For the shareholders of the middle-class cooperative in White Plains, the complaint started with bugs. When several shareholders called the super to complain about cockroaches in their usually well-maintained building, an exterminator was called and the cleanup began. But the super and the exterminator hadn’t gotten far when they entered the apartment of an elderly shareholder. That’s when they realized the board had a bigger problem on its hands: the shareholder, well into her 70s, had accumulated masses of garbage and seemed unable or unwilling to rid herself of the debris.
James Glatthaar, the attorney for the building and a partner with Bleakley Platt & Schmidt, recalls the scene: piles of newspapers and magazines immediately apparent from the door, trash set up in a maze around the apartment, empty egg cartons, and paper, all of which were an ideal breeding ground for bugs. “For whatever reasons, she had a problem with these possessions she had come into,” says Glatthaar.
For this co-op, the story has a happy ending. The building’s manager contacted the Westchester county office on aging; it sent a social worker to assist the shareholder in cleaning up her apartment and getting on a regular schedule of apartment maintenance. 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 Colbert, a partner at the law firm of Rosen & Livingston. When it comes to shareholders letting trash accumulate in their apartments, it can open a Pandora’s box of problems, including mold and water leaks. And if the piles are big enough, they can constitute a fire hazard. So how do boards know if a shareholder is hoarding junk, and what do they do once they’ve discovered the problem?
Sometimes when a shareholder is hoarding, the problem reveals itself, through a bug or mouse infestation or a leak in the apartment that has infiltrated a neighboring unit. But often, because of the secretive nature of the resident doing the hoarding, boards can be oblivious of the situation.
“We see a lot of cases in New York co-ops where there is a problem with hoarding,” notes Randy 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.
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. The shareholder, who 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 superintendent and plumber asked the shareholder if they could inspect her place to determine the leak’s source, the shareholder refused. After the board intervened, the shareholder relented.
“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, who adds that he can still see the shock on the plumber’s and super’s faces when they saw the apartment. The garbage bag pile-up was so dense that initially the plumber could not find the source of the leak. Ultimately, the leak was plugged, “but then we realized we had a situation on our hands.”
The shareholder had been bringing junk into her apartment for years; all kinds of debris that she had found on the street – carpet remnants, old clothes, newspapers, and large appliances, including a huge gas stove in the middle of her bedroom. The board couldn’t figure out how and when she had gotten the items into her apartment.
“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 the stuff away, but after a year, even the most reluctant board members agreed that the liability issues were too great to let the problem go on any longer. “We are in a family building. There are a lot of kids; if that place caught fire” the building would have been devastated, says the board president.
“We had to sue for eviction, because it was our judgment that she had to get an advocate,” adds 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 she clean up or leave.
A lot of times, observes the president, people think of co-op boards as an assemblage of “these mean, nasty people, making everyone’s life an issue, which is not true. As a board, if you know that this is going on and something does happen and you’ve done nothing, the people who are damaged are going to come back and hammer you. Once you know of it, you are going to have to resolve it.”
Suing for eviction, however, turned out to be a beneficial move, for both the board and the shareholder. The shareholder hired an attorney, who started to negotiate with the board to drop the proceedings. The board refused to do so until the attorney came and inspected the shareholder’s apartment himself.
“I think that [visit] made a positive impact on the future proceedings,” says the president. “We came up with an agreement, and she signed the agreement [stipulating] that, in a certain amount of time, she would remedy the problem. There were also stipulations to timing; if they were missed, she would be responsible for paying [a fee].”
Ultimately, it was two years before the shareholder finally cleared out her apartment, at one time 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.
“We had to tiptoe through a legal minefield. If you make one false move, you [may] never fix the problem, or you [might] have to start all over again,” says the president. While the problem is not completely corrected – the shareholder may always start hoarding again – the board is protected by its agreement with her: it has the right to inspect the apartment in the future.
So 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 down 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.”