I remember a problem we had in my 21-unit Manhattan co-op some years ago. The super took me to the backyard and pointed out an odd sight: hundreds of cigarette butts covering the ground. He suspected they came from Apt. 4D, but it was hard to be certain. Consequently, outside of sending general notices about the potential fire hazards of flicking, we could do very little. The practice finally stopped when a new shareholder moved into 4D.
I thought of this the other day when I heard about 88 Greenwich Street, a condominium that took a more aggressive approach to the butt problem. The 450-unit, 40-story, Art Deco building overlooking the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel was built in 1929. Fifty-two of the units have terraces. Tom Calandra of First Service Residential, the condo’s resident manager, recalls that about two years ago, “we noticed that people were apparently tossing butts out of their units, which could possibly start a fire.’’
He adds, “What they do in their own units is their business. But when they flick something out the window – whether it’s a cigarette or a quarter or something like that – it’s serious.”
But how to pinpoint the culprits? The board at 88 Greenwich considered the issue a major problem and invested in a collection of infrared cameras, which were trained on the windows and terraces of the property. The cameras revealed that the discarded cigarettes were primarily being tossed from the terraces. “At night, the cigarette butts looked like shooting stars,” Calandra says. “You can actually count the windows and see where each cigarette is coming from.”
Part of the problem was apparently being caused by guests of the condo’s younger residents. “But it is still the owner’s responsibility,” Calandra says.
With video footage in hand, the board tried to stop the practice by imposing a $250 fine for butt-tossing. The previous penalty was $100. “We had about five people out there who would toss their butts out the window, and they’d tell me, ‘I’ll just pay the fine,’” recalls the manager. “For some people, money is no object.”
Still, the board was sure that when the $250 fines were imposed, the problem would be solved. But maybe not. After all, a person who is willing to pay $18 for a pack of cigarettes may not consider $250 that steep. And apparently that was the case at 88 Greenwich. “A year went by, and the situation got progressively worse,” Calandra says. The board increased the fine to $500 per incident, and when that didn’t improve matters, it increased it to $1,000.
That seemed to be the tipping point – the butt-tossing all but disappeared. Now, Calandra says, “it’s night and day compared to what it used to be. Over a year and half, we collected over 20 grand from fines.”
The moral? When boards face flagrant rule-breaking, they must take a stand. That may involve spending a bit of time and money, but if the board is reasonable, it will persevere. The trick, of course, is defining what’s reasonable.