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The Year of the Elevator

When i performed with Chicago City Limits, the improvisational comedy troupe, we once did a sketch in which two men in dark sunglasses and a bright light forced a confession out of an obviously frightened prisoner. The punch line: the interrogators were members of a co-op board and the “prisoner” was an applicant for an apartment.

Funny – but that was not my experience when, some years later, my husband, our six-month-old daughter, and I moved into a small co-op building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It’s a great building. Six floors with two units per floor (except for the fifth floor, where one apartment was bought and split up by two other apartments so that there are 11 units instead of 12). No doorman and no live-in super keep the feel of the place modest. There are still some original shareholders who bought their apartments for painfully low prices. Newer owners seem to appreciate the building’s cozy, old-fashioned charm.

Over the course of the next decade, I had two more children, so, at the yearly shareholders’ meetings, I had an obvious excuse not to volunteer to be on the three-person board. But, like all good things, my young, child-rearing days came to an end, and one year I found myself slowly raising my hand when the board asked for volunteers to serve. I figured that I’d been in the building long enough without serving and that it didn’t seem too taxing. And I probably wouldn’t have enough responsibility to screw up anything irrevocably.

Life in the co-op itself was pleasant. For many years, our annual meetings were simple affairs. Compared to the horror stories I’d heard, ours were almost joyful events, complete with wine, munchies, and little kids and dogs wandering in and out. Elect a new board, old business, new business, and we were hard pressed to make it last an hour.

Then came The Year of the Elevator.

When built in 1904, our building was the first in the area to have an elevator. But one is all we’ve got. There is no freight elevator (maybe the term “freight” as it pertains to residences is something new). Our little elevator (two strollers will fit if you are very friendly) was slow but reliable, breaking down only once in a while and rarely being out of service for more than a day. This is remarkable considering the company that manufactured it went out of business in 1954, and new parts had to be specially designed.

But, like an aging athlete whose decline is sudden and obvious, time caught up with our elevator. It began breaking down often and was sometimes out of service for a week or more for repairs. Worse, it seemed to always malfunction precisely when the family on the sixth floor with three children was returning from a summer or ski vacation. We had always known that a major elevator renovation would be expensive and considered ourselves lucky that the little elevator had survived for so long. But our luck had run out, and now the problem was how to finance this huge project.

Even though we are a small building, people have a wide range of income, but at least for as long as I’ve been around, the board always made decisions not to spend money extravagantly. We have a flip tax, but because the place is so comfortable and everyone is so affable, people don’t move. This is nice, but it means we don’t have a reliable source of revenue from apartment transfers. In addition, our reserve fund at this particular time had been depleted (there had recently been a major leak that had required repair). So, when the elevator quite literally began its death rattles, it became clear that, for the first time in the building’s history, an assessment would need to be levied.

Needless to say, the annual meeting that year was a lot longer and somewhat less friendly. Some people wanted a higher assessment to assure a more complete and secure renovation, while others pressed for a way to do what was necessary but not go overboard fiscally. In the end, the board’s reasonable manner prevailed, and we achieved a consensus that we would do what was prudent and necessary to find a long-term solution to our elevator problem.

Although it was clearly more difficult for some people than for others, the owners accepted the amount of the assessment as well as the length of time that it needed to be in effect. This was because we made it clear that we needed funds not only for the immediate elevator renovation but also for a healthier reserve fund in case of other crises.

In the end, I participated in finding a new and more reliable repair service, which had our elevator shut down for only six weeks instead of the estimated three months. The repairs were executed and, so far, the work seems good (although there are some lingering problems that need attention). Assessments are still in place, and no one is so mad at us that they are planning to sell. With luck, there will be no new crisis and at this year’s annual meeting we will have only pleasant things to discuss, spending more time with wine, munchies, kids and dogs, all in under an hour.

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