New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine October 2020 free digital issue

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ARCHIVE ARTICLE

They Came From Below

One Property Confronts a Dangerous Infestation

Most New Yorkers are well acquainted with the city’s garden-variety vermin – roaches, rats, mice, and those ubiquitous critters that recently transferred to the N train, bed bugs. Now they can add a new pest to their litany of urban enemies: termites.

An eight-building, 54-unit complex in Hell’s Kitchen that was built during the late 19th and early 20th centuries recently discovered that it had a major, potentially disastrous infestation of termites. The belated discovery may have saved one of the five-story walk-ups from structural collapse. Even more importantly, it underscored the dangers of having an entrenched board of directors that fails to monitor a building’s physical health or perform routine maintenance.

Simply put, such a group has the potential to ruin your building. Put another way: vermin don’t ruin buildings; negligent boards do.

Disrepair Here

Mark Dean, a professional cartoonist, moved into one of the complex’s eight buildings on West 50th Street in 1979, when Hell’s Kitchen was a much rougher version of its current gussied-up self. Four years later, the tenants bought the buildings, and the complex became a rent-stabilized Housing Development Fund Corporation (HDFC) property, with plans to become a limited-equity HDFC co-op. A board of directors was elected, and for four years in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Dean served on the board.

Flash forward to 2010. Dean and several other residents were becoming more and more uneasy with the nine-member board that had been in power for years. The board didn’t allow residents to attend meetings, a glaring lack of transparency.

The co-op conversion had been bungled, leaving the complex in a kind of rental/co-op limbo. Although the building was a rental, the board remained in power in anticipation of the building becoming a co-op eventually.

The board had an unnerving tendency to keep fattening the reserve fund without spending any of the roughly $1 million sitting there on routine upkeep. Dean and his confederates feared that the board’s inactivity was a prescription for disaster. Their fears would prove to be well founded.

“The buildings had fallen into disrepair,” says Dean, noting that the brick buildings were built on an infrastructure of wooden floor joists and wall studs. “The problem was that we had a lot of money saved because the old board didn’t spend any money [on maintenance and repairs].”

Getting Elected

So Dean and four other like-minded residents ran for the board in 2010 and won five seats, a controlling majority. They got busy right away. First, they voted to limit board terms to five years, a way of ensuring that no future board would become entrenched. Then they hired a new super, Guillermo Paralta, whom Dean calls “a hard, hard worker, very conscientious. He knows his stuff.”

The board set Paralta up in a large studio apartment, determined to keep this critical worker happy. “On our first tour of the basement at 448 West 50th Street with Guillermo,” Dean recalls, “we scratched [a part of the wall] and termites flew out. So we called an exterminator, [who] ripped out the tin ceilings in all eight basements and found we had severe termite infestation as well as water damage. The oldest building, built in 1868, was in very bad shape. A lot of the wooden beams were rotted through.”

To Dean’s amazement, there was even a tree stump in one basement, obviously left there by the workers who had built the place a century and a half ago. Although most of the pests thrived in the basement – they’re the so-called “subterranean” variety of termites – one elderly resident had an astonishing three-foot-long “shelter tube” full of termites dangling from his kitchen ceiling.

The board contacted its property manager, Josh Koppel, president of HSC Management, who in turn contacted Baldwin Pest Control. Koppel had been doing business with Baldwin for more than 10 years and knew they had extensive experience dealing with termite infestations, primarily in Westchester County, where wooden construction is more common than in the city.

The board also hired Rand Engineering & Architecture to draw up plans for repairing the extensive structural damage and, at Koppel’s suggestion, hired the contractor Teamwork Restoration, which also had extensive experience repairing termite damage.

The Big Fix

With the pieces in place, the job Dean calls “the big fix” got under way. Today, two years and almost $300,000 later, the work is nearly complete. Koppel, the property manager, described his role in the project this way: “It’s coordination, keeping people informed, making sure the super’s keeping an eye on the exterminator, making sure the engineer’s keeping an eye on the contractor.”

So, under the watchful eye of the super, the exterminator drilled holes through the concrete basement floors and injected underground termite treatment, eliminating the source of the problem – at a cost of about $30,000. Then, the contractor’s crew got to work replacing damaged joists and beams. It was no mean feat replacing 20-foot-long joists in tight basement spaces.

“With structural damage, you need to stop the source of the problem first,” says Jason Damiano, a project engineer with Rand who replaced the original engineer just as construction was beginning in early 2013. Damiano met with the contractor twice a week during construction to make sure the work was being done to specifications.

“In theory,” Damiano notes, “if you don’t stop the problem at the source, eventually any wooden building will show serious floor sagging, and might even collapse. Then, once you get rid of the source and fix the structural problems, the issues won’t come back, provided the extermination continues.” He says the key to addressing a termite infestation, or any pest problem, boils down to “inspections and maintenance.”

Bryan Baldwin, the founder of Baldwin Pest Control, offered a two-year guarantee on his work, promising to return and re-treat any area that shows a return of the unwelcome guests. Based on his years in the business, Baldwin believes termites are becoming an increasingly severe problem in urban areas. Despite the common notion that New York is a city of steel and glass, he notes that many older neighborhoods – Hell’s Kitchen, the East and West villages, Chinatown – have buildings with a high wood content.

“As the climate changes, you’re seeing termites more and more in the inner city,” Baldwin says. “They’re subterranean insects, and they usually swarm in April. It’s getting warmer earlier each year, and now we’re seeing swarms in March.”

Inspections and Maintenance

That’s the mantra Mark Dean left with the board when he stepped down as president in June. “The key is detection,” he says. “You’ve got to inspect your building, do the exploratory work. You never know what’s in there, so you’ve got to pull down sections of basement ceilings and check for structural damage.” It’s another way of saying such problems are avoidable.

“This was all due to neglect by the previous board,” Dean says. “I’m very proud that I had a big part in doing this job. We’re not a commune, but we’re a communal entity. We take care of ourselves rather than having a landlord looking after things.”

For Dean’s successors on the board, the next big challenge is completing the conversion to a cooperative. (A new conversion plan is now under review by the state attorney general’s office and could be put to a vote by the residents soon.)

Dean is glad someone else will be taking care of it. “Being board president is a full-time job,” he says, “and it wore me out. It was time to let somebody else do it. We have some smart people in place now who know about finances.”

They know something else that they had to learn the hard way: the importance of inspecting the building before a minor pest problem morphs into a major headache.

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