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River Terrace Fixes a Toxic Culture

Carol J. Ott in Board Operations on May 29, 2018

Washington Heights, Manhattan

Mark Hines 2
May 29, 2018

Mark Hines grew up in River Terrace, a Mitchell-Lama co-op on Riverside Drive West between 155th and 158th Streets, facing the Hudson River. After graduating from Princeton with a degree in computer science, Hines traveled and then worked on Wall Street for five years. He got married, settled in Hoboken, focused on arts and music production. When children came along, he knew he wanted them to grow up at River Terrace. He put his name on the waiting list for an apartment, and when one became available in 1999, the Hines family moved in. 

At the urging of his father, Hines began attending board meetings and reading reports. He was shocked by what he found. First, there was a deficit of nearly $500,000. Second, board meetings weren’t just negative, there was “really bad behavior. It wasn’t just the information I was finding out,” he recalls. “It was how the meetings were run, how information was shared, how board members treated each other. So many things were wrong.” 

At an annual meeting, Hines listened as the accountant explained the deficit, repeatedly pointing to “fixed” costs, in particular oil. “This was annoying me,” Hines says. “I understand it is an accounting principle, but we needed to unfix it. If oil decides to go up X amount every year, we will die.” 

So, in 2013 Hines got elected to the board, serving as vice president. He was driven by one major concern – he wanted to be able to provide the same experience to his children that he had when he grew up in River Terrace. “How do I protect that?” Hines asked himself. “My children won’t be able to have it if this is what’s going on, that’s for sure.” 

The first thing Hines did after he became vice president was to confront the toxic environment. He insisted that the culture had to change so that the focus would be on solutions, not blame. “Let’s identify the problem,” he would tell his fellow board members. “Let’s look at what our options are, and let’s make an informed decision.” 

So the board put together an extensive analysis of the co-op’s current situation and its plan to rectify it, and distributed the report to all shareholders. The analysis revealed a backlog of arrears; a trajectory of rising fuel costs; stalled and now outdated capital projects; an unpaid loan from the New York City Housing Development Corporation (HDC); and an outdated commitment to self-management. There was also an ever-increasing deficit projected for the next three years if maintenance was not raised. 

Under Hines’s leadership, the board abandoned self-management and hired Metro Management. It began collecting a large backlog of arrears. It switched the boilers from oil to natural gas, then went the extra mile and installed solar panels and a cogeneration system

Under Hines’s leadership, the board unfixed those “fixed” energy costs. In the process, they fixed River Terrace as well.

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