Desiree Pilgrim-Hunter, 57, is board president of the Fordham Hill Owners Corporation in the Bronx. Although the larger community to which it belongs is considered one of the nation’s poorest urban counties, this co-op is solidly middle-class. It is set on 12 acres of beautifully landscaped grounds and consists of 1,119 apartments in nine high-rises. Those buildings encircle “the Oval,” a verdant meeting space that gives the co-op its moniker: Oasis in the Bronx. The gated complex was built 60 years ago, and Pilgrim-Hunter has lived there for half that time.
How has the co-op changed over the years?
When I first moved here, it was practically a retirement village. Now it has all different types of people and all different ages. We have a strong corps of seniors, but we also have young professionals. Originally, Fordham Hill was white Irish, but it evolved over time. As a matter of fact, one of the stories I am told is that the security staff used to be retired Irish policemen, and they did not allow people of color in here. Now we are mostly blacks, Asians, Latinos. So we have come a long, long way, and we pride ourselves on that diversity.
What motivated you to serve on the board?
I was training to be a community organizer [with the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition] when I started to hear rumblings about the board, that it was engaging in some really bad behavior. Then I started hearing about really rancorous board meetings. We finally had to organize the shareholders to vote out that board. The goal was to remove the four worst board members; we ended up replacing the entire group.
What has been your biggest achievement?
When the co-op started out, it operated under self-management. What I’ve come to learn is that self-management for a property of this size offers too many opportunities for corruption. So one of the first things that we did was to bring in professional management, and what we have gotten out of it is really professional accounting. It allowed us to step up our game. It was being run like a mom-and-pop, and now we’re being run like a professional business with a heart.
What is an issue that never goes away?
Board members not understanding their roles and responsibilities: you are overseeing the management of the property, but you are not managing it; you are concerned with the governance, and you are making key decisions that are implemented by your staff. I am clear that I am a director of the board and that I am not the operations director or the property manager. It’s very difficult for board members sometimes to understand that. They think they are supposed to be running the place.
What’s a hot-ticket item on your agenda?
Our buildings are 60 years old. So when we first came on the board in 2007, our infrastructure was in dire need of upgrading. That’s been a whole seven-year process, and we are still going forward. A lot of our expenses are tied up with our energy, with our gas and water. So, we are in the process of preparing to put in a cogeneration or combined heat and power plant. We are also in the middle of a capital improvement project; we are redoing the fronts of all nine buildings.
How did your professional background influence your board work?
I was in retail and direct sales management. I was a managing director for Revlon and Avon. And I trained as a community organizer with a grassroots organization. This allowed me to understand the business side to some degree, but I had never done real estate property management, and it was a steep learning curve. I did have the skills to sit down and do strategic planning, identify what the issues are, and put a team together.
What is the biggest challenge?
It’s hard to get people to understand what cooperative living is.
So what does co-op living mean to you personally?
It means community and family. If you don’t have a family, the next place that you go is to your community; that is your second support system. So I am very strong about community ties, and to have a place where you feel safe, where people talk [to each other]. Our primary amenity here is that we have gates surrounding the buildings, and we have high security. I would love to see us get to a point where we don’t need those gates, but we do. We are firmly middle to upper middle class here; outside of us is a very poor community. There is a lot that goes on outside of the gates that is deeply distressing. So one of the things we started doing here to foster community was to have certain events like our annual Easter egg hunt and a summer festival at the end of July.
What do you have no patience for?
Gossip. During this national recession that we have been going through, we have been so vigilant about our budget that we had managed not to have maintenance increases through that whole period up to now. We will start implementing an annual three percent increase going forward because things are getting more expensive. We also added a couple more fees, and folks got bent out of shape. Rumors starting running around that the money would go into our pockets, and I had to respond with a memo explaining why we were doing this.
When people are dissatisfied, they don’t come and get the facts; they just make it up. And so, what it creates within the community is a level of distrust, unnecessarily. Also, some board members want to feel important, and they have a habit of running out and relaying all the information that was discussed in a board meeting without understanding that it can create complications, legal ones as well.
What do you find most rewarding?
To be able to look out my window and see greenery and flowers and the people talking in the Oval; kids running or playing; seniors sitting on the benches and talking or knitting. I think that is the best. The second is the team that I have in the office right now. We’ve managed to put together a really, really strong team, including our property manager, our assistant property manager, our security director, our maintenance director, and we haven’t had that kind of synergy in a very long time.
Can you see yourself on the board for the next seven years?
Well, no, that’s not my goal. The quality of your leadership is determined by what you leave behind. You have to step aside and make space for somebody else. n
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.