Should boards spend time and energy focusing on vulnerable residents before a problem arises? Habitat discusses the options with Helene Hartig, principal at Hartig Law.
Almost every co-op or condo has residents who are vulnerable – that is, either elderly, disabled or ill. Should boards spend time and energy focusing on this issue before a problem arises?
I think it's a prudent business decision to be proactive before there’s a problem. If an individual is either physically or mentally disabled, they may need some assistance to pay their monthly bills. In addition, when the time comes and apartment has to be vacated or sold, you want all the pieces in place so there is an orderly transition without having to go through a protracted process in court. Finally, you want to make sure your building is not liable in the case of accidents. Boards should have a clear plan of action for the future.
What should that plan include?
It could be as simple as having up-to-date contact information so the building would be able to reach family members when there’s an emergency. It could also involve having a resident relations committee that works directly with owners who might need assistance.
What exactly is a resident relations committee?
Typically, it’s composed of people who have been in the building a long time and know those residents who are vulnerable or struggling. They could offer to help with shopping or bookkeeping. If they haven’t seen somebody for a while, they might check in on that person and make sure they’re okay.
Would they step in when problems arise?
Yes. For example, if there are complaints about smells coming from the apartment, a roach infestation or constant leaks, somebody could knock on the door and say, “Hey, how are you doing? Is there anything we can do for you?” That way you avoid embarrassing the person, as well as spending a lot of time and money going through a legal process.
So this committee addresses problems before they reach the board level.
It's the committee before the committee, so to speak. They can also enlist the help of the super, who can talk to the resident, look around the apartment and take pictures to document the situation. You want to have all that in the event there is legal action down the road. And even if there isn’t, you’ll have documentation to show to family members or present to the board if need be.
Have you ever had experience with this kind of problem?
Many times. I'm president of my building’s board, and we had one extreme case of a distressed resident who was going through hard times and would go up to the roof terrace and dangle his toes over the edge. The police had to chase him down the staircase – unfortunately, while people were trying to show apartments. He was in and out of the hospital, so I took the initiative and called his parents. We informed them that he had been hospitalized four times in one month, and his own struggles aside, he was screaming in the middle of the night and creating issues for other owners. But they were in denial.
Sounds like a nightmare. Were you able to resolve it?
Before we went to counsel and started serving notices, we told his family they absolutely needed to get involved if they wanted to avoid legal action. And thank goodness they did, and got him the help he needed. Now he’s stable, and he’s a model resident once again. It was a win-win for everybody.