Dust was everywhere, the noise relentless. The construction had gone on for months – and there was no end in sight. How had my 21-unit Manhattan co-op gotten into this fix?
At first, I blamed our alteration agreement – the toothless, vague document that had served us well in the past but had failed us so dismally now. Still, blaming a piece of paper was a poor excuse. We – the board members – had let it happen. We had never faced this problem before and were therefore unprepared for the brouhaha that had engulfed us.
It had started with two new shareholders who had bought a top-floor apartment. Their finances were in order, their references good, and they seemed quite pleasant. At the end of the admissions interview, they asked what the co-op’s policies were concerning apartment renovation. They were given an alteration agreement.
This is an essential document. Residents who want to renovate must read, sign, and return the multi-page agreement along with their proposed plans for the unit. The agreement should contain – and ours did – permissible working hours and a non-refundable deposit for damages. It should also contain – and ours did not – a requirement that an engineer or architect be hired, at the shareholder’s expense, to review the work and ensure that the job followed the plan. And it should also have teeth – which ours, sadly, did not – such as fines or other penalties if the work lasted more than its allotted time.
At first, we were unconcerned. There had been rehabs in other units over the years – the 100-year-old building had itself been a gut-rehab in the 1980s – but there had never been any great difficulties. These newcomers did seem to be planning a great deal of work: new cabinets were going up, a new bathtub was being installed, and everything – even the kitchen sink – was slated to be redone. But how much of a problem could that be? It was, after all, only a 500-square-foot apartment.
Months later, we found out. The construction had gone on for months beyond the completion date, while the new owners were living elsewhere, far from the dust and debris. Their contractors, who were now more familiar to us than the new buyers, deposited what seemed to be, in my hyperbolic point of view, tons of garbage in the backyard, which our super had to prepare for disposal. They hadn’t rented a dumpster – why should they, when our alteration agreement was silent on the subject? It seemed as if they would never leave.
Our lack of power grew more frustrating every day. At one point, the workers had discovered a bricked-up bathroom window, one of many that had been eliminated when the property was refurbished. They wanted to re-open the portal and install a new window. They were told to wait a few days and the board would get back to them. Before that could happen, however, they installed the window. We were angry, but it was a done deal. We could have had them remove it, but an engineer who reviewed it said that the new window was perfectly safe. The consensus on the board was that it would have seemed petty to order its removal.
So what’s the last word on situations like this? Simple: without an effective enforcement mechanism – a fine, a fee, or a penalty (say $300 for every day renovations go past their agreed-upon completion date) – boards are helpless. They are, as we were, effectively reduced to bystanders in their own building, cursing the darkness but powerless to stop it.