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, May 2009

From the Editor 9: Procedure

by | Nov 5, 2019 | Articles, Habitat 1982- Present


By Tom Soter

Although the apartment was supposed to be empty, the treasurer of our small, Upper West Side co-op – who lived across the hallway – was sure he had heard noises coming from inside. Not believing in ghosts – at least, not the supernatural kind – but still feeling that there is safety in numbers, he asked me to join him in his investigation.

We knocked on the door. It was answered not by a poltergeist but by a balding, slightly nervous, middle-aged man.

“Yes?” he said, opening the door slightly and peering out, like a character from a Dickens novel.

“We thought we heard a dog barking in your apartment,” I said.

“Dog – there’s no dog here. I’m, ah, watching TV. Perhaps you heard that.”

Before we got too far, I decided to level with him. “Look,” I said, “we’re from the board. Where are the owners of this apartment?”

The man laughed and then smiled weakly. “He’s away. I’m staying here.” He paused. “Can’t I?”

I felt like the landlord heavy in a Lillian Gish silent weepie, evicting the penniless tenant who had pleaded with me for clemency. “It’s not a question of can you,” explained the treasurer, “it’s just about proper procedure. We have to know who’s living in the building for the protection of the building.”

We finally worked it all out with the owner and allowed the sublet, but why is the concept of procedure so hard to grasp? Many residents seem to think the board is made up of nosy busybodies who have nothing better to do than pry into the affairs of the residents (believe me, I could care less what goes on in most apartments). Yet the belief persists that the directors are National Inquirer wannabes, searching out scandal and dirt.

For instance, there’s the young man who lives upstairs (we’ll call him Jack, though of course that’s not his real name). Now Jack is not the original owner of the apartment. His parents bought it some years ago when Jack was just a tyke. Jack Senior, his dad, was always a friendly guy, but – as my mother used to say about questionable characters – he smiled too much. You always got the feeling that he was hiding something from you. And he usually was – like the time we found he had constructed an illegal wall in his unit (he had to take it down), or the other time when he did some rewiring that our super said was improperly done. When confronted with these sorts of things, he always gave a Peter Lorre kind of smile – and it usually took repeated calls and letters to get him to fix them.

One day, I met Jack Senior and his wife (also a smiler) with all their furniture in the lobby. Although we had procedures for moving in and out – a fee had to be deposited with us to cover damages to the wall, for instance, and the super had to be given notice to inspect those walls both before and after – Jack S. had not notified anyone.

“Moving out, Jack?” I asked.

“No, no. We’re just moving our furniture to another place,” he said, which I guess he figured was not, technically, moving out.

I didn’t push it, but we didn’t see much more of Jack S. after that. (In an odd coincidence, he and his wife were later sighted as happy residents at a large hi-rise about ten blocks from us by a former board member who had moved into that building, too – although she gave us fair warning.) We saw a lot more of Jack Jr., however, who also smiled often but who also freely told us that he had taken over the family homestead. Although we were a bit ruffled by this end-run around our carefully constructed rules, he wasn’t actually a sublessee or even a new owner, so we didn’t need to be told. He was just a family member who had grown up there and moved back in after college. So much for procedure.

I still think he smiles too much.


from May 2009