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Habitat Magazine Business of Management 2021

HABITAT

ARCHIVE ARTICLE

Globetrotter in Queens

By the time she sat down for her admissions interview with three members of a Queens co-op board in 2013, Rebecca Martin had traveled and worked in dozens of countries, from South America to Europe to Asia. The board members sitting across the table that day happened to be from Peru, Poland, and India – three countries Martin knew first-hand. “What fun to be talking to these people,” she says. “It was like a history of my life!”

Considering Martin’s experience working with international relief agencies, the board of the 76-unit co-op in Woodside decided she would be a perfect fit in a building that’s home to people from more than a dozen countries. Her purchase application was accepted. Eight months later, Martin was recruited to join the nine-member board, and today she’s president.

“At the time, I didn’t fully appreciate what a co-op is or how it works,” Martin says. “Not knowing any better,” she adds with a laugh, “I said yes.”

Martin had decided to buy into the co-op because after years of living abroad she’d landed a plum job in New York – as a deputy director at the International Rescue Committee, a nongovernmental organization that assists refugees around the world. Martin’s life seemed to be pointed toward that job. She was born in Mount Vernon and grew up in Indianapolis after IBM transferred her father there. She graduated from Catholic University in Washington, D.C., then spent three years as a volunteer organizer in Lithuania before earning a business degree from Yale and going to work for Catholic Relief Services, which posted her to countries as varied as Afghanistan and Kenya.

Of her current job overseeing finances for the International Rescue Committee, Martin says, “I’m trying to make sure the money is going where it’s supposed to be going and being used efficiently.”

Not a bad job description for a co-op board member. After agreeing to join her board, it didn’t take Martin long to figure out how a co-op works – and that this co-op needed some work. The finances were solid, but the entrenched board had been chronically reluctant to spend money, and, as a result, the building was beginning to feel rundown. The lone elevator was balky. The lobby was barren and uninviting. The backyard had untapped potential as green space.

Martin realized the board needed a transfusion. “I’d been trying to gin up interest among a number of the younger people who had just moved in and who care about the future of the building,” says Martin, 50, a kinetic woman with a quick laugh. After a couple of the recruits joined the board, Martin had a flash of inspiration. The co-op had not had a maintenance increase or attracted a quorum at an annual meeting in a decade, so Martin decided to shake things up. The board announced that an elevator replacement would be discussed at the annual meeting. Presto: a quorum showed up. And the board got its overdue transfusion – six of the nine members have joined in the past two years.

A Peripatetic Life
The changes began immediately. The board replaced the six washers and dryers in the laundry room. Dishwashers, long forbidden, were allowed. The backyard was spruced up. A wish list was drawn up: replace the roof, convert the boiler from oil to natural gas, dress up the lobby, upgrade the security cameras, paint the hallways and stairwells. Biggest of all, the board agreed to move ahead with the long-overdue elevator replacement, which will begin this fall and cost $150,000. The money is coming out of the reserve fund.

“It’s a lot of work,” Martin says of board service. “We were lucky to have Luis Ramos as my predecessor as president because he worked as an accountant, so it was almost like having a second management company. The job requires so much knowledge about things like boilers and roofs. In a way it’s shocking that there are amateurs like myself running buildings all over this city. It’s kind of cool, too.”

Beyond the boilers and roofs and other nuts and bolts, the job carries an intangible challenge. “We have to make sure we’re creating a community,” Martin says. “We have a barbecue every summer and a holiday party at the end of the year. We’re trying to build on that by holding a monthly get-together at the pub across the street. I also try to greet people in the hallways, make sure they know who I am and that they’re comfortable with me. I’m not looking forward to the elevator replacement, but I am hoping it’ll build an even stronger sense of community.”

To that end, the board sent notices to shareholders in English, Spanish, and Korean, letting them know that the board is taking steps to soften looming disruptions when the elevator is out of service.

Martin sometimes runs the five miles to her job in midtown Manhattan, via the 59th Street Bridge. She has never married. “Traveling around the world is not conducive to long-term relationships,” she says, noting that a recent trip to Lebanon and Jordan marked the 49th and 50th countries she has visited in her peripatetic life. Of living alone, she says with pride and a shrug, “I’m good at it.”

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