From the Editor 24: Discipline

(DON'T) LET THEM EAT CAKE

from HABITAT, DECEMBER 2010

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:225:]]Being on a board is like being on a diet. You know it’s for your own good, but it can get very tedious. Sure, you should eat soup and salad but doesn’t the cream-filled chocoate cake seem so much tastier? It must be better for you, right? You feel good after eating it – until you’ve eaten so much that when you look down you can’t see your feet anymore.

That’s the way it feels to some boards. Sometimes, members spend an inordinate time on the tastier treats – redoing the lobby, adding a children’s playroom, and other useful amenities – that they neglect the salad portion of the meal – the nuts-and-bolts stuff like boiler maintenance – that should be kept up for the long-term health of the building but, because it is out of sight, it is easier to put out of your mind. Until that below-zero day comes around and your boiler has quit.

It has long been a common phenomenon in the world of co-ops and condos, starting with the gentrification process of the 1980s and 1990s that brought new wealth into old buildings. “Any neighborhood where the co-op conversion process is successful, you’ll find that co-ops provide stability,” attorney James Samson, a partner at Samson Fink & Dubow, said to me once. “Co-ops provide funds to fix up buildings and so the pioneers – like the Soho artists who bought their $30,000 lofts with $3,000 down and a $27,000 promisory note – are now all millionaires – and it has nothing to with their art. The problem is the guy who paid $1.8 million is living right above the person who paid $30,000 and he has a different motivation and a different economic perspective. The artists, the rent-controlled tenants, they want cheap living and maybe play it safe. The guy who pays a million dollars wants it to look really, really good and wants to make a statement not just inside the apartment but in the hallways outside as well.”

Neither the artists/rent-controlled tenants nor the newcomers, of course, paid much attention to the boiler back then. That was the owner’s job, right? But, hey, aren’t they the owners now? Doesn’t that make it their problem? That darn renter mentality is as hard to shake as a habit for milkshakes.

Indeed. It is important for boards to be on top of the situation. I remember our first superintendent. Ours is a small building, and he was only a part-time worker. But realizing that the super was the one we had to rely on, we paid him well for what he did, giving him a generous bonus each year, as well as substantial salary increases as the years went by.

We thought we were getting what we paid for. A man who would stay on top of little problems so they didn’t become big ones. Instead, we got chocolate cake. Not literally, of course: it was just that our super was nutso about cleaning the hallways. He would mop the six stories of our small building at least three times a week. And the front door! I don’t think a day went by when he wasn’t out front polishing the glass and the metal so that you could actually see yourself in it.

He was aided in his efforts by our in-house manager, an aggressive, loquacious man who also happened to be a shareholder in the building (that’s another story). This manager also preferred figurative cake over figurative salad. At least, some of the time. I remember he spent a lot of time choosing new light fixtures for the public hallways and even a new, large sign for the front door. And he was all for the new storage bins – so pretty with their varnished wood, so impractical since they were potential fire hazards.

Both men were well-intentioned and the board at the time was just as responsible for not taking more control. But like any dieter, control depends on how much self-discipline you have (or haven’t). I like to think the board has learned from its past “meals”: we recently had to put in a new intercom system. What we got was (relatively) inexpensive, works well, and is even lovely to look at (handsome silver metal).

Now, if only they could make a salad that tasted as good as blueberry pie. 

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