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Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



Tough Love and a Queens Co-op

Board President Cora Gumban

41–50 78TH STREET

Elmhurst, Queens

Cora Gumban believes in tough love. She grew up in the coastal town of Calauag in the Philippines, 100 miles southeast of Manila, and although her father was a lawyer and her mother taught piano, Gumban decided to pursue a more hard-nosed career. She studied accounting in the capital and then lit out for Los Angeles in 1968, where she hopped, unhappily, from job to job. A classmate from Manila who’d earned a scholarship to Harvard urged her to head to New York City – “because all the headquarters of the big companies are there, and so are the interesting jobs.”

Gumban heeded the advice and got a job in the budgeting and forecasting department at International Nickel, a Canadian mining company. She must have liked what she did there because she stayed with the outfit until her retirement in 1995.

That turned out to be good training, because, in the end, it was her skills as an accountant that ended up saving her cooperative from bankruptcy

That saga began in the 1980s when she became one of the first to buy into a recently converted co-op – a seven-story, 165-unit brick structure – in Elmhurst, Queens. She soon learned that she had boarded a sinking ship. The sponsors – “slumlords,” in the words of the attorney who had represented the building’s pre-conversion tenants in an earlier rent strike – owned more than 100 of the units and decided to stop paying full maintenance. The co-op was soon sliding toward dissolution.

Eventually the co-op went into bankruptcy, and the bank sold the mortgage to an investor who wanted to turn the building back into a rental through a foreclosure. Although she had been a concerned good neighbor in the community since her arrival, Gumban says that when matters started heating up, she now “became actively involved in the co-op as a business,” and she joined the interim board in 1993. Five years later, Gumban became treasurer of the now established board and began preaching that the co-op’s road to salvation was financial independence. The co-op then began negotiating a loan with Queens County Savings Bank that enabled it to buy out the investor and stave off dissolution.

“That was the loan that saved the co-op,” Gumban says. “It gave us the money to fix the roof, and I convinced the president to foreclose on sponsor apartments and start selling vacant apartments. You can’t reduce maintenance,” she adds. “And the money from the apartment sales has to benefit the entire building. Otherwise, it would have to come out of shareholders’ pockets.”

She has long preached a three-pronged, tough-love mantra: (1) the operative word in co-op is cooperation; (2) boards must make decisions that benefit the many, not the few; and (3) board service is not a popularity contest. Such statements have not made her universally liked, with some shareholders complaining that she is high-handed and ready to go into battle. Gumban begs to differ. “I’m a passionate person and I have to be upfront,” she says. “But I don’t want to fight. When someone disagrees with me, my approach is to pitch it to get the majority to come around. That is what should be done.”

Making decisions that benefit the many over the few will not always sit well. But Gumban answers to a higher power. “I remind people that we’re just volunteers,” she says, “and that we’re not fighting personally. We’re fighting for the proper running of the co-op. If the board isn’t directly involved in what’s going on, you will go into bankruptcy.”


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