When Florence Fisher moved from the Bronx into the Hyde Park Gardens apartment complex in Queens, she was pregnant with her first child, Dwight Eisenhower was president, and hardly anyone had heard the word “co-op.”
Times have changed just a bit.
Today, Florence Fisher is a 73-year-old grandmother, president of Hyde Park Gardens’ co-op board, and, in her half-century at the 37-building complex overlooking Mount Hebron Cemetery and Flushing Meadow Park, she has seen just about everything there is to see in the world of New York real estate.
That includes near bankruptcy. Unpaid taxes. Refinancing. A lead-poisoning scare. Tenant infighting. Lawsuits and countersuits. And, perhaps most surprising of all, something that approximates a happy ending.
“Today,” says Fisher, a retired bank employee, “the difference is that residents are getting services. The condition of the property is better than it’s ever been. I’m in that maintenance management office every day. We check everything that goes on at this property.”
It didn’t used to be that way. Hyde Park Gardens was built after the World War II as a sprawling, campus-like refuge from the bump and grind of the city. But almost from day one, its 746 units spread over 26 acres were dogged by problems – ranging from mismanagement to benign neglect to outright fraud. If anything, the problems seemed to intensify after the property underwent co-op conversion in 1986.
The turning point, many longtime residents now agree, came in 1992 when a small group that called itself The Concerned Shareholders came together. Led by a maverick named Liliana Rubio, the group unearthed a lot of dirt, including a notice from the city’s Department of Finance that the co-op was $45,000 in arrears on taxes and foreclosure was imminent.
The board at the time dismissed The Concerned Shareholders as troublemakers, but eventually the group gained control and started to right the listing ship.
“That was a start,” says current board vice president Lorraine Barbara, 66, a shareholder since 1986 and now retired from the Taxi and Limousine Commission. “Liliana Rubio really started the ball rolling. She was one of the first fighters. [The Concerned Shareholders] made people realize they had to take an interest or they were going to lose their investment. For years, the board presidents were dishonest and there was a lot of shareholder apathy. The ignorance and the apathy made it very easy for bad people to do bad things.”
One chronic problem at Hyde Park Gardens was that the already relatively high maintenance and mortgage costs made boards skittish about raising the maintenance even further. Like Queens itself, the complex is a melting pot of blue- and white-collar workers from numerous income brackets, races, and religions. Their pockets tend not to be bottomless. Their apartments are worth $175,000 to almost $300,000.
In hindsight, many now say that even incremental increases – say, one or two percent a year – would have averted problems that arose when the cash-starved co-op faced major unexpected costs. This vulnerability was exposed in 2005, when faulty construction work from the 1950s necessitated an emergency $250,000 repair to a sewer line.
“When I became board president in March of last year,” says Fisher, “I said, ‘We can’t let that happen again.’ You have to think ahead and make sure you have money in reserve so you don’t have to constantly go back to the shareholders and increase their maintenance.”
It was crunch time. The board finally decided to increase monthly maintenance costs by a stiff 24.5 percent. That money funded the debt for a second mortgage, balanced the budget, and bolstered the reserve fund. An additional one-month assessment, spread over three months, paid off outstanding debts.
To short-circuit the expected howls of protest, the board held several informational meetings, mailed explanatory letters, and worked hard to educate shareholders to the necessity of these distasteful moves. As a result, the feared howls of protest never materialized.
“Maybe three or four people complained,” says Fisher. “I think [more did not] because of the way we sold it. If you give people some idea where their money is going when you do ask for an increase, they’ll understand why. We’re the kind of board that bit the bullet and did things that should have been done years ago.”
Now, with more than $700,000 in reserve, the board is waiting for warm weather so it can begin tackling a list of capital improvements recommended by an engineer’s report – new roofs, gutters, downspouts, blacktop, chimneys, boilers, brick repointing, and more.
Such a long, twisted story would not be complete without a dash of irony. Barbara, the board vice president, believes that another event that helped the co-op turn things around was the decision by more than 60 renters to buy shares in 1999. Among them was Florence Fisher, who’d been renting for over 40 years and had frequently clashed with The Concerned Shareholders. In fact, she was president of the rival tenants’ association for a quarter century.
Today, 592 units are owned by shareholders, 108 are rentals, and 46 are owned by an investor.
Fisher says she decided to buy because her rent had risen almost to the level of her monthly maintenance. And Barbara notes that the influx of new shareholders finally helped the co-op overcome its divisive past and secure its apparently bright future.
“When they bought in,” says Barbara of the 1999 influx, “the whole atmosphere changed. Now, it’s a much more cooperative atmosphere.”
Lastly, it’s worth mentioning the importance of a high-quality, hands-on management company. When Metro Management Development was brought in 11 years ago, they stepped into a world of chaos.
“There were literally no records,” says Theresa Vodopia, Metro’s on-site property manager since 1996. “No shareholder records, no contracting records, no leases, no accounting. It was a mess. It took us two years to get the files straight. Now people can go through a file and find whatever they need.”
“They’re accessible 24/7,” Fisher says of the management company, “and we work hand in hand.”
Looking back over her two turbulent decades at Hyde Park Gardens, Barbara can’t hide her optimism. “It was a long, hard trail,” she says, “but I feel we’re finally on the right road.”