Bill Morris in Board Operations on November 4, 2021
It’s about time. Finally, Hollywood has awakened to the comedic possibilities of life inside a New York City housing cooperative – including the conduct of an imperious co-op board president, nosy shareholders, abrasive shareholders, a bassoonist, the viral podcast of a trio of shareholders and, for good measure, a suicide that might have been a murder.
Only Murders in the Building is the name of the hit TV show – and the podcast within the show – that has just completed its first season on the Hulu streaming service. It stars Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez as the inquisitive shareholders whose investigation of a neighbor’s suicide brings their co-op unwanted notoriety – their fictional Arconia co-op becomes known as “the murder building.” Their true-crime podcast also brings down the wrath of their fellow shareholders and the aforementioned imperious board president.
The situation is played for laughs, but it contains serious lessons for co-op boards, according to Deborah Koplovitz, a partner at the law firm Herrick Feinstein. In the penultimate episode of the first season, for example, the three podcasters are hauled before a meeting of all shareholders in the co-op’s ornate lobby. (The show is actually set in the elegant Belnord Condominium at the corner of Broadway and West 86th Street on the Upper West Side.) The board president asks for a show of hands from people who want to toss the offending threesome out of the cooperative. Just about every right hand shoots into the air. The trio is history.
“That was totally wrong!” Koplovitz says in the tone of voice lawyers use in courtrooms when crying Objection! “You have to follow procedures. Boards have to first give the offender a warning about objectionable conduct and a time frame to stop it. If the shareholder doesn’t correct it, then the board has to call a special meeting that’s noticed properly. Usually the board does it without calling in all shareholders, just meets with the offender. Sometimes the shareholder falls on his sword and asks for a second or third chance. Sometimes the shareholder asks for time to sell the apartment, because if they get evicted they lose a valuable asset. And sometimes the board files a lawsuit seeking a judgment of possession. As long as the board follows proper procedures, courts will not second-guess them because of the Business Judgment Rule.”
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The show has less serious hiccups, in Koplovitz’s view. Noise complaints, that staple of co-op life, get glossed over. One shareholder is a bassoonist, and when she practices, many of her neighbors can hear it. “But nobody complained,” Koplovitz says, unable to mask her disbelief. “People in a New York co-op definitely would have complained about it.”
And the board president, Bunny, played by Jayne Houdyshell, is a caricature of the fire-breathing, power-drunk co-op board president of legend. “She was great,” Koplovitz says with a chuckle. “We’ve all seen her before.” But she quickly adds: “Actually, I think most board presidents are very capable, and they’re doing the job for the right reasons.”
But the show, hiccups aside, raises important questions. “Where do you draw the line on objectionable conduct?” Koplovitz says. “Does it extend to behavior – like a popular podcast – that injures the reputation of the building? Is that enough? I guess it could be.”
Another question: Was the summary ouster of the three podcasters the only way to resolve the misgivings of the board and the majority of the shareholders? “I’m a big believer in harmony,” Koplovitz says. “Were there less onerous, more creative means that this board could have turned to? That’s always worth asking.”
The first season ends with a cliffhanger – a second shareholder is murdered in the co-op. Without playing spoiler, let’s just say that the cliffhanger will serve as a warning to all of the imperious, domineering, rules-flouting co-op board presidents in the city. It’s a reminder that what goes around, comes around. And that’s no laughing matter, on television or in real life.
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