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When “No” Means “Maybe”

I served for 25 years as the president of my co-op board (and hope to serve on the board again, perhaps). We are a 20-story, 339-unit cooperative building located in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, with a diverse cross-section of people. In my quarter-decade of service I learned many things, but one of the most important was to be flexible.

What do I mean by that? Rules are important. Generally speaking, they must be enforced. But a wise board can and should know when to make exceptions. Over the years as president, I learned when to do that.

I’ll give you an example. We have a wonderful health club in our cooperative. We let the shareholders use it for free. But for renters (we have quite a few, which is not atypical for Riverdale) and any outsiders who use the club, we charge an annual fee. This is a fixed fee; it is not prorated, and the renters and outsiders must pay the fee, period.

But I don’t believe a period should be used there. You should make exceptions, based on need. In setting most board policies, you of course have to treat all shareholders equally (that’s the law), but in the case of the health club, we were dealing with renters. I had a longtime renter – whom I had known for years – come to me and say, “I’d like to be in the club, but money is tight. Can we pay in two installments?” I said, “OK.” Another renter came to me and said that he was moving out in four months. Could he join the club for only four months? I agreed.

Some people say, “A rule is a rule.” End of story. I say, “You have to look at the situation, at the people, and make exceptions to improve the quality of life of your residents, as long as the choice does not adversely affect the interests of the co-op.” The rule is only the beginning of the story.

I’ll give you another example. We have a room that we use for board and shareholder meetings and social gatherings. A woman in our building who had a child with special needs was having trouble helping him with his homework in their apartment because he was easily distracted by toys and other things in his immediate environment. She asked me if she could use the meeting room occasionally to tutor him. There was no specific rule governing this; still, some might have said, “No, that’s not what the room was intended for.” But I thought, “These are good people. Whom does it hurt letting them use it? There is no cost to the co-op, and it creates goodwill among the residents.” So I agreed.

For all that, boards must be aware that there is a certain danger in such flexibility: the danger of abuse. You have to be sure that you aren’t playing favorites, and you must always be scrupulously even-handed when dealing with shareholders’ rights (consult your lawyer if you have a question). But in many instances, being flexible can help enhance your building. I know it did at ours.

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