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Caught in a Crossfire

Timo Lipping thought he knew what he was getting himself into when he and a handful of disgruntled shareholders wrested control of their troubled Brooklyn co-op’s board back in 2016. For a couple of years, it appeared that Lipping thought right. Then, early this year, he realized he was wrong.

The new board spent its first years addressing major problems, including possible criminal activity among the 40-member staff, out-of-control over-time, hundreds of unaddressed work orders, and a resulting air of disorganization and disrepair. The nine share-holders on the 17-member board also took steps to reduce the eight seats held by the sponsor, who still owned 17 percent of the 1,213 units in their Clinton Hill Cooperative, 12 brick buildings on two campuses originally built as housing for workers at the nearby Brooklyn Navy Yard.

The board got rid of the worst offenders on the staff, brought in a new security company and a new manager from Charles H. Greenthal. The changes began to show. Shakedowns by the staff stopped, work orders got addressed, grass began to grow where there had been weeds and dirt.

“For the first couple of years, everything was okay,’’ says Lipping, 53, who works in estate planning at a Manhattan law firm. “We started tackling uneven heating and other capital projects, including new windows.”

Then the board made a seemingly innocent business decision. Four handymen were living in rent-free apartments in exchange for being available at all hours, the basis of handshake deals with previous boards. But improvements to the infrastructure meant the co-op didn’t need four around-the-clock handymen. So early this year, the board announced that it was taking back the apartments of two of the handymen. The two apartments were now worth more than $1 mil-lion, which the board, with an eye to its fiduciary duty to more than 1,000 shareholders, viewed as a tantalizing infusion to the reserve fund.

One of the handymen, Luis Osoria, quietly moved out. The other, Hector Caballero, who had lived in his rent-free apartment for 19 years, dug in. Word of the board’s action soon spread among the shareholders, and a protest movement mushroomed, with leaders claiming they had gathered 700 signatures on a petition urging the board to let Caballero and his family remain in their apartment rent-free. Angry protesters convened outside a co-op board meeting carrying signs that read “Hector Stays” and “Worker Justice.” The police were summoned to disperse the crowd.

Lipping, an easygoing man who thought things were going so well, suddenly found himself caught in a harrowing crossfire. He had lived peaceably at the co-op since 2009 with his wife, Pamela Pierzina, who dresses actors in Broadway shows. Now, without warning, he was in the middle of a dispute that made news, including a long article in The New York Times that referred to it as “a gentrification battle royale.”

It was also a revealing snapshot of the way New Yorkers live today: gentrifiers fighting to preserve the old ways in a once-gritty neighbor-hood where they had helped drive up property values and drive out many original residents. This conundrum was captured nicely by a 38-year-old shareholder named Helen Yentus, who bought her apartment three and a half years ago and prizes the co-op’s racial and social diversity. “We want to keep the community the way it is,” she told TheTimes. “As a gentrifier, as a new person, I moved here for this.”

Such a sentiment is bad enough, in Lipping’s view, but it gets worse. “The worst part about this,” he says, “was that when we called meetings to talk to the protesters, they wound up screaming at me, calling me ‘Trump’ and ‘a racist.’ It got rough. A woman on the street said to me, ‘Watch your back, Timo. We know where you live.’ A couple of protesters said the board’s fiduciary duty includes the desires of the community. It does not. But even if it did, this was a group of maybe 15 percent of the shareholders. As far as they were concerned, we were evil. We were kicking these poor people out on the street. We’d volunteered hundreds of hours on behalf of our neighbors, and suddenly they’re shouting at you and calling you a monster. I wasn’t expecting that. These are supposed to be liberal, enlightened people.”

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Of course, lawyers got involved. “Hector’s attorney talked to our attorney,” Lipping says. “His attorney was a real hard-ass because the protesters had convinced her that the whole co-op agreed with them. In the end, we just wanted this to go away.”

And it did, with the board offering Caballero and his family the chance to stay in their apartment and pay rent about 50 percent below market rate. Both Caballero and Osoria have kept their jobs, which were never in jeopardy.

As life returns to normal at the Clinton Hill Co-op, does Timo Lipping have any second thoughts about volunteering for board service?

“Absolutely,” he says. “It was a real challenge to be painted in an evil light over a simple business decision. I had no idea it was going to be so traumatizing.”

Will he run for re-election when his current term expires?

“I’m not sure. If I’m so bad, I kind of want to make them vote me out.”

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