treatise on the need for communication, keeping the tone light. I am explaining we are all at fault in our own unique ways. And then, w‐h‐a‐m‐o! A new legal threat from another neighbor arrives by email.
This one seeks to block the proposed air‐conditioning plan. And it names a majority of the board, including me, as individuals — alleging breach of fiduciary duty and self‐dealing — saying the costs of the plan are not fair to those who have already paid for their own central air‐conditioning systems. It also says the plan violates the neighbor’s lease agreement, because it would involve work in her apartment that is not a repair.
Jan. 9, 2018: That does it. I am resigning. Before I can be ousted. And I should leave it at that, but I won’t. Partly because I have now been trying to get A/C for six long years. So I request a building meeting with a mediator. A meeting is scheduled — without a mediator — for Feb. 1.
Feb. 1, 2018: What a disaster. Only half the building shows up to meet with the co‐op lawyer, the engineer and the potential contractor. One shareholder, who already has air‐conditioning, continues to argue she doesn’t have to let workers into her apartment to access the shaft. Harsh words follow.
Mar. 13, 2018: The board meets without me.
Apr. 17, 2018: I never should have resigned. The minority is now in power. A building meeting has been called, but tensions are so high that no one volunteers to host. At the last minute, we are told to carry our chairs to the vacant sixth floor. Salami is served.
The new president and the building manager present a revised plan where the co‐op will not be paying a penny. Instead, those who want A/C will split all the costs among themselves. No one even mentions the previous board vote on the building project — although it has not been formally overturned.
The building manager wants a show of hands. Who is in?
The battle‐weary owners of four apartments, including me, raise their hands; two others have expressed an interest by phone. (None of us wants to declare defeat and install condensers in our apartments because those systems take up space, and it often means dropping a ceiling and losing part of a window.)
It is clear to me that this project will take a long time.
I am gearing up for a long, hot summer. I will get one of the big, ugly window units. And it may just drip on all of their heads.
A version of this article appears in print on April 28, 2018, on Page RE1 of the New York edition with the headline: Diary of a Co‐op Board President
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