New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine July/August 2020 free digital issue

HABITAT

ARCHIVE ARTICLE

Volunteering

Though it’s thankless, time-consuming and unpaid work, some dedicated co-op and condo residents have served on their boards for decades. The challenges have changed over the years – residents’ expectations have risen while respect for all forms of authority has declined – but board service has remained rewarding for the veterans profiled here. They’re passionate, driven, and able to adapt. And they share an iron mantra: “Never give up.”

 

Andrew Kimerling

Park Reservoir, a 274-unit, three-building Mitchell-Lama co-op in the Bronx, is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. Andrew Kimerling has served on the board for 38 years, previously as treasurer and for the past three years as president.

Up Close and Personal

Beginnings: I was a Vietnam-era student and got drafted out of law school. I went into the Navy for two years and served onboard an aircraft carrier with 5,000 men. You had to learn how to get along with people or you would not survive. I’ve been married for 41 years and have two sons, aged 37 and 39. My younger son works with me now.

Work: I’ve owned Westchester Road Runner in White Plains since 1980. It’s one of the oldest running stores still in existence, 95 percent running shoes, clothes, and accessories. When I was in the corporate world, I worked as an auditor for a CPA firm, and while there I got my MBA degree. Every two weeks or so I would go to a different company and see practices that were good and bad. I saw how people were treated and how I would do things differently. I’d say the accounting background helps a lot with being on the board. I was also a treasurer for a small foundation and wrote copy for advertising agencies. I have had a fairly diverse background.

Volunteering: Besides being board president of my co-op, I’m also the board president of the Van Cortlandt Cooperative Federal Credit Union that serves our neighborhood, which has between $75 and $80 million in assets. When I first started with the credit union, I was in charge of the audit committee. For 25 years, I was also on the board of the New York Road Runners Club, serving as treasurer for the last five or six years. I still run, but very slowly these days.

View from the Boardroom

Building management: We’ve had an unusual long-term arrangement with Amalgamated Housing Cooperative, which is a co-op that predates us. It is our managing agent and provides us with all our services. Our two co-ops have almost 1,500 units. We pay our own expenses and 16.3 percent of our combined expenses.

The pulse: One of the major changes is that, as in society, nobody believes in authority, and everybody wants to challenge it. The board president used to be like God, along with the management. They would say something, and that’s what it was. Now, we get questioned on everything. Sometimes rightly, and a lot of times not.

Three decades ago, I think the manager and the president together would have said, “This is what’s best for the co-op, and these are the reasons why.” People would have thought about it and said, “OK, that’s good.”

Even on the board there can be a good amount of dissension. I went through a terrible year last year. I was president, but I was the minority on the board. A majority of the board – nine to three – wanted to get new management. They also wanted to keep it secret from the shareholders. I thought the reason was they wanted to break away from Amalgamated so we could go private, but no one admitted that. The board election last November was a very contentious one for one-third of the board. I wasn’t up for re-election, but the people who agreed with me won.
The biggest problem is a lack of a cooperative spirit. Whether that was just an idealistic thing of the past, I don’t know. Some of us still have it, but a lot of people just want to live here and pay as little as possible. I worry that as a couple of us age off of the board, people won’t step up. They’ll come up with all kinds of excuses why they don’t have the time.

Learning curve: One of the challenges we’re addressing is communications. We’re investing in 21st-century technology so that the cooperators can get alerts online or a phone call. We had a water main break farther up the block two weeks ago. I went out to get the paper that Sunday morning and I saw what happened. The city’s Department of Environmental Protection had put signs on the building that water was going to be shut off between noon and 5 o’clock. Unless you came out of the building, you wouldn’t know that. I went around knocking on doors and telling people. Our new system will call or email residents when problems like this arise.

Building demographics: We have been designated as a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community. As these senior citizens either retire and move away or pass on, there are younger people starting to move in. There was a time, about 15 years ago, when there were very few children in the building I live in. Now, there are a substantially more.

Final thoughts: I have always, in my own way, cared about the neighborhood and wanted to maintain it. This is one way of doing it.

 

Phil Konigsberg

Phil Konigsberg has served for 24 years on the board at Bay Country, a 120-unit co-op in Bayside, Queens.

Up Close and Personal

Beginnings: I was born in Queens in 1951, and have lived my whole life in Queens. I contracted polio when I was two, which was two years before there was a polio vaccine. The polio affected my arms and spine with scoliosis, and I was bent over to the side. When I was seven I was put in a body cast from my head to my knees that was supposed to straighten my curvature. A friend came to visit and I caught a cold, which developed into pneumonia. I had to be rushed to Hospital for Special Surgery where it was pretty bad; I was actually given last rites. They had to rip the cast open and then transfer me to Mount Sinai Hospital because they had a respirator center there and I was put in an iron lung machine. Once I started to recover, the doctor told my parents that I would never get out of a wheelchair. It was a horrendous thing to hear. Years later, I went back to the doctor and told him that he was helpful to me, but he got one thing wrong: I had gotten out of that wheelchair. People helped me do that, so I believe I’ve got to help other people if I can. That’s why I get involved with all the different community activities.

Later years: I’ve been married for 28 years. My wife just left her job at a publishing firm where she handled payroll and was the benefits manager. She’s starting a new job at Planned Parenthood, where she has been volunteering.

It’s not a secret that I’m a smoke-free advocate for all multiple-housing units. I have chronic pulmonary deficiency. I have asthma. I’ve been using a respirator since 1968, and I use oxygen at night. I won’t go to places where smoking is allowed. It doesn’t make sense for people to be exposed to that.

Work: I worked for a wealth management company called the Equitable Life Assurance Society, and later known as AXA Equitable. I worked there for 33 years, and my last position was in licensing and registration of their sales force. I worked in marketing and customer service, doing various different jobs. I retired in 2011.

Volunteering: I’ve been on Community Board 7, which is in northeast Queens, since 1999. I’m involved in transportation, parks, the environment, and aviation, and spend about 10 hours a month on this work. I worked for five years getting a stoplight moved so that trucks and cars coming out of the Bay Terrace Shopping Center wouldn’t constantly get stuck in gridlock. I don’t give up if I feel something needs to be done. I’m vice president of the Bay Terrace Community Alliance, which is the civic association for our area. We’ve been active in getting parks. It took a dozen years for us to get a bathroom in Little Bay Park. We had a million dollars allocated for it, but then there was one delay after the next. We finally got the bathroom last year.

View from the Boardroom

Building management: Mark Greenberg Real Estate

The pulse: You have to be open-minded to other people. A lot of those on the board have more expertise in finances than I do, so I respect them. Over the years, I have learned that everyone has something to contribute. I feel that by being on the board you get to experience and get input from other people.

Learning curve: We didn’t know much when we first came on the board. We definitely had to learn how to operate. We were self-managed, and we had an individual who worked as our property manager. There seems to be a lot more regulation now – Local Law 11 is something that we have to deal with that wasn’t there when we began.

Building demographics: The tenancy of the property is getting younger, but we do have varied ages. We have young kids here and a lot of seniors. We’ve got people that have been living here for 20, 30 years, some even more. Our board has pretty much stayed the same over the years. We don’t go at things aggressively; we like to find out what others are doing. I see down the road, within 10 years, that the board will change, though. People will move out or decide to take on other things. But I could have said that 10 years ago, and I would have been wrong. 
Final thoughts: I often tell people, “Never give up.” Other people may throw their hands up and say, “OK, we did it the best we could,” but I want to see things through to the end.

 

Steve Rosenstein

Steve Rosenstein has been on the board for eight years, seven of them as treasurer, at his 73-unit Brooklyn Heights co-op.

Up Close and Personal

Beginnings: I lived on Long Island from age six till age 46. I went to public school there.

Work: I was a software engineer for Grumman. I was living on Long Island when I met my wife. She lived across the street from where we live now. When I left Grumman, I joined Legal Aid and worked in their MIS [management information systems] department and then for an investment bank in the World Trade Center – my wife and I were on our honeymoon on September 11. Right before, I was outsourced to IBM, and that’s where I stayed until I retired. We have one son and a grandson. They live on Long Island.

Volunteering: My father was a CPA, and when I was growing up I said, “I want no part of that” – but here I am. I never saw myself as a treasurer. I’d been reading about it and was friends with some of the board members. Then the treasurer moved out of the building. I like new experiences, so I said, “Let me see what it’s all about.”

View from the Boardroom

Building management: Advanced Management Services

Basics: We have what I would consider a really good board. We have some pretty significant disagreements. But, at the end of the day, we come together, and after the vote is taken, we move on. We really don’t have egos.

The pulse: The co-op is a business, and it has to run its finances, it has to run its legal stuff, it has to run all of the aspects of a not-for-profit business. The financial environment – not just in the building, but in the neighborhood – has changed dramatically. Finances have become a much bigger deal than they were in the bubble of 2000. The severe downturn in the real estate market in 2008-2009 meant that we were much more conscious of where the money was spent. Now, we take a longer, harder look at whether or not we’re going to spend on something that’s nonessential.

The Department of Finance property valuation has just been outrageous. Ours has increased by over 100 percent in two years. We go through the tax certiorari process, but it really doesn’t offer any substantial relief. So we can’t raise the maintenance to cover what might be non-discretionary or quasi-discretionary items because the shareholders are being stretched by the need to increase maintenance to cover the increase in real estate tax. It is a huge issue, and I know that we’re not the only building that has been hit, but I don’t know how many other buildings have been hit as severely as we’ve been hit. This has caused us to delay projects, maybe stretch them out longer, to look harder at the individual costs involved, and to nitpick more about things that we might not have done.

Communication: The main technology we use is email. For example, in February, the fan on our boiler’s burner shredded, and it was during one of the really cold spells. So we were essentially without heat and hot water for a day or so. We used email to send out frequent updates as to exactly what was going on, what the plans were, and what we anticipated was going to happen. If things didn’t happen the way we said they were going to, we sent emails about that. Other than the fact that people groused about not having heat and hot water, there was no major uprising. There was really nobody who got overly upset or angry about it.

Learning curve: Before I got on the board, I really didn’t pay too much attention to building operations. The building was the building, and as long as we had heat, hot water, and electricity, and our maintenance wasn’t too bad, I was satisfied. When you become a new board member you need to partner with your professionals to come up to speed quickly and understand things, so that you can explain to the rest of the board and shareholders what’s going on.

Building demographics: It’s mainly families. We have all different ages – it’s not a young building, it’s not an old building. The people that are purchasing are on the younger side, but not millennials. I don’t think millennials can afford the going price now. So it’s professional couples, maybe with a young child or two. We’re in a very good school district, so that’s a selling point for young families. There’s a small amount of disagreement between the newbies and those who’ve been here for a while, but generally, I think when people come into the building, they have a good expectation of what the building has to offer, and that we don’t have leeway to create more amenities than we have now. We have a bike room and we have storage cages in the basement, but we don’t have any space to put in a gym, or an exercise room, or a community space, or anything like that.

Final thoughts: I have enjoyed being treasurer. It gives me a certain amount of control over my investment. I think we have been very lucky in getting board members who are good fits for the board. It’s an honest board, and I believe our hearts and minds are in the right place. For the most part, we’re professionals, and we know how businesses have to be managed and governed. We also realize that we’re a million-dollar-plus business, and we have to conduct ourselves accordingly.

 

Rhona Magelowitz

Rhona Magelowitz has held various positions on the board of directors of The Wakefield, a 78-unit co-op in Forest Hills, Queens, since it converted in 1982.

Up Close and Personal

Beginnings: I grew up in Brooklyn. My family came to America from Slonim, in Belarus, Russia, in 1907. They quickly became involved in real estate: one became a plumber, another a painter, another a super, and the fourth an investor. Through years of hard work, and saving every dollar possible, my family accumulated 14 apartment buildings in Brooklyn and Queens. I was brought up in the family business, though only one of my brothers and I loved real estate from an early age.

In 1932, my grandmother and her brother had bought The Wakefield, which was empty, from the builder who had gone bankrupt during the Depression. This was a difficult and risky task, since an empty building meant no immediate income. But they held on and learned how to do repairs and were able to succeed. Growing up, all we did in my family was eat, sleep, and talk real estate. I moved to The Wakefield in 1972 and I took Apartment 2E, a nice one-bedroom. The neighborhood was very different. Austin Street was more isolated, with fewer commercial stores. When a two-bedroom apartment became available, I grabbed it. I raised my children here in Apartment 5H; my first child was born in 1972 and my second in 1989.

Work: I have been a real estate saleswoman since 1972, a broker since 1984, and a certified property manager since 1992. I worked for Citadel Management, Kaled, and other real estate companies.

View From the Boardroom

Building management: Orsid Realty

The pulse: Board members are usually either people who have their own agenda, or people who are very serious, dedicated, and really want to protect our investment in our community.  The original 1982 five-member board consisted of my aunt, her husband, me, and two owners, who resided here. I was in the difficult position then of either agreeing with the sponsor – members of my family – or doing what was best for the co-op, which had just converted. The sponsors tried to control everything, but I decided to vote with what was best for the co op. That’s when the sponsor’s hatred for me started. Over the years, the board has changed, but the sponsor has remained the same. To date, they still own almost 50 percent of our shares. Board members would come to me and say, “Wow, they just don’t want to relinquish control.”

An ongoing problem with a number of the residents is that they are renters in sponsor-owned apartments and have a renter’s mentality. They don’t pay the same attention to our property as our owners do. The sponsor is getting huge rents and refuses to sell. Each improvement we make increases the rent they collect. Since sponsors are exempt from bringing renters to the board for approval, we have no say in who lives with us.

Learning curve: Robert’s Rules should be required reading. Board members and our co-op professionals should be prepared for each meeting. Agendas and minutes are crucially important, as are accuracy, follow-up, open communication, and a thorough understanding of your governing documents.

Recently, we were guided by a brilliant attorney who assisted us in taking back storage units that the sponsor illegally claimed as theirs. Because our sponsors have kept control for so long, they used to vote against doing repairs so as not to spend money. Our good monies were put to bad use for a long time. Each bad decision caused us to increase maintenance and charge temporary assessments. We were always outvoted. Minor repairs were neglected and became severe emergencies, costing us triple.
Final thoughts: You can’t win every battle. Compromise is important. Keep focused on the important things and never give up!

 

Angela Hirsch

Angela Hirsch moved into the Saxony, a six-story, 100-unit complex in Forest Hills, Queens, more than 35 years ago. During her three decades-long tenure as president, she also served briefly as the treasurer.

Up Close and Personal

Beginnings: I grew up in Hendon, which is in northwest London, England. As a young adult, I moved to Paris and subsequently returned to Swiss Cottage, which again is in northwest London..
Work: I lived in Tel Aviv, Israel before I came here, just for a couple of years. It was a wonderful, wonderful experience. I loved it all except that I was there at the time when the inflation rate was 165 percent. It was impossible for me to establish myself financially. In 1980, I’d been working with the Americans who were involved in rebuilding an air base in Israel, earning $2 an hour. It was part of the peace-pact agreement between Egypt and Israel. I loved it, and I also loved exploring every inch of my new country. I had so much fun, but I realized this project wasn’t going to last forever, and I wasn’t going to be able to live on this money. I gave up, and then asked myself, “OK, now where do I want to go?” I’d made a lot of American friends, so I decided this was finally an opportunity for me to go and visit America. In America, I served as a legal assistant for many years. I worked for Dewey Ballantine, which merged into Dewey & LeBoeuf. When that firm went out of business, I moved to Morris & McVeigh. I recently retired, a few weeks earlier than planned, because I became very involved in taking care of my cousin, who had cancer. My job was becoming more and more stressful, and I just had to throw in the towel.

Volunteering: At some point, many of the the windows in our co-op kept sliding down, and the only way I could keep one of mine open was to prop it up with a bamboo stick. This was, to say the least, frustrating. And although rumors of new windows had been heard for years, nothing seemed to be on the horizon. I needed to find out what “they” were really planning, so I attended my first board meeting. Before I knew it, I had volunteered to serve on the board – a pretty new group at that time since our building had only recently been converted to a cooperative. And all these years later, I’m still at it, and continue to love being involved as it has been a terrific learning experience.

View from the Boardroom

Building management: Argo Management

Basics: We’re pretty good at doing our budget. We always try to be over-cautious rather than under-cautious and make room for the unexpected because we never know, for example, what the winter’s going to be like as far as our heating bills are concerned. So far, in the past few years, we’ve been pretty lucky, and we’ve been able transfer some money over to savings. We also try to pay down annually a small amount of our mortgage. About a year and a half ago, we spent a tremendous amount of money doing all our parapet work, and that certainly depleted a lot of our capital funds.

The pulse: The only thing that did come and go was that I never managed to get a flip tax approved. We corresponded with the shareholders and held several informative meetings, but there were one or two adamant people who were totally against the idea because they were thinking about selling their apartment, and somehow or other we never got the vote.

Learning curve: I’m very proactive when it comes to making sure things are done. So far, touch wood, everything seems to be OK. We’re just embarking on our latest Local Law 11 project. The majority of the residents here have great faith in me. From my perspective, I still have a vested interest in the building because it’s my home. If there was somebody else who was willing to do as much as I’m willing to do, or at least half as much as I’m willing to do, I’d be quite happy stepping down.

I wrote a residents’ handbook. It took me two years to put that together. It was given to all the residents and to all new residents. I tried to include whatever common information I thought a resident might ask, as well as providing general information about our managing agent and property manager, what you can expect of the super, moving in and moving out. Building demographics: The building demographics have changed in the past 30 years. Originally, they were primarily Jewish and white. It’s now a bit of a mix.

Final thoughts: Being a board member is a passion of mine. I’ve learned a lot from being on the board, and I hope I’ll continue to learn more.

 

Barry Kramer

In 1984, Barry Kramer moved into the Northgate, a 72-unit co-op in the Westchester County town of Eastchester. A year later, he joined the board, and he’s been president since 1990.

Up Close and Personal

Beginnings: I was born and grew up in Waterbury, Connecticut, and went to the University of Connecticut. I had a double major in dramatic arts and business administration, the first student ever allowed to do that. I was going to become a theater manager at the time – producing. I had to go the deans of both schools to get permission. I also have an MBA from Iona in New Rochelle.

Work: I have had a number of different hats. My first career was theater management. My next career was telecommunications. When I won that nice platinum award from Habitat in 1999, I was in real estate, which I’ve been in for 20 years. I own Westchester Choice Realty. We do general real estate, but we specialize in co-ops. It’s in a commercial space on the first floor of my co-op building. My husband and partner, John, and I own the Westchester Choice office and live in the building.

Volunteering: I’m the president of the Garth Road Cooperative Council, the neighborhood association of the 11 co-op buildings here on the block. I’m also very involved in the Hudson Gateway Association of Realtors – I was just elected and will serve as president starting next year. It is actually the 11th-largest board of realtors in the country and has over 10,000 members. I’m also involved in the New York State Association of Realtors, for which I’m the vice chair of the co-op working group committee. I teach a class on co-ops and condos for licensing purposes.

View from the Boardroom

Building management: Garthchester Realty

Basics: It’s a nice community, very close to the Scarsdale train and village, and shops and restaurants. A lot of commuters like it because of its proximity to the train, and a lot of seniors like it because it’s a great place to retire, in case they just want to walk into town.

The pulse: Shareholders now expect a great deal of transparency in everything the board does. For example, we just hired a new superintendent. The board created a committee of five board members and four additional shareholders to screen applicants. We felt that by including these shareholders in the process we were providing sufficient transparency. However, some shareholders who were not asked to serve on the committee felt otherwise and were disappointed. On a related note, over the years, the process of the board making decisions – and those decisions being questioned by shareholders – has become more frequent. In addition, demand for more frequent updates from the board has been on the rise.

Building demographics: It’s a real mix, because in smaller apartments like studios and one-bedrooms, you’ll typically have either young singles or young couples moving in. Then we have some larger two-bedroom apartments that couples with children live in, and also retirees. We probably don’t have more than five or six sales per year. The whole time I’ve been on the board we have required a 10 percent down payment. That’s kept it attractive to young buyers who might have the income but not the savings for a larger down payment.

Final thoughts: The fact that I’ve been doing this for 32 years is probably a sign that things are generally run to the satisfaction of the shareholders. I believe that being a successful board president requires the ability to analyze and make decisions, even if they’re not the most popular decisions. You find a lot of co-op board members and board presidents who are just not able to look at an issue and say, “This is the best decision, and now we’re going to start to implement that decision.” Having the ability to listen to shareholders is important, but so is holding to your decisions when you need to.

 

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