Bill Morris & Carol J. Ott in Board Operations on September 9, 2022
She was named the Lolita, a beauty with French Renaissance flourishes that rose to the imposing height of six stories. The prewar year was 1888 — that is, pre-Spanish-American War. To the north was farmland, across the street was the rolling greenery of the city’s newest amenity, Central Park.
Flash forward a century to May 1982. New York City was in rough shape, and the Lolita’s owner, Joseph Schwenger, wanted to convert the building from a rental to a cooperative. Among the tenants who decided to buy their apartments were Herb Chase, a medical student, and his wife, Beverly, a law student. Beverly wound up serving on the tenants’ committee that negotiated with the sponsor.
“Joseph Schwenger was very reasonable — he wasn’t greedy,” says Beverly, who still serves on the co-op board.
The insider price for the Chases’ apartment was $91,300; they got it for about $65,000. “I think we got a fair deal,” Beverly says.
Their 20-unit co-op at the southwest corner of 83rd Street and Central Park West, born the same month as Habitat magazine, has spent the past four decades on a journey familiar to thousands of co-ops across the city. The first order of business was assembling a board, then figuring out how to run the building like a business — to instill in residents that they were no longer renters but were now homeowners and shareholders in a corporation.
“One of the challenges for many years was being sensitive to the disparate financial resources of the residents,” Beverly says. “So when something needed to be addressed that required a maintenance increase or an assessment or a loan, the board tried to be really sensitive.”
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Jeffrey Sosnick, the current president, has also served on the board since the beginning. Another early challenge, according to Sosnick, was to educate board members about the split nature of their position. “One of the things I discovered very early on,” he says, “was that board members tended to wear one hat, which was their shareholder hat. And it took a long time to realize that as board members, we needed to take off our shareholder hat and put on our board hat, because sometimes what’s in the best interest for the entire building might have a little bit of pain associated with it. It might be a maintenance increase or a project that’s going to take a long time, but in the end it will be the right thing to do. So my long-term goal, in tandem with our professionals, was to educate and to identify potential board members who shared that vision. It took us a while, because the first 10 years were very stressful.”
Today, says Debbie von Ahrens, who moved into the building in the early 1990s and served on the board for several years, “it’s a very friendly building.”
One reason for that, in Sosnick’s opinion, is because the shareholders always know what the board is doing. “Everything we do of any importance is immediately communicated to the shareholders,” he says. “When we go into an annual shareholder meeting, the treasurer and I will prepare a financial spreadsheet of our reserve account that digs down into every expenditure, where it went, why it was spent, what it is. In our 40-year history, we’ve only had one assessment, in 2011 for $70,000. I think it’s really crucial to earn the trust of everybody.”
This board, like all boards, worries about what Sosnick calls the “imponderables” — rising taxes, inflation and the costs of energy and of complying with the Climate Mobilization Act. But there’s a sense among the shareholders that, after starting from scratch 40 years ago, their co-op has arrived in a good place.
“We feel lucky to live here,” Beverly Chase says. “There’s an esprit.”
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