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We Can Work it Out

It can start simply enough. 6D is playing the stereo a little too loud. 3B is upset that 3C keeps parking a stroller in the hallway. Night-shiftworking 2F can't get any sleep during the daytime because the upstairs neighbor in 3F has a playgroup at 3 P.M.

These are some of the more common complaints that arise from apartment living. Some might say accepting noise and other inconveniences is just a fact of life in New York City, but small problems have a bad habit of turning into bigger ones, and life can quickly turn ugly if disputes between shareholders spin out of control. Hurt feelings, stubborn shareholders, and even lawsuits are all potential unwanted byproducts of a disagreement that isn't resolved. All the hard work that goes into running a self-managed co-op can evaporate over smells, noise, pets, and loud babies.

In self-managed buildings, disputes can escalate quickly and boards may be loath to get involved. Usually, friendships and personal allegiances come into play. There is no buffer zone, either; i.e., having a managing agent who can play the "bad cop" role, sending out stern letters to those shareholders behaving badly. In those co-ops with only a few units, everyone knows everyone else, and it's hard for board members to remain indifferent. Board officers may be great at making board and building decisions, but how well can they step into a dispute and play Solomon?

Settling disputes and keeping a building in harmony requires following procedures, setting up lines of communication, and being even- handed. Surprisingly, most disputes can be peacefully resolved through a combination of these three principles. For those buildings in need of serious help or outside assistance, there are a number of mediation resources in the city with plenty of experience specifically in resolving housing conflicts. Mediation is an ideal alternative to lawsuits. Not only does it save money and time but it also generates agreements and resolutions that are more likely to last.

When disputes between shareholders arise, it's up to the board to make sure they get settled. "The board has to take leadership, sit the people down, and say, 'You guys have got to behave,'" says attorney Geoffrey Mazel, a partner at Hankin, Handwerker & Mazel. "Someone's got to take charge, and I think it's completely the board's job and major function. All buildings should have a procedure to follow when there is a dispute between two shareholders or more." Self-managed buildings, even those with boards that have no experience in settling conflicts, must take a leadership role in creating a resolution process.

That procedure begins with hearing everyone out. First, get a written description of the problem or of a shareholder's bad behavior from whoever is making the complaint; don't take any action until this has been submitted to the board. Board members are advised not to handle complaints personally or informally; addressing problems on a one-on-one basis could potentially lead to exposure and liability for the entire board. Compelling a shareholder to detail his or her issues in writing sometimes makes the critic realize the complaint is simply not worth pursuing.

Once a board learns of a problem, the next step is to gather all the information. Contact the offending shareholder and listen to his/her side of the story. Make sure you don't specify who made the original complaint, if possible. Sometimes a shareholder might not even know that they're doing anything particularly unpleasant; simply notifying them can be enough to defuse a situation.

If telephone diplomacy doesn't work and the shareholder refuses to change his behavior, insists he's doing nothing wrong, or fires back with some complaints of his own, the board should send a letter. "We tell them that we've gotten complaints or we've noticed this or that," says Mike Gordon, president of a 27-unit, self-managed co-op in Park Slope, who has written letters to shareholders about smoke and noise complaints. "You try and spread the burden, you don't tell who actually complained because you don't want that issue."

If the problem persists and the parties appear to be hardening their positions, it might be a good time to begin mediation. According to the New York State Dispute Resolution Association, "Mediation is a consensual dispute resolution process in which a neutral third party helps disputants to identify issues, clarify perceptions and explore options for a mutually acceptable outcome.

It's a way to cut through the "he said/she said," and bitter feelings that may have built up over time, and steer disputing parties towards a solution that they can develop themselves, instead of trying to force compliance with a solution handed down from someone else. Mediation can be done with the help of a trained, professional mediator, or members of the board or other volunteers can do it in-house.

At Deepdale Gardens cooperative, a 1,362-unit complex in Little Neck, Queens, board president Laurie Anderson says the property's internal mediation process has helped resolve numerous community disputes. After first vetting complaints and hearing both sides, and then, if problems persist after initial steps to solve them don't work, the board invites both parties to take part in a board-assisted mediation. The voluntary, confidential evening meetings are held in a neutral meeting area (not someone's apartment), and usually two board members who aren't particularly close with the parties will meet with them.

Essentially, the mediation process gives everyone equal time to explain his or her positions and hear the other person out in an orderly fashion. "We try to come to a resolution before the meeting closes," Anderson says. "It's a little 'will you do this if you do that.' That's really what we hope for. You don't have to be best friends but you do share your home. It makes it an amicable situation for everyone."

Sometimes, it might be helpful to have someone completely unrelated to a co-op step in and mediate disputes. Smaller buildings, particularly, can have a tough time finding board members who can be impartial, or at least be perceived as impartial, in shareholder disputes. Some boards can have a tough time even running their annual meeting due to lingering bitterness or simmering disputes.

Robert Apfel, a lawyer and mediator with New York Mediation Services, emphasizes the role a mediator can play in opening up communication and preventing problems from growing. "If they can work on that communication and a mediator can come help and foster a better atmosphere where that communication can take place, a lot of problems can be prevented or resolved at a much earlier stage before there's real damage done to a building."

In New York City, there are plenty of places to turn to if you're looking for mediation. New York Law School, at 57 Worth Street in Tribeca, launched the "Co-op Mediation Project" in April. The program encourages parties in co-op disputes to turn to mediation as a solution instead of litigation. Co-ops can contact the program at (212) 431-2318 and be referred to a variety of mediators who provide a free one-hour consultation. The school will offer its facilities to the co-op free, if the parties agree to proceed with the mediation. In addition, the school may also provide facilities for annual meetings.

Safe Horizon, a New York-based nonprofit that provides assistance to victims of violence and rape, operates the Manhattan Mediation Center at its lower Manhattan offices. The free center is part of a statewide effort to offer free alternative dispute resolution centers in each county. They can be reached at 212-577-1740. For centers in other boroughs and counties, the New York State unified court system website has a list of contact information at http://www.nycourts.gov/ip/adr/ProgramList.shtml.

Settling disputes and resolving conflicts may not be among the most frequent tasks tackled by co-op board members, but often they can be critical to maintaining the cohesive community of a building. Whatever the method for solving them, shareholder disputes must not be left unchecked. Just look at the history of harassment, complaints, and threats that led to the landmark 40 West 67th Street v. Pullman case, in which a series of disputes led to the eviction of a shareholder. Even if a complaint seems petty at first, the board must be even-handed in its approach; often airing simple complaints will reveal deeper resentments that may have been building over other issues. If shareholders can't work out their issues themselves, boards should not be afraid about stepping in and offering their assistance and leadership in smoothing out the differences. It can have a big impact on just how cooperative your cooperative is.

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