February was a hard month for co-op and condo boards around New York City. As board members and engineers scrambled to meet the new deadlines imposed by Local Law 11 – which mandates that all buildings greater than than six stories be repaired on a five-year schedule – some board members grumbled that the law was too taxing to meet. Why did they have to make these repairs on such a tight schedule anyway?
Why indeed? Since Local Law 11 was passed in 1998, co-op and condo boards have had to continue an evolution from amateur, homeowner organizations making repairs on an “as-the-money-is-available” basis to de facto management companies moving proactively to keep their buildings in peak condition. In fact, as the City Council has increased the number of local laws over the past 25 years – covering everything from asbestos abatement to elevator upgrades – it’s been a scramble for the city’s co-op and condo boards to keep up. That may not necessarily be a bad thing, either, according to Steve Varone, president of Rand Engineering & Architecture. He calls it a kind of “tough love” for co-op and condo boards.
It’s your home, you’re responsible for it, and the city is showing you how, explains Varone. “The economic impact in the short term is that buildings have to outlay more money to repair their building in a more aggressive way.” But in the long term, it’s been a win-win for boards. “The value of the property is increased, there are higher sale prices for units, and higher reserves [created] when apartments are sold,” says Varone.
Twenty-five years ago, there were few laws that cooperative and condominium owners had to comply with. There was the New York City Building Code, which mandated that the interior of buildings meet basic standards for operations, and the Warranty of Habitability – in which tenants are entitled to a “livable, safe and sanitary apartment.” Then came Local Law 10, passed in 1980, following the death of Barnard student Grace Gold, struck and killed in 1979 by a piece of terra cotta that fell from a building on 115th Street and Broadway. After Gold’s death, the City Council, urged on by the buildings commissioner, Irwin Fruchtman, mandated that all buildings with street front facades greater than six stories had to be inspected every five years.
Suddenly, shareholders and condo owners were on the hot seat. It wasn’t enough to pay their maintenance on time and keep the boiler running – now they were legally responsible for the exterior maintenance of the building. They had to grow up, fast, and take their responsibilities seriously.
No other local law had proved to be so expensive and so onerous. Boards that hadn’t been taking care of their building envelopes were caught off guard, and suddenly had to make outlays of tens of thousands of dollars to get their facades repaired.
After Local Law 10 came the lead abatement law in 1982, requiring landlords and co-op and condo boards to remove lead paint from buildings. While boards saw its importance, again they chafed at the required outlay of money to remove the contaminant. And not only was the lead to be removed professionally, but all supers had to have certification in knowing how to work safely with lead paint, and how to assess whether old paint in a building had lead in it.
Peter Grech, a buildings operation consultant and resident manager who also run the educational department of the Superintendents Technical Association (STA), points out that with the added requirements of safely removing the lead paint, a $100 job could cost up to $500 or more. Lead removers had to wear protective clothing, cordon off the area where they had been working, and leave their protective clothing in the area when they finished work, so no lead would be transferred to any other part of the building. That increased costs for co-op and condo boards, because the job of removing lead paint now took longer.
The local law also “put more responsibility on the co-op or condo, because if the building is pre-1960, the super needs to go into an apartment with children to see if there is loose plaster or paint. In the old days, he would have scraped, plastered, painted, and left,” Grech notes. Now, the job was much more detailed, with the affected area cordoned off while the super worked in special protective clothing.
Grumblings were heard in the co-op and condo community about the cost of meeting all the demands of the increasing number of local laws. And the grumblings only became louder in 1985, when the city passed Local Law 76, requiring landlords to remove asbestos. At first, co-op and condo boards thought they could simply have the superintendent remove the fluffy pink sheets of asbestos while renovations were going on.
But the City Council quickly codified the rules for removal: boards had to hire professionals to do the job. As in lead abatement, areas where asbestos was found had to be cordoned off from any foot traffic, and the asbestos removed without coming into contact with human skin. What had initially been a task of simply peeling away the contaminant with gloved hands now became much more expensive.
“It was so simple when I started,” recalls Anita Sapirman, president of Saparn Realty. “Now, the number of local laws has just been overwhelming, It’s a really difficult strain on many of the cooperatives and condominiums in New York City.”
After Local Law 10 was passed, landlords looked for ways around the building inspections. To avoid expensive repairs, boards removed ornate cornices and parapets. And even the building inspectors reacted with a fairly sanguine attitude when it came to inspecting the street-front facades.
“In the beginning, it seemed the engineers walked around the building, stuck their heads out of the window, and said, ‘Yeah, this is okay,’” recalls Gerard J. Picaso, president of Gerard J. Picaso Inc., a management company. Then two things happened: the city toughened the law, requiring inspections via scaffolding, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission began mandating that buildings in historic districts needed approval before making any changes.
“Local Law 10 was a catalyst for Landmarks to get involved, because all of sudden buildings were in a landmark district. You had to fix the ornamentation, so from the street it looked good, which in a lot of cases was more expensive” says Picaso. The result has been higher costs but also safer buildings that have maintained their charm. That, in turn, has attracted more buyers willing to pay a premium to live in landmarked districts.
After the lead and asbestos abatement laws came Local Law 58, requiring that new construction and all buildings undergoing repairs, be handicapped-accessible. Updating a 1968 law which mandated that public toilets and subways be handicapped-accessible, the City Council in 1987 mandated that major renovations in buildings cannot affect accessibility for people with disabilities.
“This had a sweeping effect on design,” notes architect Joseph Pell Lombardi. It affected hallways, bathrooms, kitchens, corridors, ramps outside buildings, and elevator access. “Local Law 58 is just a gigantic one – people to this day really are amazed at that.”
After Local Law 58 came Local Law 19 in 1989, requiring all buildings to recycle paper, plastic, and glass. The result has been a large cost for co-ops and condos, says Marolyn Davenport, senior vice president of the Real Estate Board of New York. “It’s very costly in terms of the staff time required to comply. For example, in my co-op building of 116 units, we have one person nearly full time who does the picking up, sorting, bundling, and putting it all out.”
But nearly all management company executives and many architects agree that the law with the most sweeping repercussions is Local Law 11, passed in 1998.
“It really has brought about a tremendous improvement in the building stock of the city, yet it has cost more money” in repairs, observes Mary Ann Rothman, executive director of the Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums. The law dramatically changed how inspections are done – now the entire building envelope has to be checked, with scaffolding drops and photographs of hairline cracks.
Last year, the city also mandated that any repairs that had not been fixed within two five-year cycles had to be completed by the end of February 2007. The result has been a city under scaffolding – nearly everywhere you walk in Manhattan, buildings are ringed with them as landlords and engineers rush to meet the new deadline.
The industry is completely overloaded, says Sapirman. “So many buildings are doing rehabilitation work that the companies out there are not able to get the work done fast enough. The entire industry is bombarded.”
If there was a dividing line between the people who were involved in co-op conversions in the early 1980s, it was this: there were shareholders who believed they were on the frontier of co-op living, and shareholders who simply wanted to own their home. The first group dove into the intricacies of co-op ownership, learning the laws, taking on absentee sponsors, and demanding full partnership in the running of the buildings. The second group moved more slowly, expecting to be spoon-fed their responsibilities by their sponsor and wandering confusedly among the hydra-headed responsibilities of keeping an old building running functionally.
For the first group, Local Law 10 was less of a shock than a confirmation of what they knew all along: maintaining a safe and secure building was a lifetime responsibility. They weren’t so much taken aback by the law as galvanized – keeping their co-ops in good repair was a source of pride for these cooperators, at least those buildings run by farsighted management companies.
For the second group, however, meeting the demands of Local Law 10 was more of a hurdle. “When Local Law 10 was first enacted, it was a wake-up call to all these buildings,” recalls architect Walter Melvin. “A lot had recently converted to co-ops from rentals, and suffered under the rental building philosophy of maintenance, which is obviously not to look for the long run, but keep things together in the short run.”
With the passage of Local Law 10, and then, 18 years later, Local Law 11, New York City’s housing stock has made an impressive improvement. From lead, asbestos, and mold abatement to window guards, carbon monoxide monitors, emergency exit lighting, and recycling, New York City’s co-ops and condos have had to scramble to keep up, but that hasn’t been a bad thing. While the costs of maintaining a safe building have increased, so too has the value of the housing stock.
“In the short term, buildings have had to outlay more money [for] repair in a more aggressive way,” says Rand’s Varone, but in the long-term the “value has definitely come back” to co-ops and condos, in the form of higher prices on unit sales, larger reserves and better maintained buildings. It’s been a win-win for everyone.
So, what will co-ops and condos look like 25 years from now, as more local laws are passed? Most likely, buildings will be greener – more green roofs (as is locally mandated with new construction by the Battery Park City Authority), and running on alternatives to oil, like ethanol. Perhaps the City Council will mandate that all buildings switch to submetering and cogeneration to reduce demand on the state’s electrical grid. Or at a minimum, a law could be passed offering tax incentives to buildings that reduce their electrical cost.
Whatever happens, the City Council’s next quarter century of laws seem to be headed in the green direction, following the trend of such cities as Chicago, that awards grants to help businesses and residents install green roofs. And while the initial costs may be expensive, a look back at the last 25 years will prove instructive – upfront costs improve the building’s quality life, for years down the road.