New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine June 2020 free digital issue

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ARCHIVE ARTICLE

Co-ops at the Crossroads

Emily Pardee is a 50-year-old New Yorker who is not easily given to sentimentality, but when she talks about moving into her co-op in Sunset Park in Brooklyn in 1988, a note of wistfulness comes into her voice. Once upon a time, the people who lived in her co-op – a tidy, four-story, yellow-brick building located on a hill across the street from the neighborhood’s sloping park – enjoyed a certain esprit de corps, accented by the breathtaking view of New York harbor from the roof of the building. Up there, life was easy.

“When I moved in, there were laundry racks, little tubs of vegetables. People enjoyed it,” recalls Pardee, of the mutual sense of labor and peace that prevailed on the roof.

About five years ago, however, sensibilities changed, and the roof doors were locked as a precaution against potential accidents. While the decision to close the roof was based on legal advice – “There is a lot more concern about getting sued, even though we are insured all over the place,” says Pardee – it abruptly ended one of the purest pleasures the cooperators had known: being able to trace the arc of the sun from one end of the harbor to the other.
There are some things, however, that Pardee is glad to see gone, like the broken benches in the park across the street, the trash that littered the sidewalk, and the pernicious presence of drug dealers. Over the past few years, the city has reclaimed the park, repaving the walkways, fixing the benches, re-sodding the grass, and cleaning up the trash. And the drug dealing has virtually disappeared.

But perhaps the biggest change of all is in who lives in Sunset Park today. Originally founded as a neighborhood for Finnish immigrants between 1916 and 1927, the Sunset Park co-ops only began including Swedes, Norwegians, and Danes after World War II. Today, the neighborhood is a mélange of nationals: Polish, Russian, Chinese, Mexican, Ecuadorian, and Dominican, combined with a collection of fourth- and fifth-generation European-Americans. They are threading their way over from Park Slope, Brooklyn Heights, and Greenpoint, all hoping to lay claim to an inexpensive co-op of their own. In fact, among the 24 co-ops founded by the Finns, there are relatively few descendants of the original shareholders.

The latest wave is pushing its own agenda for change. These newcomers are arguing vigorously over their competing visions for the future: how and whether to write a proprietary lease, how much power a board should ultimately have, whether to allow subletting, and how to maintain the esprit de corps. That agenda came front and center this past February when the 16 homeowners at 570 44th Street voted against updating their co-op’s bylaws.
Across the park at Emily Pardee’s co-op, 521-531 41st Street, the 40 shareholder families are facing their own watershed moment. At the annual meeting in January, the board said that either the owners help out with day-to-day operations or else pay for management. To their astonishment, the shareholders seem determined to pitch in.

Finally, four doors up the block, at 549-561 41st Street, a new attitude is threatening to swamp the old Finnish “all for one, one for all” ethos that has existed for the successive generations. Changes to the building’s bylaws and proprietary lease have turned the modest four-story building into a prime real estate investment for the shareholders, who are increasingly less interested in helping out and more interested in the resale value of their units.

Three co-ops, three histories, all facing an uncertain future: how and whether they will be able to change and still preserve the immigrant values that have kept them – for more than three-quarters of a century – safe, self-managed, and financially secure.

Finntown

In the beginning was the word and the word was pukin maki, Finnish for goat hill. That was what the newly arrived immigrants called the expanse of green overlooking New York harbor, six miles south of the Brooklyn Bridge, and just north of the still mostly uncharted Bay Ridge. No one has called Sunset Park “Goat Hill” since World War I, at least, but for the Finns who built or bought the 24 co-ops planted like tiny castles around the park in the center of the neighborhood, the name was an instant evocation of the life they had left behind.

Like most immigrants who arrived in New York at the turn of the century, the Finns came for the work and stayed because they had no money to go further. Most of them worked in the trades or the dockyards, and looked for a home away from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. The migration to Sunset Park started in earnest in 1908, when the Finnish Gloria Dei Evangelical Lutheran Church opened its doors on 44th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues. According to a history of Finnish migration, there were 18,000 Finns in New York City in 1925, 6,000 of them living in Brooklyn. By that time, the neighborhood was no longer called Goat Hill; it was known simply as “Finntown.”

With the people came the Finnish-language co-ops, stores, newspaper offices, churches, bakeries, pool halls, and bars, most located in the eight-block radius around the park. And the prevailing ethos was talkoo. “It means cooperative work,” explains Matti Mattson, who, at 88, is one of the few remaining Finnish-Americans who still lives in Sunset Park. While Mattson didn’t move into the neighborhood until after World War II, he was well acquainted with the values and shared work ethic that prevailed among the Finns. As a young man of 18, he went with 2,800 other American volunteers to fight Franco in Spain. When he moved to New York after serving in the army in World War II, he lived for a brief time in a Finnish co-op in the Bronx, setting linotype for a left-leaning Finnish newspaper.

In 1956, he moved into the Sunset Park co-op at 570 44th Street, and he remembers the prevailing concept of shared work vividly. A talkoo was “like a work bee,” Mattson explains. All the families would spend a day in shared work, cleaning and repairing their respective buildings. In Mattson’s co-op, a 16-unit apartment building, people would move in teams through the floors, scraping and painting, scrubbing, and mending. Anyone who couldn’t do the physical labor helped out by making coffee, sandwiches, and pastries for the laborers.

Today, most of the Finns are gone. And much of the communal ethos is gone too. Instead, Mattson’s building is about to test the waters to see what it is like to be a modern co-op. In February, the shareholders voted down chages to their bylaws but agreed to revisit the issue this spring. The changes would not only move the building from a cash-only basis but would also allow the board to take out a line a credit to make capital repairs, start a reserve fund, and, if necessary, consider hiring a management company.

That was then, this is now

All these changes are long overdue, believes Ron Kaplan, 48, the board president and a real estate lawyer. “When I first moved into the building 20 years ago, I [became] the treasurer for four years. I brought [everyone] the bad news, about the real estate taxes, oil water, sewer; that all these costs are going up. And they [the board members] would assess for operating costs.”

Kaplan remembers trying to explain to his fellow owners why it wasn’t appropriate to assess for operating costs. And it took him even longer to convince the board to raise the maintenance to run the building more efficiently. When he moved in, it was $112 a month. Today, it is just a little more than double that.

But debt was anathema to the Finnish cooperators. Once each co-op board paid off the building mortgage, most in the 1970s, few of the boards were willing to take out an additional mortgage. When repairs absolutely had to be done, board members went cap in hand to the cooperators to collect the money they needed.

The system operated more like a condo than a co-op. It was all very laissez faire, recalls Kaplan, with people making alterations or subletting without board approval. As a result, such issues as insurance, discrimination, and long-term capital repair projects got swept under the rug. At the time Kaplan moved in, the bylaws still had language maintaining that preference should be given to Finnish applicants of “good moral character.”

“It was very backward when I first got there,” notes the president, who remembers board members bullying or stonewalling new shareholders who tried to make any changes. “That was good in the respect that it preserved some semblance of continuity, but bad because it stifled creativity and progress.” Things tended to get done in a piecemeal fashion, if at all.

Matti Jappinen, 57, recalls those days well. Even after Jappinen moved into the building in 1978 and married a Finnish woman, older Finns still considered him an outsider. When he and another new shareholder tried to offer suggestions for improving the building, they were summarily shot down. “We had ideas about what could be done – maybe a garden on the roof, little things like that.” But the board wouldn’t listen, reluctant to spend money or take on debt. The lessons learned from the Depression – cash only, don’t spend what you don’t have, never trust a bank – still lingered into the 1970s. Bad memories and old fears were long engrained and help from newcomers “was not welcome,” says Jappinen.

The question for the future is: what happens to the co-op if its bylaws are updated? What will change? In the past few years, Jappinen has noticed more people moving in from other sections of Brooklyn. “I’m not convinced it’s a good sign,” he notes. “It’s becoming an issue of who can make more money [by selling their unit]. I don’t necessarily like that. It really breaks the whole idea of the co-op – that you could have affordable housing in this city.”

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Finnish Forever

“This house used to be very free and open,” observes Bruno Forsell, who at 70, is the oldest Finnish-American still living in his co-op at 561 41st Street. Forsell, who was born in Manhattan, grew up in Parkside, after he and his family came back to New York at the end of World War II. They were visiting Finland when the Russians invaded in 1939, and stayed there for the duration of the conflict.

After his family returned to New York, his parents bought a one-bedroom co-op in Parkside, drawn to the neighborhood because of the low cost of the homes and the liveliness of life in Finntown. Later, as Bruno grew older, they made the move to a two-bedroom across the courtyard. Forsell recalls those days for the camaraderie of the shareholders. And life in Finntown was, well, nice.

There was the Ketola’s sauna up the block on 41st Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues; a pool hall; a Finnish newspaper, the New Yorkin Uutiset; Imatra Hall, the political and social club, located on 40th Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues; and Finnish restaurants and stores aplenty. There was also an enduring sense of national pride and good will among the Finns, among those who fought in the war, and among those who spent the war years collecting money and sending food and clothes back to friends and family in Finland.

Life was simpler, too, with fewer rules and fewer constrictions. “You could rent the apartments. You could have tenants living here. We had use of the roof. Everybody used to dry their laundry up there. We weren’t so concerned about anybody suing us.”

But life changed in the neighborhood. Slowly the Finnish families gave way to Scandinavian families, and after that, Irish, Italian, Hispanic, and Asian. That was hard for a lot of the Finns, maintains Sandy Brinkman, 60, who is first-generation Danish-American and a former resident of the building. “They would have preferred it stay Finnish forever.” — R.F.

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The same, but different

Does allowing new homeowners to get a loan to purchase ultimately change the tenor of a co-op? Maybe, says Margaret Morrison, but since she moved into her co-op at 521-531 41st Street in October of 2001, the more pressing issue is how does she get the people who have moved in help take care of the building?

For Morrison, 46, a transplant from Park Slope, her co-op initially seemed to have everything that she and her partner, Robin Burdulis, were looking for in a new home. There was a diverse community of homeowners, a sense of shared investment, and a willingness to work hard. While the building remains diverse, with shareholders ranging in age from 30 to 70, with Chinese, Polish, African, and Latino families, among others, the sense of cohesiveness hasn’t exactly panned out.

“We don’t have a proprietary lease, we have a homeowner association agreement that banks recognize as a proprietary lease, so people have been able to get mortgages for a number of years now,” explains Morrison, who is the board president. The association agreement, drawn up in the early 1990s to help shareholders sell their apartments for higher prices than what they paid, has allowed an influx of more and more sophisticated co-op owners who are not always aware of the need to help out.

At the annual meeting in February, Morrison and her fellow board members laid it on the line for the 40 shareholders: either they chose to pitch in and take on individual responsibilities in the building, or the board would be forced to raise the maintenance and hire a management company. The board members, all of whom work full-time, could no longer go it alone.

“This year we decided to stay self-managed,” says Morrison, “but we have turned to the building to create committees and turn more projects over to the building members, the smallest being small maintenance projects and making sure the snow was removed [and the largest was] getting a boiler service contract. So we’re going to give this a trial period until September, and then reassess whether these committees are actually helping the building run better.” If not, the board will turn to outside management.

Part of the problem may be historical, explains Pardee. For many years, life in the building was run on a “leave-a-note” basis. All kinds of notes were posted – “Please recycle,” “Please sort your trash,” “Don’t go on the roof” – but they were usually ignored. As a result, the board was not used to making the kind of demand it made at the annual meeting. “We haven’t put too many rules in,” admits Pardee, who went off the board in February of 2004. “We try to minimize the rules and foster a cooperative atmosphere.”

Right now, Pardee would like to see the building tackle the need for a proprietary lease. Not only would that formalize procedures, but it would also deal with the issue of a possible refinancing of the building’s mortgage so money could be borrowed for repairs. “We have a limited number of banks that will work with us,” she notes. Having a proprietary lease would also further encourage more sophisticated purchasers, people who understand how co-ops run. “Better knowledge is better for the building. And having members who are interested and educated is very, very helpful.” It means there are “more people who can serve on the board, so it doesn’t fall to the same people, who do get resentful.”

Blowing in the wind

Up the block, changes are also under way at the co-op at 549-561 41st Street. Last year, the families in 561, a 40-unit building, voted unanimously to implement a newly revised proprietary lease and bylaws, which not only substantially expand the power of the board, but also, for the first time, allow individual buyers to get mortgages. Will that diffuse the spirit of the house? Or make it stronger? Sandy Brinkman, 60, a former board treasurer, doesn’t know. Brinkman, who purchased a co-op there in 1972 but who now lives in a condo in Heritage Hills, Westchester, notes: “There’s [the idea of] increasing your investment, and then there’s [the problem of] spending so much money [that] you don’t want to do the things that you used to do, like help out in the building, which was a way to get to know your neighbors.”

“This house used to be very free and open,” agrees Bruno Forsell, 70, a long-time resident who was born in Manhattan, moved back to Finland with his parents just before World War II, and was trapped there when Russia invaded in 1939. After his family made it back to America at the close of the war, they bought a one-bedroom and, then, a two-bedroom apartment in Sunset Park. He remembers those days for the camaraderie of the residents.

Brinkman believes that the shareholders will have to make a decision soon about how they want the building to be in the next five to ten years – do they want it to continue to be a place where people know their neighbors, or are people going to retreat further into their “good investment” now that there is a mortgage? Prices in the co-ops have jumped, with a one-bedroom apartment that cost roughly $40,000 four years ago now being offered for $110,000.

How will the community change? That remains to be seen, observes the current board treasurer, Melanie Edwards, 37, who moved in with her husband two years ago. Today, the Edwardses have a little girl, and Melanie is still pleased by the investment she and her husband made. “The thing that attracted us initially was the low cost, the low maintenance, and [that] we could afford to do the all-cash deal,” she says. “At the apartment that we moved from in Manhattan, the maintenance was outrageously high and it was high because the co-op was not run very well.”

She and her husband found out about the Sunset Park co-op through an advertisement in a circular. “We didn’t know anything about Brooklyn,” she observes. They’ve lived through their first “work day,” and now Edwards is adjusting to life as a board member. Since the new proprietary lease was adopted, there have been three sales in the building and four apartments are on the market. In the five years prior to the lease revision, there had been, at most, two sales in a year.

No one knows what effect the lease revision will have on the future makeup and ethos of the building. With buyers now able to get loans, Edwards speculates, it may draw more professionals who will find it easier to deal with banks.

The reserve fund, which is painfully low, will have to be increased, and the new shareholders will probably also expect the building to have a capital plan for future repairs.

“I think the people who have put their money into this are going to want us to be more financially forward-looking,” says Edwards. In addition, notes Brinkman, if people come into the building paying more money, their interest in helping out may decline. “People will probably say, ‘I paid so much, why should I have to give my time to the building?’”

Once upon a time, giving time to the building was the driving ethos of Sunset Park. Looking out for your neighbor, checking in on the elderly shareholders who might need someone to shop for them, stopping by the park to chat with friends, going to church on Sunday. That’s something Brinkman believes shareholders, both old and new, need to think about carefully. Will it change? And what will be lost if it does? Nonetheless, for Benjamin Ross, 32, change is a good thing – at least in his co-op at 570 44th Street. A new proprietary lease should herald “a big increase in the value of the property,” he says.

Already, with two-bedroom apartments going for $75,000 cash, rumors are running rampant that, once mortgages are established, homeowners could claim as much as $150,000 for a 500-square-foot one-bedroom.
Ross, who works for a New York immigration organization as a consultant, says the reasons he wanted to live in Sunset Park were threefold: its cultural diversity, the history of the Finnish co-ops, and the castle-like exteriors. It all makes for an unusual place to live. “It is a very interesting, engaging neighborhood that has a lot of cultural vibrancy,” he notes.

As with many of his new neighbors, however, Ross wants to help out. He just doesn’t have the time. In terms of running the building, “it’s come down to a small group of people” who do most of the work. “In our building, there is a struggle to get more people involved.”

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