After growing up near York in the coal fields of northern England, then studying psychology and sociology at Liverpool University, Lois Baynham yearned to taste life in the other York, the big new one across the pond in America. The closest she could get was Yonkers in Westchester County, where she landed a job in 2004 at a Young Adult Institute home for people with developmental disabilities, including autism and Down syndrome. Four years later, Baynham’s dream of moving to the Big Apple came true when she bought into an affordable HDFC co-op on West 144th Street in Harlem.
“It was the first time I’d ever walked down a block in New York City where people actually acknowledged my existence,” Baynham, now 39, recalls with a laugh. “It was like ‘The Truman Show’ – everyone very welcoming and friendly.” Her fellow shareholders were as warm as the people on the street, showering her with housewarming gifts of homemade coleslaw and macaroni and cheese, even a bottle of Patrón tequila.
But Baynham’s job was too consuming for her to take much notice of the workings – or the problems – at her 82-unit co-op, located in a pair of six-story brick buildings. “My job was very emotional,” she says. “The goal was to help the residents become as independent as possible, maybe even move out and live on their own. You run the gamut from difficult and draining and devastating to rewarding and wonderful – to the moment when a person achieves something that took 30 years to achieve. It’s an extremely underpaid, underappreciated job. It’s also the most rewarding work you can possibly do.”
A Mixed Bag
After foot surgery in 2014 that required major rehab, Baynham decided it was time for a change. She took a job in the human resources department at a tech company in Midtown Manhattan, handling payroll, performance reviews, employee relations and other duties. It was less emotionally draining than her former job, more dedicated to the hard-nosed side of running a business.
“That career change gave me a chance to take notice of what was going on in my community,” Baynham says. “Working in human resources gave me an insight into how businesses are run. People in a co-op look at it as an extension of their home. I look at it as a business. What I brought to the table had never been brought before — someone with a business mind.”
Baynham served on the building’s Moving Forward Committee that developed a proposal to amend the co‑op’s flip-tax formula after its 25-year regulatory agreement with the city expired. Under the new formula, sellers get to keep 70% instead of 30% of the profit on an apartment sale. Based on that popular change, Baynham was elected president of the co-op board in 2018.
She inherited a mixed bag. The previous board had paid off debts by raising maintenance, bequeathing a healthy balance sheet to Baynham and her four fellow board members. But the two buildings still had nearly 500 outstanding violations with the city’s Department of Buildings, and they were plagued by leaks, cracked steps and shoddy brick repointing – all legacies of the city’s low-budget conversions of distressed rental buildings into cooperatives in the ’80s and ’90s. To top it off, Baynham says the boardroom was littered with ancient floppy disks and scraps of paper and bulging file cabinets. The board hired a part-time administrator to comb through the chaos, discard the junk, scan what was important and file it digitally. It then knocked out a wall and expanded the ground-floor office so it could also serve as a community room.
The board brought in Harlem Property Management, updated security cameras to cut down on package thefts and started tackling the backlog of violations. Meanwhile the board was educating shareholders about their rights and responsibilities. “There were a lot of things people just didn’t understand,” Baynham says, including the fundamentals about how their monthly maintenance is spent. “I wouldn’t say we’re halfway home, but we’re at a point where the shareholders understand where we stand. I tell them how much money we have. I tell them to come see the books. I want them to see the difference between myth and reality. I look at maintenance like taxes. People want to know where their money is being spent.”
“We Are You”
Baynham, who shares an apartment with her partner and their dog and two cats, says board service sometimes makes her feel like she’s forever chasing her own tail. A fall-off in maintenance collections during the pandemic forced the board to raise maintenance by 5% instead of the planned 1% to 2%. The mailboxes, roof and two boilers will soon need to be replaced. Arrears need to be collected. It’s always something.
Yet Baynham must be doing something right. She was named Harlem HDFC President of the Year in 2019. But her most prized award came at the co-op’s most recent annual meeting, held just before last spring’s pandemic lockdown.
“One of the biggest compliments was that we had the biggest turnout in years,” Baynham says. “People are starting to understand that we’re a community again. It got a bit fractured. We’ve tried to remind people that the board members live here, too, and we have to make this work together. We are you. And if we’re going to get anything done, we have to do it together.”