Even in the absence of a gym or doorman, living in a cooperative is a luxury. Few shareholders will ever shovel snow or spend hours reviewing contractor proposals. They pay their monthly fees in exchange for shifting those responsibilities to the super, management, and the board. Too bad the human cost of luxury is high. When building politics and management do not function properly, poor education produces passivity and ill-fated choices.
That was me. Distracted blissfully by life, I had no desire to become a board member for my first two years as a shareholder. Then a long-time fellow shareholder told me a story too bizarre to be fiction. I had no excuse to do nothing. We had to be responsible to regain control over the building.
Our 40-unit building has a famous history. The sponsors largely held onto their units for about 20 years after the building converted into a housing corporation. The saga had bizarre elements: the sponsors, twin brothers, sued the shareholders – and each other – for perceived slights. As the power balance shifted, one brother became the board president for over ten years. Actually, we are not really sure who was on the board during that time: no election was held. Any shareholder who questioned the president’s authority received a lawsuit in return.
The president made a few mistakes, though. Instead of appeasing shareholders on the surface, he infuriated and alienated them altogether. He hired an incompetent agent. He enlisted an attorney with little experience in housing cooperatives who admittedly put his kids through college while accruing hefty legal fees for helping arrears’ cases last for over seven years.
In the meantime, the problems multiplied. Water leaks seemed to come from everywhere – eroding mortar in the façade, lintels, the garage, and roof. More than one safety hazard existed too. But what had money been spent on? Cosmetic work to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars.
Tensions grew. Anger and hope created the right environment for change. Having witnessed decades of abuse and being a co-op manager himself, one shareholder posted signs asking simple, yet provocative questions. Why have the shareholders not received their tax abatements for years? Shouldn’t there be an annual election? Who is on the board?
The sponsor-turned-board-president met with shareholders. He finally agreed to appoint three resident shareholders to the board. I slipped into the mix. Two quit after about seven months of talking and not being able to get anything done.
As secretary, I called for a shareholder meeting to vote on a few critical issues. The board president sued me. After months, the court appointed a receiver to handle the building’s first election in over a decade. Among other results, I became president. But we were a naïve board. Another person quit, and we accomplished little except settling legal cases, such as the one against the former board president granting the building about one-third of the funds required for repairs. It took another election for experienced individuals to grace the board.
During this tumultuous period of three years, most shareholders opted to trust their neighbors over sponsor propaganda. Signing proxies at least five times, they supported anyone able to sacrifice time and energy to learn and advocate effective change. Collected together, their optimistic trust and determination to stay active made rectifying the corrupt political situation possible. Now, it is the board’s turn to fix the infrastructure and improve the quality of life.
The new board hired an energetic, educated new managing agent to review the messy accounting practices of the previous agents. We swiftly put together itemized proposals to restore the facade. We hired a smart, connected, and professional attorney who had quit rather than deal with the sponsors. And we put together a list of additional issues to remedy that is ten pages long and growing. We will not rest until we address each one.