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Island House Diplomat: The Challenge of Diversity

Amhrah Cardoso, 72, was born and raised in Rio de Janeiro, where her father worked in the Ministry of Finance and her mother was a violinist in a symphony orchestra. Cardoso came to the United States with a dream of becoming a diplomat, which led to some career detours. Today she’s board president of the 400-unit Island House co-op on Roosevelt Island, which began life as a Mitchell-Lama rental. Though her conversation is peppered with belly laughs, Cardoso is serious about improving her co-op. Since the conversion three and a half years ago, she has overseen an astonishing $5 million worth of capital projects.

HABITAT: How did your professional life prepare you for the work of a co-op board president?

CARDOSO: As a kid I wanted to be a diplomat, and I got there in a weird way. I went into transportation planning for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, working on international air-service development. I dealt with people from all over the world: Hong Kong, China, the Middle East, Latin America, and Europe. And I’m still doing that. There’s a lot of ethnic diversity in our building. When it was still a rental, the landlord had a deal with the United Nations, so we have many international residents.

HABITAT: How does this ethnic diversity influence your work on the board?

CARDOSO: We have people from Serbia, Pakistan, Japan, Brazil. To understand the concept of a co-op is not easy for these people, even for me. I had to learn. To get everyone on the same level takes a while. We had an attorney come in to explain what a co-op is; we had a judge explain the responsibilities of a co-op board. Yet people still ask me if we could just change the bylaws. Or they ask why they have to pay a flip tax, why we don’t just borrow money. They think it’s their apartment, and they can do with it whatever they want. I have to explain what it means to own shares in a corporation. It’s an educational process. Now we have old-timers along with new residents who bought at market rate. That makes for a very diverse population.

HABITAT: Does this diversity influence how you go about capital projects?

CARDOSO: Yes, we have to be very flexible. For instance, the newcomers want more amenities like a gym or a swimming pool, while the old-timers wish to have the plumbing replaced inside their apartments. Our sister building across the street, the Westview, is just converting from a rental Mitchell-Lama to a co-op, and they have a swimming pool and a gym that we’ll have the right to use. So I think we should not spend money to have our own gym and pool.

When we insulated apartments, participation was voluntary. If share-holders wanted to have their apartment insulated, they paid half, and the co-op paid the other half. Now we have to replace the risers in the apartments, which is very disruptive. The co-op will also pay half of that cost, and the shareholder will pay the other half. We try to accommodate all the different needs and wants.

HABITAT: How does the history as a rental Mitchell-Lama play into all of this?

CARDOSO: When we were a rental, the landlord neglected the building, and we were a very active tenancy. There is still this feeling that the sponsor is the enemy. I had maybe a little of that attitude myself before I got on the board. There is still that feeling that we’re spending a lot of money for the benefit of the sponsor, who owns about 25 percent of the apartments. But I want to correct the problems of the building.

We have the money; we don’t have to borrow or increase the maintenance or do assessments. When we refinanced the mortgage, we passed on our savings to the shareholders and lowered the maintenance. I think we’re very unique that we were able to do that much work in a short period of time. But also, the sponsor is not a charity – he is here to make money. We have to balance it. The shareholders benefit, and he should benefit as well.

HABITAT: You just got re-elected president, but there is a two-member opposition on your seven-member board. What is the major criticism you face?

CARDOSO: The buzzword is always “transparency.” What the opposition means by transparency is that they want more control. For instance, they want the minutes of board meetings to be public, but in our co-op they are not public. We agreed to make a summary of the minutes available every month, but some residents feel this was still not enough information. They also want to do monthly shareholder meetings.

I told them, “You go ahead and do that, but don’t expect me to be there at every such meeting.” And they always want committees overseeing everything we do. There was a petition once to create a committee to oversee the board. [Laughs]. I told them no, you cannot have that. That’s not legal. I, too, would like to oversee the president of the United States because I think I would do a better job. But he won’t let me.

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