It’s a time-worn pattern that plays out in workplaces, classrooms, and residential buildings everywhere: rules are set, and enforced strictly for awhile. Over time, enforcement wanes a little; the rules are bent, then broken—until such time as they’re being routinely ignored.
How do house rules originate? How are they modified? What constitutes a good house rule—and a bad one? How can house rules be enforced, and how should they be? Let’s take a look.
House Rules, a Brief Intro
House rules are not necessarily as old as the building, but they are as old as the cooperative or condominium association. When rental apartment buildings are converted to co-ops, when co-ops are converted to condos, and when condos are established from the get-go, the writing of house rules is part of the process, along with the bylaws and other governing documents.
“At the outset, there would be a set of house rules prepared and made part of the building’s governing documents,” says attorney Abbey F. Goldstein, a partner with Goldstein & Greenlaw, LLP in Kew Gardens, Queens.
“House rules are created by the board of directors,” expounds David L. Berkey, a partner with the law firm of Gallet Dreyer & Berkey, LLP, in Manhattan. “And the board of directors—or board of managers in a condo—has the authority to modify them.” Most house rules are pretty cut-and-dried: No loud noise after such-and-such an hour. No children playing in the hallways. No ball playing outside. No bicycles in the hallway. All guests must sign in. And so forth.
“Most rules are good rules,” Goldstein says. “Most survive over the years because they are good rules, because they make sense.” And if a rule is unpopular, or has outlived its usefulness—the prohibition of dishwashers, for example—it is relatively easy to modify.
“House rules can be changed by a simple majority vote of the board,” Goldstein says. “You should have only good rules, right?”
The Good, The Bad, & the …Unwieldy?
“House rules are designed to deal with quality-of-life issues—to promote the health, safety, and welfare of the residents,” says Berkey. “Any rule that accomplishes that task is a good rule.”
“A good rule is specific, detailed, and lays out exactly what can be done and what can’t,” says Michael Kenyon, president of RSL Management, Inc., in Hillsborough, New Jersey. “For example, satellite dishes have to be in the back, not on the roof.” The specificity makes it work. A resident who rigs a satellite dish to the roof—unless they launch into an existential argument about what exactly a roof is—is in obvious violation of the rule. This makes it easy to enforce, because the only shade of gray is the color of the DirecTV dish. If a house rule is too general, it could lead to legal issues, either in arbitration or in court. And whenever lawyers get involved, needless to say, the price increases dramatically.
Noise rules tend to be vague, and therefore harder to enforce. People have vastly different ideas, for example, of what loud means.
A bad rule is “one that makes more work for the manager,” Kenyon says with a laugh. He’s joking, but he’s absolutely right. Specificity is key to house rules. If a property manager spends too much time getting into arguments about what is a violation and what is not, odds are you are dealing with an unclear, and—for lack of a better word—“bad” rule.
“The house rules are not supposed to be a place where the board goes to raise revenue,” says Berkey. “A rule that deals with financial obligations—that’s not intended to be a house rule.”
Other bad rules are “too general,” says Kenyon. “Or it doesn’t have any teeth to it.” For example, a house rule prohibiting solicitation might be too vague. Most residents probably don’t mind a rule prohibiting door-to-door paintbrush salesmen. But is plastering Nader-Gonzales stickers on your apartment door solicitation? Some might say yes, some might say no. Point is, clearly it’s unclear.
“Democrat, Republican, it doesn’t matter,” says Kenyon. “If it’s not specific, it’s not a good rule.” And as Goldstein mentions, good rules “can be in the eye of the beholder.”
Sometimes, there may be a house rule that is never enforced. Consider plants on the fire escapes, for example. Fire safety codes prohibit clutter on a building’s fire escapes, but that doesn’t stop buildings from turning a blind eye when a resident cultivates topiary outside their window.
Because house rules can be modified by a simple majority of the board, there tends to be more leeway with both their codification and their enforcement. Much of it is the whim of that particular group of officers. Four dog lovers might adopt a different attitude to a no-pets house rule than someone who doesn’t care for animals.
“A lot of it depends on the board,” says Kenyon. “Some boards, it’s the letter of the law. Other boards are more lenient.”
What happens if a building decides to do the equivalent of a sports team, replacing a cushy “player’s coach” with a surly disciplinarian? How can a new board re-assert control of the building effectively, without bristling the resident shareholders or unit owners?
“Most boards would send off a notice of a changed policy,” says Goldstein. “‘We have a house rule. There’s been no action taken recently. We’re putting you on notice; you have to comply.’”
For example, a condo may have a policy prohibiting wind chimes outside, Kenyon says. The outgoing board might have ignored the rule. The new board may turn out to be anti-chime sticklers. “We have to put notice out there because you have a precedent set,” he explains. “‘Effective February 1st, we are now going to follow all house rules and bylaws to the letter.’” This way, the residents are not surprised when they get fined for not taking down their wind chimes. Communication is vital here, because nothing is more frustrating than arbitrary enforcement of a rule.
In New York, most house rules “require an apartment to have 80 percent of its floor carpeted, to reduce noise,” says Berkey, but there are boards that don’t enforce that rule.
Berkey points out that he has never really seen an apartment with the requisite carpet coverage. “But it’s not the rule itself that is bad—it’s the way the rule is handled… It’s an issue of enforcement.”
As for the carpeting rule, Goldstein adds, “most boards do not investigate. What they’ll do is respond to complaints.” If you have gorgeous hardwood floors, and you wear slippers, and you’re never around anyway, and you’re downstairs neighbor doesn’t care, “It’s ‘no harm, no foul,’” Goldstein says. “A lot of rules are not enforced. Adultery is a crime too, but I don’t think there are many prosecutions.”
Rules are often broken, but there is one tried and true method for getting people to follow them. “Fines,” says Kenyon. “That’s the only thing people understand. Unless you hit their pocketbook,” he adds, you probably are not going to see results in adherence to the rules.
You leave an old couch on the sidewalk in front of the building, you get fined a hundred bucks. Easy, right? Not necessarily.
“The Condo Act specifically allows condos to have fines,” says Berkey. “There’s no similar rule in co-ops…Most of the time, co-ops use the Business Judgment Rule as a basis for levying fines,” and most of the time, that works. But some attorneys—and, more importantly, some judges—will not grant a co-op board the power to fine its shareholders, Goldstein says. The only weapon at a co-op board’s disposal, explicitly stated in the law, is the nuclear option—termination of the proprietary lease and eviction.
“Rather than do an eviction, most boards will do a more moderate sanction—a fine, a penalty,” explains Goldstein. But these attempts at moderation, while often accepted by courts, are not expressly legal.
So, for the most brazen infractions, boards are coming with heat—in the form of a letter to cure, the first step of the complicated eviction process. The document states, in effect, that the shareholder better stop doing whatever it is she’s doing—housing the yapping lapdog, practicing her tuba at 3 a.m., running a speakeasy in her apartment—or else.
In a co-op or condo, “you live amongst a lot of people, so people have to be considerate,” says Goldstein. “Some people aren’t considerate.”
The bleak economic picture has had an impact on house rules, as well. “The biggest challenge now is the number of people who can’t pay their maintenance fees,” Kenyon says. “Depending on the lawyer they have, the board can be lenient.”
A shareholder who has been laid off might request that the board waive late fees until after he finds another job, for example. This is not only the neighborly thing to do—and what is a co-op or condo but an association of neighbors—but it also can be beneficial if the shareholder winds up not being able to pay.
“If you show compassion,” Kenyon says, “it looks better if you have to go to foreclosure.”
Any way you slice it, enforcing house rules and finding the right mix of what works for your community can be touch and go. And as in any situation, the best results come from being reasonable and clear.
Greg Olear is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor toThe Cooperator.