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Going Over the Cliff

During my years at Habitat, I’ve interviewed hundreds of board members. Some talk easily, others reluctantly. I remember one story I wanted to do about a president who had done some impressive things at his property. But his board prohibited him from talking to me, with one board member explaining in an email: “If this story were published, we’ll be airing some of our dirty laundry. Why give attorneys and buyers any reason to question an investment in our building? I think it is a bad idea and will cause some buyers to reconsider their purchase.”

It’s a legitimate concern but also a controversial one, since many co-ops and condos have been challenged in court recently over the issue of transparency. Since some boards are reluctant to reveal their inner workings to the outside world, I was surprised to discover a 50-page booklet called Sea Cliff Towers Tales: The History of a Residential Co-op by Harry A. Hicks, a retired captain in the United States Public Health Service. Hicks’s book is a minutely detailed compilation of data concerning the 121-unit Sea Cliff Towers on Staten Island, which opened as a rental in 1966 and was converted to a co-op in 1983.

Hicks, who has lived there since 1971, has served at various times as board member, secretary, president, and even manager. His History includes information on apartments (such as square footage and share allocation), parking, security measures, insurance coverage, and the alteration policy, among other things. He also includes racier stuff, such as a murder in Apt. 3P, a drug overdose in 7B, a fire in 7M, and battles with bedbugs, termites, and cockroaches.
Hicks published the book in 2016 with a disclaimer that it was not authorized by the board – which apparently was unhappy only about the bedbug mention. He believes other co-ops and condos should follow his lead and publish their own chronicles.

Surprisingly, some professionals agree with him. “I think that, in theory, such a book is a good idea because it gives you an institutional history,” says Alvin Wasserman, director of asset management at Fairfield Properties. “As long as it’s factual and pertains to the life of the building, this can be a good thing. I’m a great believer in transparency.”

“When you’re operating as a board, everything should be available – except for confidential information that may be used in litigation or information about shareholders in arrears,” adds attorney Abbey Goldstein, a partner at Goldstein & Greenlaw. “The problem is that enough people don’t want to see information about their building, and that’s how corruption occurs. Nobody is looking.”

Not everyone agrees that such a book is a great idea, however. “This is part of a trend,” notes attorney Lisa Smith, a partner at Smith, Gambrell & Russell. “A lot of boards now put all their documents online – their bylaws, their sales information – so that all unit-owners can grab it and look at it. I always warn them that once you put it out there, people can forward it outside of your community. You don’t want to put out anything that would put you in a bad light, like cost overruns on a recent project, or sales prices. If they’re not particularly stellar, why are you giving them out? I would be uneasy about such revelations, but I don’t see anything legally wrong with such a book – as long as there’s nothing confidential in it.”

And what does Hicks, 84, have to say about the potential problems and the transparency issues raised by his book? He reports that he’s had few complaints. But the big question is: why did he write it? Did he have a burning devotion to the truth? Did he have an ax to grind? Or did he want to immortalize his co-op?

“I’m retired and I needed something to do,” he says matter-of-factly. “And I just thought that it would be a good idea to put down what happened. It was kind of interesting.”

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