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When Wei-Li Tjong was planning the Seward Park co-op website a year ago, he thought a message board would be a great feature. He envisioned an online forum for co-op residents, a place where they could share tips on local restaurants and services, and post sale notices. What better way to foster community spirit and communication?

It didn't quite turn out that way.

The consultants who were building the site didn't set up the password-protected message board Tjong wanted. The co-op balked at paying more to implement it - it cost $3,000 as it was - and the site went live with a message board that allowed anonymous postings. Pretty soon, it was overrun with offensive posts, mudslinging, and slander, as negative feelings from a very contentious election were carried over to the site. The board had to pull the plug.

"It was being abused," says Tjong, the vice president of the sprawling Lower East Side co-op who co-chairs the website committee. "In some cases it was very, very offensive and hurtful for a reasonable number of people. At that point, we decided it was best to discontinue this and hopefully reinstitute it with a little bit more security."

Websites and message boards can benefit your community, but as Seward Park found out, they can also be divisive. But don't let that scare your building's board away from venturing into the online world. With the proper planning and commitment, there's no reason why you can't develop a site that will be beneficial to your entire building.

The advantages of having a website are tremendous, simply in terms of improving the flow of information. Minutes, announcements, newsletters, application forms, governance documents, building financials, or any kind of building documents can be posted online for shareholders to download at their convenience; no more photocopying, faxing, or digging through files. Message and bulletin boards can be a valuable forum and information exchange. And prospective purchasers can use a site to learn more about the property they're considering buying into.

Still, there are plenty of pitfalls that boards need to know about before venturing online. Website security, privacy policies, domain squatting, and web board moderation are probably new concepts for those accustomed to dealing primarily in the realm of bricks and mortar, but they are just as important as the traditional concerns. Regardless of whether your board is envisioning something simple or a high-tech, "gee- whiz" website, doing things properly and considering all of the details will help repel any potential cyber risks.

 

FIRST STEPS

What kind of website is right for your building? What do you want it to do? This is the most important question to consider if your board is planning to set up an online presence. Big communities can benefit from having a sophisticated website that could be designed to simplify both information flow and some management functions, whereas smaller buildings might find that the expense and time involved in setting up a complicated website are just not justified by the needs of the association.

Penn South is one of the largest cooperatives in New York, a 10-building complex with over 2,800 units taking up six West Chelsea blocks. With a big population, a range of community programs and resources, and a variety of waiting lists, both internal (parking and storage spaces) and external (apartments), the co-op wanted to set up a website that could centralize all the information in one place. "We have all these different resources," says board member Jenna Feist. "We wanted to create a space that would allow people to have access to all the information that was scattered in these different places."

Feist, who co-chaired the website planning committee along with fellow board member Betty Mackintosh, says one of the earliest decisions they made was to create two separate areas on the website: one for shareholders, and one for the public. Shareholders can register to use the website by providing their name, the last four digits of their social security number, and their building and apartment number. Once they are verified, they can enter the shareholder area by typing their name and password.

Inside, shareholders have access to a huge wealth of community information. All the official co-op documents - bylaws, minutes, annual reports, announcements, newsletters, applications, and forms - are posted and archived on the website. There's an administration section, with a list of the directors, committees, policies, and operations. But the site is not just a depository for board information. There's an online calendar, with such posted events as yoga and exercise classes, art workshops, and flea markets. Shareholders can post sale notices and "services wanted" listings. And there's a section on the co-op's history and principles.

Technically, the site is pretty sophisticated. It's connected to the co-op's databases, and shareholders can check their position on any internal waiting lists once they're logged on. The site will only show them their position, not everyone on the entire list. Non-shareholders on the external waiting list for apartments can also see their position.

The site has been up now for over a year, and Feist estimates that the planning process took about 12 months. The co-op paid special attention to creating a privacy policy and a "terms of use agreement" that the shareholders must agree to before they can use the site. These agreements protect the co-op from any lawsuits and clear it of all liability regarding the site. They are a must for any property planning to set up a website.

Naomi Goldstein, the education and communication director, oversees and updates the website. If a shareholder wants to post a notice on the bulletin board, it is first submitted to Goldstein, who then approves it and activates it on the site. This moderated approach prevents anyone from posting anything inappropriate, and helps prevent some of the more troublesome aspects of bulletin boards and message boards.

Goldstein says the website, which cost $20,000 to construct and implement, has been well received by the Penn South community and she estimates that nearly a third of the residents have registered for it. "We thought it was very good, considering we do have a large senior population, many of whom might not be familiar with using the internet," she says. While the site was expensive, both Goldstein and Feist agree it was worth the cost. "We thought we needed a real professional approach to this," says Goldstein. "It's an interactive website. It's needed."

UPDATING IT

Setting up a website is one step in the process; determining who is going to keep it up-to-date is another. Updating websites takes time and a little bit of technical know-how, depending how your site is designed and how often you plan on adding new content. If there's nobody in your building who's willing to assume this responsibility, then this should be included on the agenda of whoever is building the website. Nothing is more useless than a website with outdated content and information.

Some co-ops have looked internally for assistance with their websites. Amalgamated Houses in the Bronx solicited its shareholders for help with building a website in 2002 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the cooperative. Three shareholders responded to a notice in the newsletter and ended up working together to assemble the site, which has photo galleries, a PDF version of the 45-page co-op handbook, and some general information about the building's history and philosophy.

Sharon Gumerove is one of the shareholders who worked on the project. She says the idea was to create a community-minded website for the anniversary, not a full-fledged site. "It's a lovely place to live," she says, "It was like being able to give something back." They're working on an update for the site now, but she doesn't foresee drastic changes being made. "[The co-op] is a NORC [Naturally Occurring Retirement Community], so we're not talking about a lot of cooperators who have web experience," she says.

In some cases, the shareholders don't wait for the board to set up a site. Barry Wittenstein, a resident at 890 West End Avenue, built his own website for the building during a divisive dispute between the directors and the shareholders over the firing of a popular superintendent. It took 40-50 hours of his time to create.

Wittenstein built the site as a way to try and improve communication in the building, saying most shareholders felt the board was secretive, arrogant, and uncommunicative with the residents. "People in the building felt separated from the process," he says. "They felt as though there was no forum to express their anger and opinions. There was no avenue or system set up for information-sharing." He wanted to design an unedited, password-protected message board that would be free from board control.

The board was not happy with Wittenstein's work. The biggest bone of contention was that he had registered an official domain name for the building, 890wea.com, without consulting them. The board was upset and refused to cooperate; they wouldn't give him any minutes, bylaws, or other building documents to post. They wanted it to be the official website for the building, only under their editorial control.

Eventually, Wittenstein realized the board did have the bottom line regarding editorial control. He offered them the site and the domain name and agreed to update it periodically, but he wanted to be compensated for the time he had spent building it and the time it would take to keep it updated. The board balked at his price, and now the site sits in limbo, although when a new board takes over in January, Wittenstein says he plans to offer it again at a reduced fee.

TWO COMMUNITIES

When it comes to websites and your building, the board should always take the first initiative; otherwise it could end up wrangling over domain names like 890 West End. If your board doesn't have a website, or hasn't even thought about one, it should start moving. At the very least, co-ops should register the domain name that they want to use for their website, so it's not taken by the time an actual website is ready to go up. It costs around $25 a year to register, a fee that usually includes some e-mail addresses that the board can use.

Form a committee to steer planning for the website, and solicit any shareholders who might have some experience. The key concern is determining the scope for the site - what is it you want it to do? That's the first step in figuring out the content of the site and how complex it will be to set everything up.

Contact your management company and see if the firm has any web services it can offer. Some companies, like Cooper Square, are rolling out new services that include high-tech websites for their client buildings (see "The Future Is Now," Habitat, September 2003). One disadvantage of relying on the management company is that the building could potentially lose the website if it switches firms. But a co-op-created website is the property of the corporation.

Think about the website as serving two communities: the shareholders and the outside world. Penn South's password-protected approach allows the co-op to post a tremendous amount of information on its website for the shareholders. It's more expensive to implement, but it keeps privileged information from getting into the wrong hands. At the same time, your website can have tremendous marketing value for potential shareholders and purchasers. You can post apartment layouts, a list of the amenities and services available, and any other information you want newcomers to know about. It's a way of establishing an identity.

Whatever you put on your website, make sure that you own the rights to it. Attorney Jay Hollander says boards should get warranties from any web developer that state the images, designs, or copy used on a building web site aren't infringing on the intellectual property rights of others. He recommends having an attorney review any agreements with the web developer and hosting company before moving forward with a website. Seek out a specialist, not just your building's attorney.

"Boards have to look at the possibilities and pitfalls of the internet and associated intellectual property, as thoroughly and as responsibly as they now handle traditional brick and mortar issues," he says. "Many co-op and condo general counsels are not experienced in these particular matters and, where needed, boards should consider seeking the assistance of counsel that is familiar with internet and intellectual property issues to ensure that their rights in that area are protected."

If you're going to have a message board on your site, make sure that it's done correctly. Insist on a system that is password-protected and prevents users from posting anonymously. Include a "terms of use" agreement in the registration process that every user must agree to before they can access the message board. And make sure that someone has administrative access and can remove offensive posts in an emergency.

Consider a website as an investment in the future of your co-op. Even if the present population in your building isn't the most computer-savvy group of people, at some point in the near future that's likely to change. New shareholders will expect building documents, announcements, and the like to be available online, and the range of things you can do with your website will only increase. Online board elections are a future possibility, and online polls and surveys could be set up now. A website can be a great resource for your entire building, just make sure that it's set up properly and given enough attention and the proper foresight. This is one piece of technology that's here to stay.

 

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