Bill Morris in Bricks & Bucks on June 22, 2022
About five years ago, questions began to circulate in the 150-unit Park Vanderbilt co-op in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, a seven-story brick building near the southern flank of Prospect Park. Why do I have to fill out a triplicate paper form if I want the super to fix a hole in a window screen? Why do 200-page paper application packages from potential buyers need to get copied, then sent to members of the admissions committee, then shredded – while a single copy gets stored in the co-op’s bulging file cabinets? Why do all shareholders have to gather on a specified day in the lobby to elect board members by casting paper ballots?
“It was mystifying and frustrating if you wanted to get things done,” says Jeff Allred, 50, a college English professor who ran for the nine-member board more than three years ago and now serves as president. “In the past five years people have questioned why the system is so onerous — and if it would be possible to streamline it.”
Allred was originally elected to a three-year term along with two similarly tech-inclined shareholders — Hugh Walton, now vice president, and Joan Wan, the treasurer. Working with the property manager, Mark Nathanson of EBMG, they set about shifting the co-op’s culture from its paper past to a digital future.
First up was a revamp of the outdated website. “Hugh spearheaded the redesign,” Allred says. “He made it more attractive but, more importantly, he included all the documents — bylaws, the occupancy agreement, house rules, the decorating and renovation agreement. Now there’s a simple web form in addition to the old triplicate paper form if you need the super to fix something.”
An even bigger challenge was streamlining the application process. As a member of the admissions committee, Allred realized that if the system didn’t change, the board was going to have to keep buying file cabinets to store copies of application packages — after creating, sharing, then destroying 1,000 pages of paper for each apartment purchase. Application packages are now disseminated to committee members on a PDF, which is placed in a cloud-based Dropbox with a link that expires after a prescribed number of days.
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“Some board members raised questions about document security,” Allred says. “In some ways it’s more secure since there are no paper documents that you might forget to shred. On the other hand, if you attach the documents to an email, they can sit there forever and get hacked. I noticed that our attorney was using a cloud-based Drop Box for sensitive documents, so that’s what we did.”
The co-op’s move to digital got an unexpected assist from the COVID-19 pandemic. With in-person gathering no longer possible, the board worked with its management company and attorney to create a simple Google form for voting, which shareholders could submit during the two weeks prior to the virtual annual meeting, which was accessible by land-line telephone. No more gathering in the lobby on a specified date. Paper ballots and proxies remained an option to electronic voting.
“It has been wildly popular and has actually increased participation in elections,” Allred says. “Many shareholders have approached the board and thanked us.”
The co-op is a mix of younger couples with children and long-time residents who, in some cases, don’t own a computer or a smart phone. In deference to the latter, the paper option always remains available. If there’s a water shutdown in a line of apartments, for instance, the building-wide email blast is still accompanied by a paper note slipped under every apartment door.
But the volume of paper is way down, and Allred believes it will continue to decline in the coming years — while savings continue to increase. He’s not alone.
“There are so many advantages to having less paper,” says Mark Levine, president of EBMG. “Space gets freed up. It’s easier to have continuity if everything is stored digitally. It’s helpful to managers because we can answer questions on the fly. And it saves money and time.”
PRINCIPAL PLAYERS — PROPERTY MANAGER: EBMG. ATTORNEY: Armstrong Teasdale.
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