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, January 2010
From the Editor 15: Prisoners
NOW WE ARE SIX
I woke up in what seemed to be my bedroom.
But it was strangely different.
“Where am I?” I asked the shadowy figures standing before me.
“In a co-op.”
“What do you want?”
“A 50 percent maintenance increase.”
“You won’t get it.”
“By hook or by crook we will.”
“Whose side are you on?”
“That would be telling.”
“Who are you?”
“The new board of directors.”
“What happened to the old board?”
“You are Apartment Six.”
“I am not an apartment! I am a shareholder in a corporation!”
As the board members laughed maniacally, I woke up again – this time for real – in my own bed. I looked around; I looked under the bed – no shadowy figures, just the remnants of some cake and juice that I had the night before when I had been watching the new TV version of The Prisoner, which is based on the old TV version of The Prisoner created by and starring Patrick McGoohan, who went through a variation of the above exchange in almost every episode.
Both series are paranoid dramas, dealing with identity, community, and sense of self in an increasingly dehumanized age. In the original, McGoohan plays Number Six, the man-of-principle protagonist, a secret agent who resigns his job and finds himself trapped in a remote, seaside hamlet known only as The Village. There, everyone has a number, not a name, and the happy faces and carnival-like atmosphere mask a dark truth: the people in The Village are all prisoners, kept there because they know too much or won’t reveal enough.
McGoohan’s parable resonated in the rebellious, individualistic 1960s, and it has new meaning in the world of 21st century co-ops, where boards make decisions about a building’s finances, infrastructure, and quality of living, usually without consulting the shareholders or even communicating the reasons behind those decisions.
I thought about this after watching The Prisoner again (I had, of course, seen the original series many times in my youth). Shareholders, especially in bad economic times, must feel not unlike Number Six – prisoners in their ever-depreciating apartments with their fluctuating adjustable mortgages, wondering why the shadowy board of directors won’t allow sublets, forbids dogs, and seems to make most decisions arbitrarily. Do boards ever look at it from Number Six’s point of view?
With this in mind, I thought of the time, years ago, when my small building was faced with a large problem: a lax sublet policy had allowed the cooperative to fill up with renters; over 60 percent of the property was subleased. Our manager warned us that individuals would have trouble selling because banks would be reluctant to lend to a co-op stocked with a majority of non-owners (it makes the investment more unstable, we were informed, because those pesky renters don’t own, so they care less and damage more).
We then spent days (or was it just long hours?) researching other sublet policies, talking with different boards, and consulting various professionals, all to concoct what we saw as a fair and balanced policy, in which we put an ever-tightening cap on renters, with the aim of reducing their presence to zero over a period of years.
After we announced it, however, you’d think we had told everyone that we were going to set the building on fire. Even though we wrote a letter explaining our rationale, that didn’t stop one owner – who had subleased his unit more years than he had lived in it – from phoning me with the message, “The board is acting like a bunch of Nazis.” My own cousin, who was also subleasing a unit to renters, insisted that the board was “power mad.”
Did we seem like The Village authorities in The Prisoner? From our point of view, we were just doing what was right, but perhaps we should have done more than simply send out a letter announcing the new policy – maybe staging a town hall-style meeting in which we communicated more clearly why we were taking these steps.
We may have made a mistake. But at least we didn’t try to give them all numbers and take away their names. Hey! Maybe that’s not such a bad idea. It would certainly make things more businesslike.
from HABITAT, JANUARY 2010