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Orchestrating Access

Brendan Keany is living with a nightmare. But he doesn’t let it phase him. As the general manager of the 2,820-unit Chelsea cooperative called Penn South, he is in charge of a massive $145 million undertaking that began in 2011 and will be finishing later this year: the replacement of the worn-out heating, ventilating, and air-cooling pipes that are wrapped in asbestos and buried behind every apartment’s plaster walls. It has meant gaining access to every shareholder’s apartment.

That’s more than knocking on the door or making an appointment. It has involved conducting a preliminary inspection of all the apartments to see what condition they were in and examining the walls that hid the pipes to estimate how big an opening had to be made. It has meant finding a place for some of the elderly residents to stay when work was to be performed in their units. It has meant dealing with no air-conditioning for some shareholders on blistering hot days. It has involved dealing with the debris collected by hoarders.

In short, a nightmare.

Although most properties aren’t as large as Penn South, the logistics of gaining access faced by the complex’s ten high-rise buildings are played out – albeit on a smaller scale – by every co-op facing a capital improvement project that requires access to the residents’ apartments.

“In [an] ideal world, you would hope that you can knock on the resident’s door and say, ‘I need access, I have got to take care of these things here,’” says Peter Lehr, director of management at Kaled Management. “They’d work on a date that’s convenient for everyone. But sometimes that’s not always easy to arrange.”

 

Informing and Inspecting

For Keany, the process began in 2009, when the Penn South board discussed with the shareholders the whys and wherefores of the work that needed doing. This was followed by an inspection of all the units so Keany and his crew could estimate the amount of time it would take for each trade to complete its work in each apartment.

What they found on that first inspection was a lot of trash: old magazines, newspapers, garbage – even dead vermin – that a number of elderly residents had kept, much of it blocking access to the walls containing the asbestos-wrapped pipes. Before any work could be done, Keany had to bring in social workers and hoarding experts to counsel the residents. For one resident, Keany recalls, they “actually had to remove a window on the second floor and put a chute from [it] to a dumpster on 24th Street. That’s how we got most of the stuff out.”

Communicating and coordinating with residents and conducting preliminary inspections are standard operating procedure on most jobs. Shareholders or unit-owners should be given sufficient notice. But managers disagree on the definition of “sufficient.” Mark Levine, vice president of business development at Excel Bradshaw Management Group, says that notice should be at least four to six weeks before access is needed. But Josh Koppel, president of HSC Management, believes that if “you give too much lead time they forget and they blow you off. And if you get too little they get mad and say, ‘Why are you giving me such short notice?’ I think a week and a half notice is sufficient and then [you give] a follow-up [e-mail] a few days beforehand.”

 

Prep Work

Typically, the building sends shareholders/unit-owners an e-mail or a letter informing them of the work that needs to be done and offering them a selection of dates and times when the building would like to gain entry. At Penn South, Keany and his team held town hall meetings to explain what they could expect. Before you begin any project, the contractor should meet with the residents in their apartments to review with them what the crew will be doing, how long the work is estimated to take, and how they can protect the interior of the unit from dust and debris with plastic coverings. The contractor may also want to take photos of each unit before work begins to protect himself as well as all the unit-owners/shareholders.

“I have a couple of vendors who take photographs of the entire apartment ceiling before they put in a new roof because they don’t want to be blamed that the ceiling cracked after work was finished,” says Pamela DeLorme, president of Delkap Management.

“If you are worried that construction could damage your apartment then you really want to show that your apartment is in great shape, so that you’re more easily able to prove if something happened because of the construction,” explains C. Jaye Berger, an attorney who deals with construction issues.

 

Housing the De-Housed

Sometimes when a major job is done – especially when there are a great number of elderly inhabitants – the board has to prepare an area where the residents can stay. That usually occurs, as it did with Penn South, when work is expected to take a full day or longer and when it requires central air-conditioning to be shut down. Penn South set up air-conditioned “comfort rooms” for its elderly residents when they did not have access to their homes. When the displacement went on for more than a day, the residents would be allowed back in their units to sleep, and would often be provided with portable air-conditioners on hot nights.

“The [residents] would leave [their apartments] at seven o’clock and would go down usually to the [communal] room,” says Keany. “They would have breakfast, and then they’d plan their day accordingly.” Some residents went to the movies or to visit friends or relatives in the building next door, while others just left a set of keys and took off for a week. “If we needed to call [one of them], we knew precisely where everybody was. We had a database that kept all the information.”

 

On the Job

If you have a lot of trades doing work in the units – plumbers, carpenters, asbestos remediators – the project will take careful scheduling to keep the different workers from overlapping. Like a train stalled in a subway, if one contractor is delayed in an apartment, that could back up workers all the way down the line.

“We had a schedule that was worked out well in advance,” explains Keany. Asbestos removal, for instance, was a one-day event. The apartment would be vacated by its owner early in the morning and then be prepared by Keany and his staff. After that, the asbestos removal team would arrive to do its work in the morning and then the industrial hygienist – the professional who monitors the levels of asbestos – would inspect and send Keany his first “progress report” e-mail, indicating that the air test had been run and giving an “all-clear.” About an hour later, the manager would get a second e-mail, this time from the contractor, reporting that he was now breaking down his equipment and departing from the unit. The place would now be ready for the plumber, who would start work on the following day. Finally, Keany would get a third round of e-mails at six o’clock daily. Those would be from staff on the ground, indicating that displaced shareholders had been notified of the “all clear” and were returning to their apartments.

The schedule also indicated how long residents would be kept from their apartments. “Now for the asbestos removal, you could not be in the apartment for the whole day, but that was a one-day event,” Keany says. “With the mechanical work, which is a lot more complicated, that was about eight to ten appointments. Everything is broken down into different tasks. The plumbers come one day, and maybe they are followed by the carpenters. But the plumbers have to finish completely before the carpenters can come in. In some cases, there has to be a collaboration between the plumbers, the carpenters, and the guy sealing the wall. But what we try to do as much as possible is to break the job into tasks that would allow each to be completed or get near completion before the next trade would come in.”

Tom Sahagian, a board member at a 24-unit Upper West Side co-op, performed a similar sort of tracking procedure, but on a much smaller scale. “We had a plumbing leak; we are still self-managed and since I am the chair of the maintenance committee, I had to be the point person for the contractors coming in and doing all the different things. E-mail made it a lot easier. At the end of the day, I sent out an e-mail summarizing what had happened that day, answering any questions concerning problems that had come up. I would alert whichever apartments were likely to need to provide access the next day, and also ask if this was a problem and, if it was, to please let me know immediately so that I could come up with an alternative plan.”

 

Security Concerns

There may be security concerns that need to be addressed as well. “Certain buildings require somebody to be assisting or to be accompanying the person that’s going to be in the apartment at all times because they feel that there may be a security issue,” Levine says. “It could be something as simple as, ‘We’re painting the hallways and we’re painting the doors, your door has to be left open for a period of two hours while the paint on the door dries.’ The building may want to hire a security guard on that particular floor.”

“We guarantee them that the super will escort the contractor around and watch them,” adds HSC Management president Koppel. “If they’re not comfortable with that, then they need to be home, or they need to have somebody of their choice home watching.”

Keany says that security is important; there should always be someone from the building staff present while work is under way. “We would have the security guard on the floor on the given day. We had situations where ‘Mrs. Jones’ would come back to the apartment and say to us, ‘My whatever is missing,’ and so on and so forth. And then, usually two days later, she’d call up and say she had found it. She had [hidden] it when she was packing and she had forgotten where she had put it.”

 

Delay and You Pay

If residents balk at or delay the project by not allowing access, most boards bill them for the extra costs caused by the disruption. “We try to put them on notice that this is a building-wide effort and specific to [their] area and any access that’s denied is going to lead to delays or additional expense,” says Levine. He adds that letting residents know they will be held responsible for any delays they cause usually gets results.

If that doesn’t work, you can take them to court. “If they won’t allow access,” says Koppel, “keep the pressure on – tell them you’ll get a court order, and say, ‘We’ve got to get access to your apartment to stop the damage to other apartments. Let us in.’”

But, finally, people are reasonable. At Penn South, Keany recalls: “The board voted to pass a new house rule in our occupancy agreement permitting us to go into apartments in the event that we weren’t allowed. We fortunately never had to exercise that. Most people, at the very end, will cooperate.”

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