A Look at Archaic Bylaws Something Old, Something New...

On a classic episode of the TV show The Simpsons, the town read its founding charter only to discover that the mayor of Springfield was supposed to get two pigs every year.

While there are probably no co-op or condo documents in effect today that deal with pigs, the point is that if bylaws and house rules aren't read and updated, sometimes, silly things can slip through the cracks.

It's important for any co-op or condo to have a clear set of rules and bylaws to help govern the building, and because times change, as do community standards, attitudes and populations, bylaws do get out of date. This means that rules and regulations that once made sense, or that reflected the morals and standards of their day, can become antiquated, irrelevant or just plain silly as the years pass.

"By taking a gander at the bylaws and house rules in older co-ops and condos you really get a great spectrum of history in New York City over the last 100 years," says Luigi Rosabianca, principal attorney and founder of Rosabianca & Associates in Manhattan. "I guess, if we look at it historically, the rules and bylaws were set by whoever built the building, unless they were amended. They would always reflect the…traditions of the time. If a building was built in 1920, obviously the rules will be a lot different than one built in 1990. Through the years I have seen or heard about some funny or unique things that were written."

Times They Are a Changing

One of the reasons that bylaws become archaic is that society changes through the decades. Back when some of these prewar buildings were built, some didn't allow certain ethnicities to live there, some didn't allow unmarried women to entertain past a certain hour. Still others wouldn't allow servants to use the front door. Things like that seem ridiculous today.

For example, Rosabianca knows of a property where bylaws prohibit single women from residing alone, something that was very common in the '30s and '40s, but obviously against discriminatory laws today.

"Things like this are on the books, but ignored," he says. "If a rule is set in place but is inconsistent with state law, then the rule is moot." Even though the rule was never changed, of course you can't discriminate against women, and any attempt to enforce a rule like that would most certainly bring about a lawsuit, he says.

Then there are those areas of a building that have been improved upon on a larger scale. Many of the older buildings were built with fireplaces, but because firehouses and fire trucks weren't around the way they are today, there were laws pertaining to the need for water buckets.

"There weren't fire alarms the way they are today," Rosabianca says. "A lot of rules reflected this. Every apartment with a fireplace would have to have two full water buckets on hand. The rules displayed what the needs were at that time."

According to Josh Prottas of Working Realty Ltd. in Manhattan, there are still many co-ops where you see things dealing with coal and coal deliveries in the bylaws, despite no one really using coal anymore.

"Everyone in this business has heard a story about something that was really silly in the bylaws, but they weren't when they were written and actually made sense for that time," he says. "As the years go on, some make less and less sense."

Take transportation for example. The city streets weren't always filled with yellow taxi cabs, buses and cars. There was a time when horse and carriages were a regular mode of travel and there are still some bylaws that have things dealing with them.

"I've seen some strange ones like some much, much older buildings built in the Italian-age style with a courtyard in the middle. They were built that way so you could bring in horse and carriages," Rosabianca says. "So you have rules that would reflect conduct of horse and carriages, and obviously that isn't relevant today."

Modern Inventions

Then there are cases where the bylaws simply don't make sense. Because many were written decades ago, rules might be completely outdated or simply worded incorrectly and were never fixed.

Often times modern and technological advancements make things in buildings obsolete and that causes some of the rules and bylaws to become antiquated.

"Some buildings are so old, like mine. I live in one of the oldest co-ops in the city and they still have dumb waiters," says Iris Shorin, a broker at New York-based DJK Residential, who lives in a building on 55th Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan that was converted to co-op in 1948. "There are some very old house rules pertaining to the dumb waiters about the hours of operations and things like that. Of course, no one uses them anymore."

Then there are rules about audio equipment that limits the use of "playing the phonograph" at certain times, but makes no mention of things like CD players or iPods.

"You'd be hard-pressed to find someone blasting a phonograph these days," says Neil Davidowitz, president of the Orsid Realty Group in Manhattan. "Things like that need to be updated to include modern technology."

That applies to TV and radio equipment, as well. Many times you will find things written in the bylaws not allowing antennas to hang off the sides of the building or the roofs. But nowadays, antennas are basically extinct, with satellites being more the norm.

"You need to update bylaws with things like satellites because they weren't even thought of back then," says Neil B Garfinkel, an attorney at the law firm of Abrams, Garfinkel, Margolis, Bergson, LLP in Manhattan. "Having rules against TV antennas really aren't going to matter today."

And because technology has improved so much with computers and the Internet, many people work from home these days, which is a no-no in lots of condo and co-op bylaws.

"When they were written, it was meant to discourage people from doing business out of their homes, but it's not like what people do today," Prottas says. "Those may still be in the bylaws, but no one ever gets in trouble for working out of their home nowadays."

What is That?

One word that seems to appear in bylaws around Manhattan has to do with restricting "velocipedes." Throw that word around to your friends and see how many know what that is. And no, it's not some sort of pet.

"A house rule that's very common is not allowing velocipedes on the elevator, which are pedal-powered bikes," says Michael Jay Wolfe of New York-based Midboro Management, Inc. "No one knows what they are so that's why they haven't been changed. People just read right over them when looking at the rules."

Pets and Smoke

Today, many boards try to add new bylaws dealing with pets and smoking, but they are learning that residents are willing to fight these rules. While they may have had the best of intentions for their reasons, many will have to be written again because of the negative response.

Some buildings have outlawed smoking completely, even in an individual's home, and that never goes over well. When it comes to pets, boards are trying to limit the weight that a pet can be. Not something they want PETA to find out about.

"In a slower market like now, they have to accept the pets, even if they don't allow them in the bylaws," Shorin says. "I have had to help get board approval not only for the owners, but for their pets. The boards want to meet them too."

A Good Rule

Bylaws and rules are supposed to reflect the laws of the building and it's important that they make sense and are up to date.

"We review our bylaws on an ongoing basis so if rules become dated or irrelevant they get changed or removed before the humor sets in," says Peter von Simson, of City Pad Real Estate in Manhattan.

And what constitutes a sound, enforceable rule versus an overreaching, unenforceable rule that's destined for the trash heap?

"A sound enforceable rule is one that is rationally based on a goal of protecting the rights of the residents in the building," says Davidowitz. "In addition, one must clearly think about the methods and procedures for enforcing a rule or policy. Without a system of enforcement, the policy or rule is going to fail."

Keith Loria is a freelance writer living in Larchmont, New York.

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4 Comments

  • Our association is currently attempting to up date by-laws which are 40 years old. In the committee it is very difficult to get an agreement on the changes proposed. Even more difficult is the fact the members show no interest in contributing ideas for changes. Are there any sources of info on how to overcome apathy in our community of over seven thousand residents? Thank you
  • If people show no interest, why are they on the committee? I would explore possibility of getting them replaced with some people who care.
  • Is there a site where I can find information on how to set new standards in a 10 year old condo? For, example replace iron windows with new aluminum windows and patio doors that slide easier and eliminate gaps where bugs can enter. There are also new convertible doors. We live in Mexico. I want to know how to approach the board with this concept. Have others been successful?
  • Where can I obtain the bi-laws for a HDFC co-op, and who are the Directors, and how are they elected.