New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Business of Management 2021

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ARCHIVE ARTICLE

Absolute Power

Four years ago, my partner and I signed a contract to buy our apartment: a two-bedroom co-op in a small, self-managed brownstone in Brooklyn. Alhough the place needed some work, the neighborhood was fantastic, and the four-unit building boasted attractive amenities like two common outdoor spaces and private storage in the basement. We had a twinge of concern about what the new neighbors might be like, especially since there would be so few of them and all served on the co-op board – but my partner and I had lived in the neighborhood for years, and we always enjoyed congenial and long-lasting relationships with our neighbors and landlords. So, we took a leap of faith and had signed the contracts.

Looking back on that anxious time, it’s hard to pinpoint the moment we realized we weren’t just suffering from first-apartment-purchase jitters. We sensed there was something in the building that wasn’t quite right. During the application process, the president’s husband – let’s call him Bruce – had been very aggressive with both our realtor and lawyer. Although he did not officially serve on the board, he was apparently empowered to make outrageous demands, such as requesting that our commitment letter and credit reports be sent directly from the lender and credit agency to him. Neither would comply because they said it ran afoul of privacy laws. Even so, Bruce continued to argue the point (unsuccessfully) for nearly two weeks.

Therefore, we were surprised to be invited for an interview. On that hot August night, the hour-long session felt like an interrogation of intruders. Bruce, still not on the board but present at the examination, eyed us skeptically as he grilled us. He leaned into us and asked about our plans for the apartment; as we described our construction ideas in detail, the tenor of the meeting morphed into an all-out inquisition. Bruce stood up, and started circling us like a detective trying to coax out a murder confession. He underscored the importance of the building’s “very strict alterations rules,” though he never elaborated on what those were. We noticed that the other residents, including Bruce’s wife – officially, the board’s president – sat quietly while he ran the show. We left feeling utterly defeated by this one-man gestapo.

And then we were approved. At the closing table, our seller could barely contain her joy as she signed the last document liberating her from the building. She told us Bruce had a long history of tormenting everyone since moving into Unit 4 with his wife ten years earlier. I asked how long Bruce’s wife had been the president; the seller explained that they ran things a bit differently than what the bylaws indicated: instead of holding annual elections, the couple had decided that the residents in Unit 4 would be president; Unit 3, secretary; and so on. Several years earlier, Unit 4 had wrested the treasury away from Unit 1.

We were about to embark on our work. I combed through the bylaws, proprietary lease, and house rules and found that the “strict alterations rules” existed only in Bruce’s mind. Nonetheless, two weeks before our work began, we sent him everything we could think of, such as our plans and copies of our contractor’s insurance certificate, with the board also named as an additional insured. The co-op already knew the scope of our work, which was purely cosmetic. But we never received a response. Then, the day our contractors began work, Bruce turned up in a red-faced huff and sent them home, claiming that he – he corrected himself, the board – hadn’t approved our work.

The renovation was a disaster. Almost every day, Bruce knocked on our door minutes before 6 P.M. to send our contractors home just as they were cleaning up to leave. This conflict turned out to be the beginning of what would be a four-year-long feud. We became increasingly frustrated that the building seemed to allow Bruce and his wife to reign unchallenged, even though they were frequently in direct violation of the co-op’s governing documents.

We were determined to take the building back. The residents all joined forces, and we strong-armed Bruce and his wife into attending a board meeting (we hadn’t had one in two years!) and, in the face of their loud protestations, voted for bi-annual elections and deposed Bruce’s wife (i.e., Bruce). The tide in the building was starting to turn!

Several weeks later, friends invited us to buy the upper duplex of their house, which they were turning into a condo. We loved our apartment and had fully expected to continue our co-op-wide campaign to restore democracy to the building. But the prospect of a Bruce-free home, one we’d own outright and with twice as much space, was too much to resist. Maybe my partner and I were naïve to have been so taken with the idea of buying into a co-op. Bruce’s paranoidal power-mongering underlines some of the ways in which a co-op can fail its shareholders. That said, the situation could have been tempered if we’d stood up to Bruce years earlier. It can be tough – though essential – to face off with someone who seems to devotes all his time to lording over the manor.

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