Building management in a Riverdale co-op has sent out several notices requesting that residents wear masks at all times when in the common areas of the buildings – a common occurrence in co-ops and condos across the city. But this Riverdale co-op took it a step further, writing an email threatening to assess fines to any resident who fails to comply with the requirements. Do co-op boards have the authority to assess fines for failure to wear masks?
Some co-ops do have the power to fine shareholders for violating building rules, replies the Ask Real Estate column in the New York Times. Such power will be spelled out in the governing documents. Even buildings without the explicit authority to fine shareholders sometimes do it anyway, though such moves don’t usually hold up in court, according to Dennis Greenstein, a partner at the law firm Seyfarth Shaw.
If your co-op fines you once and you refuse to pay, the board might tack the charge onto your maintenance bill, where it would stay until you sell or refinance your mortgage. Presumably, you would settle the charge at that time. However, if you continue to violate the mask rule after a fine, the board could levy a second one and start a case against you for defaulting on the proprietary lease. In an absolute worst-case scenario, the shareholder could lose the apartment.
“It’s like being in arrears and you don’t cure it,” Greenstein says.
So consider the email about the fine a warning. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order requires New Yorkers to wear masks in public spaces, and that includes common areas of buildings such as hallways, elevators, laundry rooms and lobbies. But state guidelines for residential properties do not include any enforcement measures from the city, so co-op and condo boards and their managers are left to police residents and visitors on this issue. If residents are flouting a rule intended to protect the public’s health, the board might see fines as a way to get their attention.
It would be wrong for disgruntled shareholders to view the fine as a revenue stream for the building. Rather, it’s a tool to compel people to follow a public-health rule. Some co-ops have had large numbers of cases of COVID-19 among shareholders or staff. Others have older, high-risk populations. Perhaps some staff members are at high risk for complications from COVID-19, or they’re concerned that residents are putting them at risk by refusing to comply with the rules. The email may be enough to convince people to wear masks when they can’t socially distance. Rather than worrying about the legality of a fine, though, maybe people should just put on a mask. It’s a proven method for slowing the spread of the coronavirus. And it’s not a big ask.
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