It’s a long way from El Paso to Rockaway Beach – especially if you take the roundabout route. Just ask Fabiola H. Arellano. After growing up on the banks of the Rio Grande, Arellano joined the U.S. Army at 18 and served as a telecommunications center specialist with stints in South Carolina, Georgia, Arizona, Maryland and South Korea before a final posting at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn. After her discharge, she joined the National Guard and bounced around New York City before walking into an apartment in the sparkling new Beach House Condominiums with a balcony overlooking Rockaway Beach. That was in the spring of 2012, and it was love at first sight.
“New York is so hectic,” says Arellano, 53, who earned a bachelor’s degree from John Jay College, a law degree from Brooklyn Law School and a master’s degree in accounting from Baruch College after her discharge from the Army. “When I walked into my apartment the first time I went straight to the balcony and stared at the ocean. The ocean makes everything OK. Those six months were the happiest time of my life.”
The happiness ended cruelly that fall when Hurricane Sandy hammered the Rockaways. Over the next three years Arellano became aware that the Beach House had problems that went way beyond damage from the storm.
“The neighborhood looked like war-torn Afghanistan,” she recalls, “but the worst part was not having a board that knew what they were doing. There were no elections, no financial reports. The board let people do whatever they wanted to do. And the sponsor did a poor job of waterproofing, and he had $250,000 worth of insurance on a 43-unit condominium.”
When Arellano got elected to the condo board in 2015, the picture got even darker. The building had numerous leaks and owed $280,000 to vendors, it had only $14,000 in the bank, and half of the unit-owners – including two board members – were in arrears on their common charges.
“I would stay up until 4 o’clock in the morning trying to piece together the financial picture,” Arellano says. “It wasn’t pretty.”
Changing the Culture
Arellano’s mother had immigrated from Chihuahua, Mexico, then cleaned houses and worked in a blue jeans factory in El Paso. Arellano worked at McDonald’s while in high school, and since then she has worked as a soldier, a lawyer, an auditor, a financial adviser and an advocate for tenants in the Bronx. No stranger to hard work, she dove into the challenge of fixing the Beach House.
“It’s been hard,” says Arellano, an avid swimmer who lives with her rescue dog, Bella, a pit bull-boxer mix. “It has taken us six years to negotiate those debts down, build up our reserves, collect arrears and little by little fix the building. Finally, when we got into a good financial position, we were able to refinance our Small Business Administration loan for $1.1 million – and pull out $520,000 to make more repairs.”
Equally daunting was changing the building’s laissez-faire culture. “When there are no rules and you make rules for the first time, there’s insurrection,” Arellano says, citing unit-owners who were infuriated that they could no longer leave their strollers and surfboards in the hallways and could no longer store furniture in the garage. “It was brutal. There was a time when everyone was angry.”
There was even pushback when the condo board arranged to have workers finish fixing faulty window seals after the pandemic-related moratorium on nonessential construction was lifted last summer. Even though the board had all workers tested regularly for COVID-19, some unit-owners refused to allow workers into their apartments. So Arellano arranged to have free onsite tests for all residents and workers. The program was a success – up to a point. Arellano has a big booming laugh, and she lets one loose as she sums up the testing program’s great paradox: “The people who complained the loudest didn’t even sign up to get tested!”
Her laughter leads to an idea. “If I had one suggestion,” she says, “it would be that everyone should be required to serve at least one year on the board. We have residents who have never run but always complain. Being on the board would give residents a better appreciation for what board service is.”
Arellano has decided it’s time for a change. “I don’t like to leave things unfinished,” she says, “so I felt I had to stay until the leaks were all repaired. Now that we’re wrapping up, I’m not going to run for the board at our annual meeting in April. I’m winding down my law practice, and when the pandemic is under control, I’m going to put Bella in my Jeep and just drive cross-country, then spend some time in Mexico.”
After six tumultuous years, Arellano is walking away from board service with the feeling that she has made a difference. “Despite the fact that it’s a thankless job with so much anger directed at you,” she says, “I have a great sense of accomplishment and personal pride for hanging in there. The past six years have been rough here, but I feel stronger because I weathered the storm. I think I became a stronger person.”