The board was complaining about the superintendent.
“He sends us bills for everything he does,” said the treasurer. “He paints the hallways, we get a bill. He repairs the burner, we get a bill. He fixes plumbing in the walls, we get a bill. What are we paying him for? Cleaning up the hallways and common areas?”
I listened carefully to the duties enumerated by my colleague on the board and thought, “That’s an awful lot of work to do for the pittance we pay him.”
I remembered what it was like before we had our current super, whom we hired maybe a decade ago. My building is small – 22 units – and can’t afford a full-time, live-in super. Our original superintendent was a nice man who handled a number of small properties for Columbia University, the biggest local landlord in our area, Morningside Heights. He knew something about building systems, but his main concern was keeping the building clean. He always seemed to be mopping, sweeping, and polishing. The glass entrance doors were so clear you wouldn’t know there was glass in them.
But we had other problems that needed more than a cleaning rag. Shareholders called with plumbing issues or with electrical problems, and we found our super lacking the skills to deal with them. Other issues, big and small, came up and we found that our man, though he was very nice, wasn’t quite up to the job. We replaced him with a part-timer who was a live-in superintendent at a nearby luxury cooperative.
So, now, the board was unhappy – again. Were they justified? What exactly should one expect from a part-time super? I volunteered to look into it.
My first stop was the Local 32BJ union contract with supers. The contract has a lot on responsibilities, termination requirements, and salary – but all for full-time supers, not part-timers.
I came across a 27-unit Bronxville co-op that, once upon a time, had employed a full-time, live-in super. But, on the advice of management, the board had let him go. “We couldn’t afford to keep him on,” one board member said to me, somewhat wistfully. “We sold his apartment, and now we couldn’t offer that to another full-time super even if we wanted to.”
How do they get by? I asked.
“We have a cleaning service that comes by two or three times a week,” she said. “They clean the hallways and common areas, and do some additional jobs, like take out the garbage.” For that work, they’re paid a flat monthly fee of $1,500. The co-op also has a small management firm that will often pinch-hit when the co-op requires a person to deal with vendors or contractors who need assistance. Other times, the board itself will get volunteers from its ranks to meet with service suppliers.
“We’re constantly dealing with the issue of who’s going to be here when a vendor comes,” she explained. “Can the manager handle it or do we have to get someone from the building? And without a super, there’s no one here to receive packages when people are not home. There’s nobody on-site to supervise jobs.”
She sighed. “There are so many things that a live-in super would do. We feel there’s a lot of things we pay – like plumbing and electrical repairs – that a live-in super could just handle. It’s still a constant juggling act for us. I don’t think we’ve hit the sweet spot yet. We’ve made a lot of progress, however. But I don’t think we can afford a full-time super, because with only 27 units, the per cost/per unit salary breakdown would be very high.”
She’s right about that, I thought. They were paying $1,500 per month for a cleaning service; in my building, we paid less than that for a part-time super.
The question then came up: where do you find a part-time super? Managers do it by advertising on Craigslist, or by asking good supers whom they employ if they know of a good super who can handle the extra work, or if they can do it themselves. This is all done with the knowledge and approval of the super’s primary building. But why should a building OK a super moonlighting at another building on its dime? Is that right?
“They approve it when we’re talking about a really good super,” said David Goodman, a management executive at Tudor Realty. “This would be a guy who brings extra value to the job: he’s good at plumbing or electrical work, and he works extra hours to make up the difference.”
What happens if there is a crisis in both buildings that he is handling? “His primary building gets priority; that’s understood,” said Goodman. “But he generally has back-up staff at one building that can assist in a crisis.”
Goodman added that the union has no problem with such arrangements, as long as the super does his job at the primary building. “It’s all above board; he gets regular paychecks from both buildings, and he won’t take on the job unless the board approves. I tell them up front what is going on.”
As for salary and duties, that can vary from building to building, and the part-time supers work that out with their respective buildings, Goodman noted. “It depends on their budget and how valuable he is to them.”
“Look,” Gerard J. Picaso, principal in the management firm Gerard J. Picaso Inc., said to me when I asked about salaries and part-timers, “you’re talking about $250 to $300 a week for a guy to clean the halls and lobby, take out the garbage, maintain the building systems, and be there for emergencies. That’s a pretty fair price. Of course, anything else is extra.”
Picaso continued: “One of the perks for a full-time super is that he gets the apartment for free; if he doesn’t get that, it’s a much less attractive job. You’re talking about a glorified porter/handyman.”
And, pointed out the manager, if the part-time super has plumbing and electrical skills, that can be a plus: even though he charges you for such work as extra duty, his fees should generally be lower than what an outside contractor would charge.
Don Levy, a vice president at Brown Harris Stevens, agreed with this assessment, adding: “It’s really no different than someone working in a larger building, except it’s on a smaller scale: making sure that all systems are working, that repairs are being taken care of, and taking care of the cleaning. Beyond that, it’s extra.”
My next call confirmed all of this. “I expect him to be there on emergencies, to deal with snow or any other problem,” said Ellen Kornfeld, a vice president at the Lovett Group, who handles a number of small buildings with part-time supers. “I have a super in a rental building who does the garbage and does minor repairs; I wouldn’t call him the most experienced guy. He’s more of a porter/super.” She added: “You don’t want your super doing plumbing unless he knows plumbing. He can do minor stuff, like changing a washer or changing a shower head. He should maintain the boiler, but he should also know when to leave it alone for a service company.”
While I was not searching for the meaning of “Rosebud,” I did pull some facts together, which I diligently wrote up for my board. I noted that the average salary for a part-time super was $250 to $300 a week, and for that, you had someone to collect the garbage, clean the public areas, maintain the heating plant, and be there for emergencies. If we wanted a new super, we could advertise on Craigslist.
As for squeezing more work out of a good part-time super, I wouldn’t recommend it. I am happy to shell out extra pay for extra work because our super is worth it.
In the end, I don’t think you should push for something you can’t get. Or, as that wise poet Harry Callahan once put it: “A man’s got to know his limitations.”