Mark Weprin was elected to the New York City Council on November 3, 2009. Before his election, Weprin represented the 24th Assembly District in the New York State Assembly for 15 years. He was elected to the assembly in a special election in 1994 to fill the seat left vacant by the death of his father, Assembly Speaker Saul Weprin. While serving in the assembly, Mark Weprin authored 63 laws and was chairman of the Small Business Committee. As the representative of District 23 in Queens, a community with a large population of cooperative and condominium residents, the Democrat founded the New York City Council Co-op and Condo Caucus. The caucus draws attention to the unique challenges facing those who live in co-op and condo housing units and advocates for equity in legal status for co-ops and condos. Habitat publisher Carol J. Ott sat down with him recently to discuss the caucus and other matters.
How did your interest in the co-op/condo caucus develop?
I was actually campaigning for election to the city council knocking on doors and I came to realize that so many of the people I represent are cooperators and even though I represented the district, it never occurred to me until I started meeting people, how many issues they had, whether it was water rates or the real property tax rates that they’re charged, and just how co-ops are treated more like an investment than as [a home]. In my district, you’re talking about middle-class people who own co-ops.
I decided we should organize the council members who have a lot of co-ops in their district, who might not be aware of the issues out there, about the mandates that are put on co-ops which really get passed down to everybody – to get together a united interest – since in unity there is strength.
How did you reach out to them?
We sent out an e-mail to all of the council members, explaining to them that we were putting together this caucus to help educate people about issues that are coming down in the city council or [to propose] things we can advocate for that would help co-op and condo owners.
In addition, I reached out to them saying, “We need to change some of the image out there about co-ops.” While I understand that there are really a lot of very nice co-ops in Manhattan – beautiful fancy co-ops – the co-ops by me, with the exception of North Shore towers which I represent, are not what I would call fancy co-ops. It’s about middle-class people. There is an image problem for co-ops and condos, to be honest, and I want to help change the image that somehow co-ops are for rich people.
People need to know that this is a great form of living. It’s a great investment in the future of our city. When people move into a co-op, they care about where they live. Renters are important, and sometimes it’s the only way to live. But it’s so much better to own a piece of where you live because it makes you care more about the neighborhood, it makes you feel more deeply rooted in the community. You care about not only yourself but about the parks that are attached, the benches, and everything around it. And maybe you’re a little more careful about whether you drop litter on the floor.
Are the council members who joined the caucus primarily from Queens and Brooklyn?
All over, actually. So far, I think we have 22 or 23 council members out of 51 who have joined. The truth is the Manhattan people like Dan Garodnick, my colleague, was one of the first to join, and he actually represents the most co-ops. Some of the Manhattan people are there but we do have a number of co-op people in Queens. I know Danny Dromm, who represents Jackson Heights, has some of the oldest co-ops in the city over there. We really have a cross-section of everyone in the city, right now, everyone from every county, so it really isn’t just a Manhattan thing – that’s actually part of the message we’re trying to send here – it’s not just Manhattan people who are affected by co-op laws.
What do you think are the problems co-ops and condos are facing?
People don’t understand what co-op living is about. The laws treat co-ops like investors, and the public and the government treat co-ops like landlords, and they’re anything but. When you hit a co-op for a fee, when you mandate that they have to do a certain type of audit, when you mandate that they need to use a certain type of heating oil, you’re mandating that all of those shareholders have to pay for it. It’s not like a landlord who owns a building and says, “If you charge me more I’m going to pass it down to my renters.” Indeed they may, but they don’t have to. A co-op, they have to. It’s the shareholders who are getting charged. Right off the bat, it isn’t a landlord, it is average Joes and Janes out there who are homeowners. I do think there needs to be a distinction.
We’re going to work for tax fairness, for fairness in things like the heating oil issue that’s coming down. There are people out there who are absentee landlords, who own a co-op who are subletting, who bought up a number of co-ops and are sponsors out there. I’m not against sponsors, but let’s face it, my big concern is [for] those shareholders who are living in their units, who are raising their family who we’re trying to encourage to buy. Buy in my community, don’t just rent. Don’t just come for a year or two, try to stay long-term.
How do you think you can move the city away from treating co-ops like rentals?
Well, look, when we say “the city,” it’s easy to say “them” and “they.” Now that I’m in the city council, a lot of laws that have passed, the legislation that will be passed, are [voted on by] city council members. So, I can say “they” all I want, but in the end it’s “we.” One of my goals is to educate my colleagues, some of whom don’t represent many co-ops at all.
How important do you think co-ops and condos are to the economic health of New York?
They’re very important because first of all, it is affordable housing. Everyone talks about, “Oh, we need affordable housing.” In most of this city, co-ops are an affordable way to own a home. That’s where people go first. So you are, you are a tenant, but at the same time you’re an owner, and I think, it’s important, it’s good for the long-term health of a city, just to have people who own instead of rent.
In June 2012, the co-op tax abatement ends. Do you think it should be extended or should another solution be sought?
I’ll say both, how’s that? I was one of the first cosponsors of the law that gave cooperators this tax abatement. And the reason that the tax abatement was put in place is, in lieu of a big solution, let’s give them a tax abatement temporarily. Now, it’s been over a decade of us passing extension after extension. I’m not for eliminating that extension until we have the solution. But let’s get the solution, and that’s going to be one of the focuses of our co-op/condo caucus, to get the city to look at the tax [abatement], at the tax classes, and start realizing that co-op owners, especially those who live in their co-ops, aren’t like investors. Some buy houses, some buy co-ops. I’m not naive enough to say we’re going to have the solution right away, especially in this economy [where] people are distracted. But I think we can get a solution in the near future. I’d like to see that tax abatement in place for the future, incorporated into the tax code.
Do you think that having the caucus in the city council will help find a solution?
Well, that’s my hope, and I wish I could tell you that, right now, because we established this caucus, the world’s going to change and that cooperators will be treated as the home-owners they are. That is the goal. One of the goals for this caucus is to make sure that there is tax fairness. Real estate taxes are killing people – water rates are killing these homeowners, who are sometimes trying to make it, paycheck to paycheck. A lot of those seniors are living on fixed incomes and when their rates go up, it causes them a lot of problems. In order for them to stay in their homes, they need to get some tax fairness.
I’d like to push the mayor’s office into establishing a commission to finally review this, to come up with a way to do this that will be fair. I think that can be done, and it’s something that was supposed to be done when the tax abatement was first put in place. If there’s one thing this co-op and condo caucus can accomplish is, by getting a lot of voices together, we can organize as a group and say, “Mr. Mayor, we need to come up with a solution and move forward in changing that.”
City regulations keep adding incremental costs, such as having to pay for a third-party elevator inspector and for a third-party water tank inspector. And then the new green bills add costs. Can co-ops and condos get some relief?
That is an example of one of the motivations behind what we are pushing. While the green bills had some very good things about them, they had a lot of mandates in there that we want to see on buildings that are owned by private interests, that are big office buildings and towers. But on co-op owners, these are their homes and they’re being treated unfairly by those mandates. Those costs, as I said, are being directly passed on the shareholders. This isn’t some mean landlord saying, “Well, you’re going to charge me, I’m going to charge my tenants.” Because then the market might work, the tenants might say, “Okay, you’re raising my rent, I’m moving somewhere else.” Shareholders can’t do that. They have an investment here, they own the shares of stock, they can’t go anywhere.
Is there anything you would like to tell the board directors who govern these buildings and the property management readers who operate the buildings that they should expect to look forward to from this new caucus?
I don’t want to overstate how important this new caucus will be. We’re going to treat co-op owners as something special and try to make people aware that they need to be treated as special interests, in that they are not your typical investor as the law often treats them, and they are not a landlord. I know it must be a source of a lot of frustration for boards, all those hours they put in, volunteering, on behalf of a co-op, and they’re treated as though they’re a landlord. It’s an outrage.