New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community
March 10, 2010 — Co-op board members and condo association directors tend to encounter the same few shareholder/unit-owner issues over and over: The same misunderstandings and complaints crop up in each new generation of buyers. "I see them in all kinds of developments and among all kinds of owners," says attorney Janet Oulousian Aronson, a specialist in community-association law and a member of the New England chapter of the Community Associations Institute. And though it can sometimes feel hopeless, sometimes all it takes is explaining to residents, in a nice way, the basic facts of co-op and condo life.
But what do you say? How should you phrase it? Keeping emotion out of your conversations with co-op / condo owners, while not sounding uncaring and like you're just spouting talking points, isn't always easy, especially with your more contentious residents. That's why Aronson's five tips for what to say and how to say it can come in handy. A soft answer turneth away wrath — and Ruth and Ralph and most any other resident with one of these typical areas of complaint.
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I get calls all the time from the board members and property managers suing or being sued by their co-op or condo's residents. But if you can spend a few minutes talking calmly, without either side shouting or filing legal briefs, you almost always can explain some of the details of co-op/condo living that many of your residents don't entirely understand.
1) Maintenance, Common Charges and Special Assessments Aren't Optional
The law in this area is about as clear as the law can be: Co-op shareholders have to pay monthly maintenance and condo unit-owners have to pay common charges for the upkeep of the building's common areas and facilities, from the lobby to the boiler, and they're obliged to pay a special assessment if the board levies one.
If a resident thinks the fees are too high or question the need for an assessment, then offer an explanation or allow them to review the documentation. But the monthly fee and any assessments are like taxes: A resident has the right to challenge them, but they have to pay them first. Gently remind them that all of this is spelled out in the proprietary lease or the condominium documents they reviewed before you purchased the apartment.
2) Remind Them They Aren't Tenants — They're Owners
Co-op shareholders and condo unit-owners often act more like apartment tenants, assuming that they have the same right to withhold monthly fees that tenants have to withhold rent from the landlord. The thing to remind them is that the cooperative corporation or the condominium association isn't their landlord: It's a representative of all the unit owners, including them. If they withhold their monthly payment, they're really withholding it, at least partly, from themselves. Without these monthly payments, the co-op or condo cannot operate or provide services.
This us against them mentality doesn't make much sense. Board members aren't the evil empire, but owners just like them. Board members have to pay the monthly charges, too, and if the board approves a special assessment to finance an unanticipated and un-budgeted expense, board members have to pay that as well.
3) We Live in a Representative Government. That's a Good Thing.
Residents all like the idea that the co-op or condo board, or the management company it hires, will handle all the administrative details, pay the bills, coordinate maintenance and repairs and generally make sure everything runs smoothly. But hardly anyone likes the notion that the duly elected board members can make decisions that affect them.
Yet just like most of the modern Western civilization, including this country itself, that is the essence of a representative government, which is what a co-op or condo board is. The failure to grasp that central point is responsible for a lot of unnecessary conflict in many co-op/condo communities. But if your residents understand that you're a mini-government, just like the one that's worked for well over 200 years here, they may appreciate the concept better.
Next page: The #4-5 Areas of Complaint >>
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