Many co-op and condo owners want to get involved in their community but they soon find out that being on the board is no picnic. Soon neighbors are pestering them asking for feuds to be settled, decisions that affect all resident’s lives have to be made, and then there are the books...financial matters that have to be addressed with little or no room for error. Knowing all of this, why do so many people decide to serve on a board—some for years at a time? Responsibilities, stress and pressure may build but believe it or not, there are benefits to being on a board.
Getting Blamed for Everything
Being a board member is tough. There are little thanks, if any. If anything isn't going the way someone thinks it should, it's easy to blame the people who are perceived to be in charge, even if that isn't really the case.
“When something goes wrong or if there is a problem residents won't really call the property manager, they'll complain to you because you're on the board and you’re accessible since you live there and are seen around the building,” explains Gregory Carlson, executive director of the Federation of New York Housing Cooperatives & Condominiums (FNYHC).
"It's an unappreciated job," says Manuel Cartagena, a board director at Gouverneur Gardens Housing Corporation in Manhattan. "No matter how much you try you always have people who will complain about something. There's shouting. People don't always agree."
In fact, many residents forget that the people who are on the board also live there and are subject to all of the same decisions that are made on behalf of the building. Elizabeth Purdie, a board member at The Tides Condo in Maspeth, Queens says, “We get blamed for everything, and very rarely given any credit for when we accomplish things. The residents blame us for raising their maintenance fees. When they complain to me, I tell them that I pay maintenance fees, too, and I'm not happy about raising my own maintenance fees. I'm retired. I don't want to pay more but sometimes we have no choice. The building needs to be taken care of.”
For many residents, a perspective shift might be in order to understand the role of a board. Consider this anecdote from Purdie. "I was on my way out of the building the other day when a neighbor stopped me and was complaining that two of the washers in the laundry room were out of order, and demanded to know what I was going to do about it. The washing machines were broken; our super had scheduled them to be repaired. I explained this to her but she wouldn't listen.”
“She complained that we collect her money but she can't do her laundry. I told her that things break down and we try to get them repaired as soon as possible. In this case, the machines were out of order for two days. I saw my neighbor soon after the repairs and told her that if it wasn't for the maintenance fees we all pay not only would the washing machines not have been repaired, but we probably wouldn't have any laundry room at all.”
There are a lot of downsides—it may seem that being on the board has no appeal at all. However, if the job was that bad, who would want to take it? The truth is, there are upsides to being on the board, and this includes being privy to many behind-the-scenes things that keep board members interested in serving their community.
Being on the board is an active way to have a hand in managing your life, community and finances, says Steven Greenbaum, president of Mark Greenberg Real Estate Co., LLC, a management company in Lake Success. "You get a feeling that you have done something for yourself, you've accomplished some goals, and you have done something to better your investment."
Carlson agrees, “The most exciting part about being on the board is that you are the first person to know what's going on in the building, you're 'in the know', plus you are a part of the decision-making process. You have the power to make a serious difference in your community. It is a great feeling to have some power in how your community is run and protecting your home.”
The alternative is to leave your investment in the hands of other people, and in extreme cases where not enough board members can be found, in the hands of the state.
Cartagena agrees that access to information is a tremendous upside to being on the board. “You're privy to more information, things like policies or waiting lists or that sort of thing."
According to the experts, it's unanimous: being on the board does not entitle anyone to favors or special treatment. "Board members may get more respect but no special treatment," adds Cartagena.
Greenbaum agrees. "The only advantages that board members have is that they know what is going on in the building better than anybody. There are no special favors for being on the board."
Even though board members have to volunteer their own personal time, that time may be advantageous in terms of gaining knowledge about the co-op, condo or HOA industry in general. "The perks for me are that I get to learn a lot about many new things: issues that happen in the building, Local Law 11, elevators, interviewing consultants, facades, air rights," says Cartagena. "You learn about contracts, the process of working with city agencies, and the process of having a meeting, motions, and seconds of motions."
"No question about it, board skills are transferrable," says Greenbaum. "One of our property managers used to be on a board and was facing a career change. He decided that he liked real estate and wanted a career in a related field, so we trained him to be a property manager, and it has turned out to be an excellent fit."
Being on the board may also have value for members' personal careers and resumes. "I'm an engineer," says Cartagena, "and for me being on the board helps my resume because it applies to what I do: maintenance issues, security and other things. It certainly looks good on my resume that I am a board president of 728 units, or a board president of a corporation, so that's a plus."
Drumming up business for personal, outside interests, however, is generally frowned upon, continues Greenbaum. Professional advice is very helpful on a pro bono basis, he says, but a board member getting hired to do a job within their own building is a no-no. "We do ask people on the board for referrals, but this is a volunteer effort so it usually doesn't end in a contract."
Another potential perk of serving on a board is the value of the relationships that may be formed between people who serve on a board, says Cartagena. The different professions of members bring varying degrees of knowledge to the table. "Board members bring in their experiences, which for us have included an economist and one guy who was running for city council," says Cartagena. "They bring in their own expertise and it's always good. Then, sometimes we have housewives, with common sense, and they want to help. We even have ex-police officers on the board. As an engineer I am asked about my area of expertise when it comes up."
And then there are the potential social benefits, says Greenbaum. "When people move into a building, they don't know people, and they tend to meet people by being on the board. If you are new to town and you have some organizational or community skills and you want to meet people, you can join a committee, and work your way up to being on the board. There are actually some board members who go beyond their building to become community board members. They volunteer with other organizations, that sort of thing."
No “I” in Team
People have varying reasons for wanting to be on the board, some of them altruistic and some of them personal. Either way, a board member is fulfilling a sense of duty from serving. "I have seen people try to get something passed, have it voted against by the board, and then run for a place on the board," says Cartagena. "Then, when they get on the board, they try to press the issue again. I've seen it happen, but that's not any different than what goes on down in Washington."
In fact, personal agendas, which are sometimes looked at as negative if they are not for the good of the whole, can be a driving force of good. "I think that most people do get on the board for their own personal agendas," says Greenbaum, "but I don't mean that in the negative sense. I think that they have an agenda, meaning that they don't like the way certain things are running. For example, they want to make sure that the finances are handled properly, or they notice that there is a problem with a part of the building, like the waterproofing or having the hallways redone. That's where a lot of board members come from—people saying that they don't like something, then they join the board and try to effect some change."
The length of service of board members also has its pluses and minuses, notes Greenbaum. "New board members have fresh eyes and a new perspective. Old board members are more experienced and that has its advantages as well."
Even with all the potential stress and responsibility of being on the board, it is possible to have fun while serving, says Greenbaum. "If your building is running well, and your management company does a good job and you are there to effectuate decisions, and you are not bogged down by minutiae, it can be a lot of fun. You go in and treat it like a business, and it's run properly and efficiently."
J.M. Wilson is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator. Associate Editor Liam P. Cusack contributed to this article.