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, April 2009
From the Editor 8: Boards
SHIP OF FOOLS
By Tom Soter
Serving on a co-op board can be fun. People stopping you in the hall to tell you why they feel you’re not doing your job correctly. People explaining to you at annual shareholders’ meetings why they have a better plan for handling that flip tax proposal that you spent hours creating. (But do you want to serve on the flip tax committee? “No I’m sorry, who has the time?”) Other people writing you a letter addressed to “That bunch of Nazis who run the building.”
Yeah, serving on the board is a barrel of laughs.
Nonetheless, someone’s got to do it, and with my experience at Habitat, I was not only a natural but, as my boss told me, I was born to run (but how fast and in which direction would eventually be the questions of the day).
It’s become a cliché of the co-op and condo world that serving on the board is a thankless task. It’s also become standard to poke fun at service (see, I’ve done it here to open this tale of woe – there! I did it again). You can’t help it. Sure, they say comedy helps you keep your sanity – that life is a big joke and it only hurts if you don’t laugh – but come on, the very idea of a co-op/condo board is fertile ground for satire. Where else would you find the patients running the asylum? Or, to be kinder and more truthful: who in his right mind would entrust million-dollar-plus corporations to a bunch of amateurs – and volunteers to boot – who are learning about flip taxes, boilers, and arcane real estate law as they go along? Wasn’t the lesson of George W. Bush enough?
Of course, I’m not alone in my ruminations. Countless managing agents have complained to me – albeit off the record – about the idiocy of boards. “These people are morons,” said one agent with exasperation, as he went off on a diatribe detailing the ridiculous antics of one property he handled. Another said almost the same thing and added: “I don’t know why I don’t resign the account.”
Or why I don’t leave the board. I tried. Really I did. After 12 years of service, I thought I had done my time and stepped down. I was free! Free at last! Things went smoothly for a while, until I heard rumblings from the treasurer, who had worked with me to build up our reserves into a mighty fund, about his continuing adventures on the board. The new president – who was an investor and didn’t live there – apparently said at one meeting, “We’re sitting on a lot of money in the reserve account. We should spend some of it.” And spend they did. The exterior entrance to the basement had a perfectly acceptable steel fence surrounding it. That was replaced with two majestic brick walls on either side (unfortunately, they were installed crookedly). The front door steps to the building itself were getting a little worn. So they were replaced with beautiful green tiles that were easier for the super to clean because of their glossy sheen (but which also made them easier to slip on when wet).
The last straw, however, was the storage space. Years before, we had a carpenter construct 22 storage bins in three empty rooms in the basement. They were fairly standard: an inexpensive wood frame with a wire-mesh door so you could see inside. Well, the manager and non-resident president convinced a majority of the board that these bins were sub-par. What replaced them was, if anything, over-par. Beautifully built, laminated, completely enclosed wooden bins that were pretty enough to live in (if you didn’t mind the cramped quarters). Naturally, as our next super later pointed out when he saw them, the lamination (and extensive amount of wood) made them a fire hazard; and it was dangerous not being able to see inside (we later found people were storing paint in them). That’s not even mentioning the one bin that was built over a drain, which caused extensive flooding when it rained. (Oh, and did I mention the price tag: with unforeseen extras, it came to a cool grand for each bin. Ouch!)
That got me back on the board. Pronto. I’d like to say that I rode to the rescue and saved the building tons of money. But I didn’t. I made my share of well-meaning blunders, too, and for all my Habitat-gained knowledge, I could be as naïve and inept in my decision-making as the next fellow.
But what has kept me on the board for all these years – and I guess what really made me want to return – is the sense of responsibility, dedication, and concern for their neighbors’ well being that seems to motivate each of those unsung heroes who serve. It may be that board service is a big joke but the cliché is true; it is a thankless job. So, let me say a big “thank you” to all the amateurs and know-nothings, who endure the jokes and the insults and the time lost as they spend countless hours trying to (and usually succeeding in) making their brick-and-mortar enclaves into something very special: a bona fide community. Thanks, all – and don’t forget to dodge that brickbat!
from April 2009