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HABITAT

ARCHIVE ARTICLE

The Heat Is On

Achieving critical mass is often the key to success, but not always. There is essentially no difference between the needs of a large and a small co-op: they have essentially the same baseline infrastructure, overhead, and expenses of much larger buildings. But there is one difference. The smaller property is forever hampered by having less money than its larger cousin. It does not have enough units to gain the benefit of the critical mass one obtains with more apartments.

That said, our building, a 47-unit co-op on East 50th Street primarily consisting of studios, is nonetheless well-managed and our underlying mortgage will be paid in full by 2013. However, with almost 90 percent of our costs fixed or not under our control – taxes, insurance, infrastructure maintenance, and so on – even the imminent death of our mortgage helps little in creating those upgrade opportunities in what is, by any standard, a comfortable, albeit modest, little building.

Therefore, the primary goal and focus of our board is controlling expenses while seeking to avoid utilizing maintenance increases as the problem-solving tool, which unfortunately leaves us with little surplus-disposable resources for all but cosmetic upgrades, environmental necessities, and a safe working elevator.

And, of course, there is the heat.

The issue of the season this past winter had been the heat or lack of it. When this property was born in the mid-1950s, things were very different. Designed primarily for singles, the building has a central heating system, built when oil was selling for less than 20 cents a gallon. At the time, it must have seemed cost-effective and comfortable.

Half a century later, the board faces three-dollar-a-gallon heating oil, adequate but modest heat, recent severe cold spells, and considerable (and understandable) displeasure from many residents. Regrettably, our system is largely limited to on-or-off status and when off, the cold descends quickly and penetrates deeply. There is no doubt that providing uniform heat and comfort to each and every shareholder is a daily board challenge, a literal balancing act, if you’ll forgive the pun.

We have a new heat timer but the problems in this building are not the timer but the limitations of the heat distribution system. Everyone has radiators. Although radiator valves are replaced regularly, the larger problem is the radiators themselves – when the building was built, the small radiators were very much undersized so, today, they don’t radiate enough heat. In my apartment, for instance, the radiator runs the length of one window. That’s it. There’s no other heat source in the apartment. By modern standards, that’s inadequate.

And the heat in the building is impossible to balance. There are eight apartment lines, but the system has no control of them – no vertical control and no horizontal control. We’re not even sure the distribution system itself is balanced. We have tried to monitor the situation – each board member has a digital thermometer so that he or she can to measure the heat in his or her own apartment, as an informal test. But, short of tearing down all the walls and rebuilding the heating system from scratch, there is not a lot more we can do to correct the problem. So what is left?

Communication. When people complain about the temperature problems, we listen to their concerns and try to be as flexible, compassionate, and educational as we can. Shareholders may not always agree with board actions and decisions, but we try and show them that they are balanced, fair, reasoned, debated, and well-thought-out. Indeed, if shareholders do not appreciate or understand everything we do, it is incumbent on us to show that it is always done in their best interests and always in consideration of the big picture.

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