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You Can Go Home Again

Janice Schreibersdorf, Board President
Beech Hills Cooperative
Resident Since: 1988
Board member: 9 years

Few New Yorkers live, literally, a stone’s throw from where they grew up. Meet Janice Schreibersdorf, the exception who proves the rule. Her parents moved into the Beech Hills co-op in Douglaston, Queens, shortly after their wedding in 1955, paying $200 for one of the 816 apartments spread over 45 rolling acres.

Schreibersdorf, 56, recalls that the winding streets and grassy stretches of Beech Hills were paradise for her and her dozens of Baby Boomer playmates, the children of veterans who flocked to the affordable federally subsidized co-op. After attending Benjamin N. Cardozo High School and Hunter College, Schreibersdorf lived in Manhattan, working as a biochemist and starting a family. Then in 1998, after her marriage broke up, Schreibersdorf moved back to Beech Hills. She wanted to be close to her parents, both to look after them and to get their help raising her two young children. Her sister also lives down the block.

A decade after she moved back, Schreibersdorf started to realize that there was trouble beneath the bucolic surface of her childhood home. “Older shareholders ran the co-op like a family, not a business,” she says. “They didn’t do maintenance increases because they didn’t want to look bad. A group of us found out that they had depleted the reserve fund and bills were getting paid late, but they didn’t want to divulge finances. Things were getting old and needed to be replaced. The board members weren’t bad people, but they were living in la-la land.”

Schreibersdorf recalls how a group of like-minded shareholders coalesced. “We decided the only way to get information and turn this place around was to run for the board,” she says. At the time, Schreibersdorf didn’t know how to read a financial report, but she has never let challenges stop her – not the breakup of her marriage, not the travails of being a single mom, not the health problems that led to her early retirement. In the end, her decision was clear-cut: “I grew up here, and I can do anything.” Several of her fellow reformers got elected to the board in 2008, and when Schreibersdorf joined them the following year, they had control of the then 14-member board. It was time for a painful reckoning.

“We had to hit the shareholders hard the first few years by raising maintenance and imposing an assessment, and people were not happy,” says Schreibersdorf, now board president. “There was a lot of screaming at the annual meeting. But we told them this place was going to go under if we didn’t make changes. We had no choice. We were required to have a balanced budget and money in our reserve fund.”

Schreibersdorf was sensitive to the co-op’s middle-class flavor – “teachers, firefighters, cops, retired people on fixed incomes” – so the board allowed shareholders to pay the assessment over time. They also rewrote the bylaws and, after doing a thorough physical assessment of the property, undertook a string of major capital projects, including a switch to dual-fuel boilers that has cut fuel costs in half. At Schreibersdorf’s urging, the board has exercised its right of first refusal and bought several units, fixed them up, and sold them at a handsome profit – since the co-op went to market-rate sales in 1976. Income from a flip tax, ranging from $6,000 to $9,000, is fed into the operating budget, and each spring the board levies an assessment that roughly matches property tax abatements. As a result, the co-op now has a very healthy reserve fund.

“In 10 years we’ve gone from having very little money to having enough money in the bank to fix up this 66-year-old lady,” Schreibersdorf says. As she walks the grounds, her blonde hair dancing in an unseasonably warm breeze, she points out the new roofs on the two-story brick buildings, the repaved parking lots and refurbished playgrounds, the new ramps for the handicapped. An avid gardener, she has a plot by the fence that abuts the Douglaston Golf Course, where she’ll soon be planting her annual crop of vegetables.

Schreibersdorf gives a lot of credit for the property’s pristine condition to the general manager, Anna Szenk. “She watches every penny,” Schreibersdorf says. “I totally trust Anna, but board members look at every invoice, and two board members sign every check. We’re very protective of our money.”

The co-op’s attorney, Geoffrey Mazel, a partner at Hankin & Mazel, says, “When they hired me five years ago, there were still vestiges of lingering problems. But the patient was stabilized and improving. Today it’s beautifully run.” One measure of the co-op’s health is the annual meeting. Back when Schreibersdorf and her fellow reformers first got elected, 500 shareholders would show up and engage in raucous shouting matches. These days, a couple dozen might attend, and there’s no shouting. “The last five years almost nobody has complained,” says Schreibersdorf, who is living proof that you can go home again – and that you can make a difference when you get there. “I ran for the board because I cared. And all I ever cared about was what’s best for this place.”

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