Born in New York City and raised in Buffalo, Pauline Morgan-Riley moved back to the city to attend Baruch College, where she majored in accounting and psychology. After graduation, she went on to work for New York’s Homes & Community Renewal as a regional supervisor for the agency’s Weatherization Assistance Program, which helps low-income families reduce their heating and cooling costs by providing money for energy-efficiency upgrades. Morgan-Riley, who is serving her third term on the board at River Terrace Apartments, a 431-unit Mitchell-Lama co-op on Riverside Drive between 155th and 158th Streets, spoke with Habitat about the sense of satisfaction that keeps her coming back to the job.
Storied history. River Terrace was built in 1964 to provide housing for civil servants, like bus drivers, firemen, policemen, teachers and principals. I moved here in 2000 with my husband, whose parents were among the original shareholders. It was still a good-looking building, but it had not been well maintained, especially its infrastructure. And its finances were in bad shape, with the co-op running a deficit of nearly $500,000.
Call to action. I joined the board in 2005. When I started attending meetings, it was clear to me the board wasn’t being aggressive enough about the repairs that were needed. Coming from my background, I looked at things from an energy perspective, and the first problem we needed to address was our heating system. We were using oil, and it was by far the biggest expenditure in the budget. Because I had assisted in some gas conversions with the Weatherization Program, I knew some of the engineers who were involved and was able to speak to board members about it. After I took them on a walk-through of the property, it was agreed that we needed to do a comprehensive assessment on what repairs were needed. It was a long list. In 2008, we refinanced and got an $8 million mortgage from the Housing Development Corporation to pay for capital projects and pay off our existing mortgage, which was under $3 million.
Push comes to shove. Before that, there had been assessments for three years, so shareholders were upset that we still had to take out a new loan. Board members got voted out, including myself. But I ran again in 2009 because no movement had been made on repairs. I’m proud to say that the new board got a lot of items on that list done. In our first three years, we replaced the roof and the elevators, and we repaired our three-level garage, where the concrete had really deteriorated — all the major, major stuff. We probably spent about $7 million. Then we did an oil-to-gas conversion in 2013. Con Edison said it would cost $2 million to bring gas to the building, but we joined forces with other buildings to create a community coalition, and Con Ed ended up doing it for free.
A turn for the better. At the same time, thanks to maintenance increases, we were starting to show a positive cash flow, and we were able to end the assessments. We had been self-managed, but in 2014 we hired a management company, Metro Management. That really changed the dynamics of the co-op. Now there was a clear chain of command with the building staff, and we had the benefit of the back office to handle payroll, plus a list of engineers and contractors, which took a lot of weight off the board.
After we started working with Metro, we decided to install solar panels and a cogen system, which was not part of our original plans. Because of my work with the Weatherization Assistance Program, I was familiar with rebates and credits. We’ve already received nearly $300,000 from NYSERDA for our energy upgrades. The solar-cogen system cost about $1.2 million, but we anticipate we’ll be saving up to 20% of our electricity costs. We had to remove the solar roof panels because of the scaffolding drops needed for our current facade work, but once the solar-cogen system is fully up and running, we hope to receive one final rebate payment.
In 2019, we were also able to get $5.5 million from New York City’s Capital Grants program that allowed us to change our fuses to circuit breakers, make the garage handicapped-accessible and replace all 431 of our apartment terraces.
Getting it done. Financially, we’re really good. We’re running a surplus and were able to waive a planned 3% maintenance increase. I feel a sense of accomplishment that the board was able to pull this off and also about our energy-efficiency projects. This is my third time on the board, and I don’t know whether I’m going to run again. I’m 75, and the youngest person on the board is 50, and we all recognize that we need to bring in people who can learn the dynamics of the building at a younger age. Inspiring a new generation is always a challenge.
Morgan-Riley’s comments have been condensed and edited for clarity.