ABSURD IS THE WORD
Her name was Kim and she lived in Forest Hills, New York, in a 100-unit cooperative. She was on the board and was talking, with great animation, about a shareholder who had “disappeared” and mysteriously left his apartment empty. My ears perked up. Was this a story of drama and intrigue, one that would offer new insights into board life?
Kim continued with her story, telling me that the board was going to seize the apartment in lieu of rent. Kim’s place was right next door to the missing resident’s unit, and images of apartment expansion danced in her head. She naturally recused herself from any future discussion of the disposition of the place, and then successfully bid on the property at auction.
Another woman, Marta, who is on the board of a 90-unit complex in Riverdale, spoke to me just as freely about the recent challenges her co-op encountered. About four years ago, they successfully took on their former sponsor in court over various issues relating to the apartments he still owned. While she was a little skimpy on details, the upshot is the board managed to wrest ownership of the units away from the sponsor. This created quite a windfall for the co-op. There were apparently vacant apartments in the package, as well as ones inhabited by disturbed people (hoarders) who soon departed. Eventually, the board had a collection of units it could sell. It did – and realized a windfall that was eventually used for capital projects.
A popular catchphrase on TV when I was growing up back in the Stone Age was, “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.” Well, it still applies (although I think that eight million figure has to be revised). Co-op and condo board members always have a story to tell, sometimes with a tiny, obvious lesson (“Avoid conflicts of interest”), other times with a broader message (“Taking on the sponsor may help you in your financial future”).
But is it any wonder that they talk? They are reaching out, trying to make sense of the situation they find themselves in. Think about it. Being on a board is a crazy idea. If it were a play it would be by that master of the absurd, Pirandello (call it Seven Board Members in Search of Consensus). In what other multimillion-dollar corporation will you find inexperienced amateurs running the show? It’s a wonder that co-ops and condos don’t go belly-up every day.
And that brings me back to Kim and Marta. I didn’t just run into them on the street. I met them on Wednesday, December 4, as they came to educate themselves at the Argo Real Estate “University for Boards,” one of a series of seminars staged by Argo to provide a little learning for its clients. Since there is no formal training or licensing requirements for boards, they have to take the initiative and seek out formal training on their own.
“We try to offer them answers,” Mark Feinberg, Argo’s chief financial officer, said to me at one point. “We have had a very positive response to our University for Boards,” which is not dissimilar to other seminar programs offered by management firms and by the Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums.
The December 4 session, “Approved or Declined,” at the Beacon Hotel on the Upper West Side, found dozens of board members gathering for a discussion about the approval process. “They don’t know what they don’t know,” an Argo manager said to me, sounding very Zen-like. “This is about a little learning.”
And, where boards are concerned, a little learning has to go a long way. Otherwise, you may not be appearing in a Pirandello play at all, but instead find yourself in a not-so-amusing domestic tragedy called Crash and Burn.
Habitat, February, 2014