New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

HABITAT

QUEENS

It was a freak storm but it saved the co-op $2.5 million. At least that's one way some might look at it.

Tennis View Apartments, the 177-unit co-op located in the posh Forest Hills Gardens homeowners association in Queens, is part of a small enclave designed in the early twentieth century by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., son of the renowned landscape architect who helped shape Central and Prospect Parks. The lush landscaping was inspired by the "garden city movement," which aimed to create green oases amidst urban centers. Many of the buildings — a mix of single-family homes, cottages, and apartment buildings — are in the Tudor style, with brick walls, exposed timbers, and terra-cotta roof tiles.

How did a 150-unit co-op in Queens, which still had more than half its apartments under sponsor control, go from normal to nightmare? The tale starts with a somewhat mundane transaction that hit a snag. The sponsor of 87-10 51st Avenue Owners Corp., the Birchwood Organization, decided to sell its entire portfolio of 600 unsold units to a real estate developer named Myles Horn. Included in the portfolio were 81 rent-regulated and market-rate apartments in the Elmhurst co-op. Horn recalls that he had the units under contract but was stymied by Robert Valdes-Clausell, the co-op's live-in building manager who "refused to do the ministerial act of transferring the shares of stock to [him]. Normally they cannot refuse to do so, but they did." Birchwood asked the real estate developer if it could "go ahead and sell [Horn] all of [its] other unsold units and [leave the Elmhurst apartments out of the sale]." Birchwood was worried it might end up in a lawsuit with the Elmhurst co-op. Horn agreed to the deal… wisely.

Talk about getting saved in the nick of time. The owner of Shirokia Tower, a condo in Flushing, Queens, facing foreclosure, was about to see the building auctioned off. Nearly 100 investors showed up ready to place their bids. All of them went home disappointed, reported the New York Daily News, after "a big time real estate investor… salvage[d] the project." Madison Realty Capital really wants to tap the Flushing market. To that end, it seized its chance, providing a "$14 million mortgage to recapitalize Shirokia Tower, allowing the owner of the property to hang on to it." Things seem to have worked out for this Queens condo, thanks to its "white knight." But buildings can end up in financial difficulties for a variety of reasons, one of them being sponsor defaults — if that's the case, then relying on a so-called white knight might not be the best solution

Back in the day, people who couldn't afford to live in pricey Manhattan would take the next best thing. The goal was a nice apartment in a nice neighborhood in one of the outer boroughs with a commute that wasn't too tedious. The payoff was that rents were significantly cheaper in the outer boroughs — even in Brooklyn. But times have changed, and as Brickunderground astutely notes, the price difference between Brooklyn and Manhattan is shrinking. First quarter 2015 sales reports generated by real estate firms like Douglas Elliman confirm that "Brooklyn has set a new record for median sales price, coming in at $610,894 — that's a 17.5 percent increase over the same time last year." It's not news for people who have been priced out of Brooklyn. Brooklynites have been scrambling out of their home borough in search of better prices for a few years now. Some of those folks have ended up in Queens. The good news is that, according to Douglas Eliman's report, the median sales price there is still nearly $200,000 less than it is in Brooklyn. The sobering news is that it's increased by 20.7 percent compared to last year. So it looks like for co-op and condo buyers the time to consider Queens is now, and don't forget that all eyes are also now on The Bronx

Photo credit: Postdlf for English language Wikipedia, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Changing managers should be as simple as changing dance partners. It can be — but it can also be fraught with problems — if the board isn't on top of the situation. David Fox knows. He is the board president at the 134-unit Linden Towers Cooperative No. 1 in Flushing, Queens. A retired laboratory technologist, he has lived in the building since 1976 and has served on the board for 30 years, the last three as president. The co-op has gone through several management companies over the years. In the 1960s, its management firm was indicted for stealing co-op funds. That company's successor worked well until the founder retired and service began to decline. The next company was based in Yonkers, and the manager was rarely sighted on the Linden Towers property. "We had to do more and more work as a board," Fox says. "It got ridiculous." 

Steve Day is satisfied. He wouldn't have said so just three years ago when the five-person board of his 490-unit Queens co-op faced ever-increasing energy costs. The decades-old windows of the 23-building garden apartment complex, The Estates at Bayside, were deteriorating, the roofs were leaking, and the six heating plants were unreliable. And it was all very costly.

"The windows we had were probably the second set of windows that were in here," says Day, "and we were having quite a few problems with them: they were leaky, they were drafty, and heat was just going right out."

The board decided to take on the problems one at a time, tackling the windows first.

A READER ASKS: I'm on the board of a midsize co-op in Queens. About six months ago, we started getting complaints from residents about one of the couples in the buildings, who have been shareholders for about a decade. The couple had been arguing loudly and it was becoming an issue — although police have never been called about domestic disturbances. Late last week, the wife let us know that she was filing for divorce. Although she was calm at first, she became very upset and told us that her soon-to-be ex-husband was moving out and we were to let the doorman know not to let him in. The rest of the board feels like she said this last part in the heat of the moment, but I think we should take the necessary steps to protect ourselves should this breakup turn nasty. Other than talk to our attorney, what else can we do, if anything at all? 

A co-op shareholder in Jackson Heights, Queens, tells Ronda Kaysen in the latest "Ask Real Estate" column in The New York Times that, although he is free to review the minutes from board meetings in the managing agent's office, the board and building's managing agent refuse to let him make a copy of those minutes. Is it true that there is no statutory authority allowing a co-op shareholder to make a photocopy of the documents? It certainly is, explains Kaysen, who adds that in fact, the board could prohibit the shareholder from even reviewing them, "although that scenario is unlikely to actually happen." Not all boards are created equal, Kaysen says. Some boards post minutes on the building's website while others prefer to control the flow of information. "If shareholders can make copies of the minutes, they can just as easily distribute that information to a much wider audience — like the Internet." And you know what they say: once something is on the Internet, it's there forever. 

Marilyn Profita and six other residents of the Meadowlark Gardens cooperative in Fresh Meadows, Queensran for the board in fall 2013, sweeping all seven seats. The group had quite a task ahead of them as they worked to turn things around at the eight-building, 288-unit co-op, which was in deplorable fiscal and physical shape.

Marilyn Profita, a retired teacher, moved into the Meadowlark Gardens cooperative in Fresh Meadows, Queens, in 2000. Since that time, she and the other shareholders have been subject to repeated assessments and maintenance increases — including back-to-back nine percent increases in the past two fiscal years. After getting nowhere with the board and the building's accountant, Profita decided to get legal help. In late 2012, she called Mark Hankin, a veteran real estate lawyer with the firm Hankin & Mazel. Speaking for a group of disgruntled shareholders at the eight-building, 288-unit co-op, Profita told Hankin that she and her group wanted to know what they could do about the co-op's deplorable fiscal and physical condition.

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