Ruth Ford in Co-op/Condo Buyers
For the middle-class cooperative in White Plains, N.Y., the complaint started with bugs. When several shareholders called the super to complain about cockroaches in their usually well-maintained building, he called an exterminator — and when the two entered the apartment of an elderly shareholder, they realized they had a bigger problem on their hands: She had accumulated masses of garbage and seemed unable or unwilling to rid herself of the debris. At that point, it becomes a building-wide issue, and the board's responsibility to correct.
James Glatthaar, the attorney for the building and a partner at Bleakley Platt & Schmidt, recalls the scene: piles of newspapers and magazines, trash set up in a maze around the apartment, empty egg cartons and paper — all of it an ideal breeding ground for bugs. The building's manager contacted the Westchester County Department of Social Services, which assisted the shareholder in cleaning her apartment and regularly maintaining it.
The building was fortunate, says Glatthaar, because the shareholder did not resist efforts to help her. But sometimes, it's not that easy.
"With boards, either they don't know what's happening, or they let it go on for too long," observes Joseph G. Colbert, a partner at Kagan Lubic Lepper Lewis Gold & Colbert and an adjunct professor at St. John's University School of Law. When shareholders let trash accumulate, it can open a Pandora's box of problems, including mold and water leaks. And if the piles are big enough, they constitute a fire hazard.
"We see a lot of cases in New York co-ops where there is a problem with hoarding," notes Dr. Randy O. Frost, a professor at Smith College who studies obsessive compulsive disorders. "People go out at night and collect junk." A board may learn of it by catching an accidental glimpse through the apartment door or because of smells emanating from the apartment.
No Neighborhood Immune
At one tony Upper East Side co-op, the signals were there for a while. The board just didn't know where to look. As the board president recalls, one of the shareholders, a woman in her 60s, had a storage bin that was stuffed to overflowing, with items being squeezed out through the wire cage. She had lived in the building for nearly two decades, was reclusive and never permitted anyone into her apartment. All this seemed harmless, until a neighbor of the shareholder began complaining of a water leak in his unit. When the super and the plumber asked to inspect her place to determine the leak's source, she refused until the board intervened.
"The entire apartment, floor-to-ceiling — and they were ten-and-a-half-foot-high ceilings — was filled with garbage bags," recalls the board president. The pile was so dense that initially the plumber could not find the source of the leak. "We spent a year trying to work out a deal with the shareholder to clear out her apartment," says the president, but the woman refused. Initially, some of the board members were loathe to insist on her throwing things away, but after a year, even the most reluctant agreed that the fire risk and other liability issues were too great to let the problem go on any longer.
"We had to sue for eviction, because it was our judgment that she had to get an advocate," says the president. Arguing that the shareholder was in violation of her proprietary lease by failing to keep her unit in a habitable condition, the board presented her with an ultimatum: Either clean up or leave.
Suing for eviction turned out to be a beneficial move, for both the board and the shareholder. The shareholder hired an attorney, whom the board insisted come inspect the apartment himself. That did the trick, says the president: The shareholder signed an agreement stipulating that she would remedy the problem within a certain time; if deadlines were missed, she would pay a fee. It took two years before the shareholder finally cleared out her apartment — at one point hiring a commercial contractor to haul away bags of debris.
While the board was able to use the proprietary lease as a wedge to force the shareholder to clean up her unit, the whole experience was draining for everyone on the board. While the shareholder may always start hoarding again, the board is protected by its agreement with her, which gives the board the right to inspect her apartment.
How will the co-op know when that is necessary? The board member sighs. It may be sooner than later. He was taking his trash to the basement some months ago, and the shareholder was down there, rifling through the recycling bins. "She had all these newspapers and plastic bags spread out all over the place. I asked her if she was going to clean it up. She said, 'Yes,' and then she left."
Adapted from Habitat March 2005. For the complete article and more, join our Archive >>
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