Since 1982, Tom Soter has been an editor at Habitat magazine, the definitive publication for boards of cooperatives and condominiums in New York City.
From HABITAT, September 2008
From the Editor 1: Rats
THINGS THAT GO BUMP IN THE NIGHT
By Tom Soter
“The building is overrun by rats,” Ellen Kornfeld, vice president of the Lovett Company, said to me at a recent meeting, and as she spoke, I had a fleeting image of a scene out of Willard or Ben, the rats-are-out-to-get-you horror flicks of the 1970s. “It”s not over yet,” she said, citing an 80-unit Upper West Side building she had recently begun managing. “I’m in the throes of dealing with it.”
Her words reminded me of my own, much smaller cooperative in Manhattan, and its battle with rodents last year. The ground-floor residents had first reported the rats, and the five of us on the board – I am the president – asked the manager to look into it immediately. Kornfeld’s board also responded quickly but simply told her to hire an exterminator. She suggested that before they do that, they should get an analysis done of the 102-year-old building. “Very often, the attitude is: ‘Rats, schmatz, what can you do? Everybody has rats.’ One board member even said to me, ‘I’m not going to spend the money on a building analysis; just get the exterminator.’ I wish it were that simple.”
Her reasoning was clear: the exterminator can kill the rats, but unless you get to the heart of the problem – their entry and exit points into the property – you might win the battle but lose the war. “An exterminator can do the job from the outside, but you can’t blame the exterminator [for failing] if the building doesn’t so what it has to do to get things under control on a preventive measure.”
I remembered our building’s problem: we had simply hired an exterminator who came by multiple times a week, placing traps with poison. But like the multi-headed Hydra of myth, they never seemed to stay dead for long. As one died, two more seemed to take its place, a situation that was, in part, caused by a poor tenant education program on my board’s part. Residents would leave the garbage can lids ajar and the rats would climb in, only to leap out of the cans when you went to deposit the trash. (Once, our super actually trapped one in a can and – well, I won’t describe the gory details beyond saying that it was an epic battle.) We also had restaurants on either side of our building that were supplying attractive lures – ill-packaged waste products – to the creatures.
Kornfeld’s property had different woes, however: the rear courtyard was crumbling, a drain had collapsed, and a retaining wall was in disrepair. All three offered hiding places and/or entry spots for our modern-day Bens. “I’m also dealing with a property that owns a neighboring lot. You’ve got that vacant lot contributing to your condition, you’ve got Central Park across the street, and with all the construction going on – every time you rip up the street, or you knock down a building you contribute to the problem.”
The situation was becoming intolerable, she noted with dismay. “We’ve just planted beautiful flowers at the entrance of the building. And we’re talking a gorgeous building – it looks like the Dakota. You’re talking 12-room apartments, in some instances, quite lovely. We have a circular planter when you come into the building, and the rats, brazen as they are, went into the circular planters and dug out the plants.”
The planter assault proved too much for the board’s resistance to spending money – “Once the people are afraid of rats getting into their apartments, they will do whatever they have to do,” Kornfeld explained to me – and the manager got her way. A building-wide inspection was conducted and a number of suggested steps were undertaken: new concrete was poured in the courtyard, new sealed steel sheds were put out for garbage – “I think every building at the very least should keep garbage in a sealed container. I’m shocked they didn’t have this already” – and there are plans to rip out the sidewalk and plug all the holes. The total cost? Between $300,000 and $400,000.
My much smaller building had a much smaller bill – $5,000 – but that was still too high by our standards. Unlike Kornfeld’s property, we had just hired a man to come by and bait traps. At $75 a visit, that was an awful lot of baiting. We told our manager each month that we wanted to terminate the exterminator as too pricey, but, like the rats themselves, he wouldn’t go away. Either because our agent didn’t tell him or because of an Ahab-like obsession with our rodents, the man kept returning every few days. Unnoticed by anyone, he would silently bait the traps, and then just as silently depart, leaving little Kilroyesque notes for us that he had been there. Besides our concern over security – how did he keep getting in? – we were frustrated by our inability to fire him. Some $2,000 later, however, he finally got the message: he was history. We didn’t pay the extra money and we never saw the little man again. We also got rid of the rats eventually, thanks to our super’s diligent efforts.
As for Kornfeld? Her approach seems as methodical as it is practical and has a good chance of success. “Every board tries to get their building so buttoned up and tight that the rats go somewhere else,” she said. “That’s what’s happened at the building next door – they redid their backyard, they redid everything in their building so the rats can’t go there. If they can’t go in, they go elsewhere. We’ve got to do the same thing.” She added: “You know, we have this notion that rats only go into slums. That’s not true. They go everywhere.”