New York was a city of renters until the mid-1970’s, when the trend towards co-op and condominium ownership began. Prior to that, most residents chose to live here because it was the Big Apple and for the anonymity it afforded. Unlike small-town America, New Yorkers not only cherished their privacy but coveted it. Many lived years--even decades--next to neighbors whose names they might not ever have known.
With the shift from renters to owners, that classic New York paradigm of anonymity changed. Not only did you now know your neighbors name, you were in a sense, business partners and to participate in the management, life and decision-making process for the building where you live. Such is the reward of co-op and condo life.
To Serve or Not to Serve
One major aspect of co-op living is the idea of volunteering, and the ultimate voluntary activity in your co-op or condo is to serve on the board. Boards generally consist of from five to seven members and usually are elected on an annual basis, although it’s not uncommon for board members to serve two-year terms or for the election of the seats to be skewed to different years to maintain some level of continuity on the board from year to year.
The real truth though is that board seats are harder to fill than to find. The main reason is that busy urbanites tend to guard their free time jealously and often don’t know or have concerns about how much time they will have to realistically commit to the co-op or condo each month to fulfill their duties.
Ray Levy is a board member at a 54-unit, pre-war apartment building in Washington Heights that has been a co-op for more than 20 years. Levy has served a couple of years on the board and lived in the building for a period before that. “The reality of time commitment is much better than what I imagined,” he says. “I worried about being buttonholed in the elevator with endless complaints,”—a common concern among those considering board service. He reports that didn’t happen.
Dana Greco, a therapist, moved to a 17-story, 122-unit post-war co-op building in Riverdale, approximately two years ago. Recently elected to the co-op board this year, she has had a similar experience relative to time commitment. “It’s about what I expected,” Greco says. Their board meets once a month on a Wednesday evening. “I miss four possible sessions with clients. Some of that has to be rescheduled,” she says.
Like Sand Through the Hourglass
Much of the time requirement depends on the size of the board and the style in which the board and management run the building. Smaller buildings with fewer participants and fewer board members would tend to absorb more of each volunteer’s time, while larger buildings are the reverse. Some properties create committees and assign specific duties to those committees which could either increase your time commitment or decrease it depending on how many committees one served on. “My time commitment varies depending on how much committee work there is,” explains Levy, “but I seldom need to give more than a few hours a week.”
In terms of extra time commitment outside of meetings, Greco says, “I am comfortable with the commitment until they push to start projects that can take up much more time, like rewriting the bylaws. I don’t have that much time, unfortunately. My initial project was to clean out the bike shed. If I can get that done, I’m good with it.”
There are many possible reasons to volunteer, but the best reason is both altruistic and selfish. Your apartment is your home and in all probability your most important investment. You have a vested interest in making the building the best it can be, which was exactly what motivated Greco. “I have an investment in the building,” she says, “and it was important to me to understand early on how the building runs.”
At the same time, you can do something positive as a board member for your neighbors and community. “I’ve tried to focus on pro-active communications,” says Levy, asking, “what information would shareholders want as we embark on a major project like lobby renovation for instance, which might be disruptive. I’m also curious to learn about the perspectives of individual shareholders.“ He adds that the conversations in the elevator have been largely positive. “The time I’ve put in has been well worth it!”
Greco concurs. “The experience is well worth the time commitment,” she says. “I plan to give the building board two years.”
AJ Sidransky is a staff writer at The Cooperator and a published novelist.