Where Can Boards Turn? Education and Advocacy

Most board members are volunteers—some may have experience with certain aspects of running a building, but most come to the job relatively green, armed only with a sense of responsibility and a desire to serve their building community. So where do boards turn for help when a question comes up, or a situation arises that they don’t feel equipped to answer on their own?

A Legacy of Helping

Stepping into a role on the board can be a very daunting experience. In addition to having to learn a particular role like president, secretary, or treasurer, there are problems that may arise—problems that will require some action by the board. But if board members don’t know how to be board members, how are they supposed to deal with the crazy old coot on the first floor who keeps suing the building, for example?

Luckily, there are those who have gone before. The pioneers in cooperative living had to duke it out for themselves, but they have left behind some very helpful organizations. Many of the problems that boards face are common to all boards, and knowing how other people have handled similar situations can smooth the way to resolution.

Two excellent resources exist for the express purpose of board concerns: the Federation of New York Housing Cooperatives & Condominiums (FNYHC) and the Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums (CNYC). Both organizations provide training, seminars, phone assistance, and advocacy.

The Federation

“We are a not-for-profit organization—our services are free to our members,” says Al Pennisi, president of the Federation and a partner with the Queens-based law firm of Pennisi Daniels Norelli, LLP. “We run educational seminars on environmental issues, how to be a board member, training for presidents, treasurers—the whole board, really—plus dispute resolution, and so forth.”

“Since there are no requirements for serving on the board, anyone may have attributes that are helpful, but they may have no idea how to run a board,” says Pennisi. “Even the guy who runs a Fortune 500 company may have no idea how to run a cooperative.”

“Our charter calls for us to educate and advocate,” says Mona Shyman, the organization’s vice president and a management consultant with MHS Consultants. “There isn’t any facet of co-op or condo boards that we won’t touch.”

We do seminars on all kinds of topics,” continues Shyman. Offerings can be found listed on their website at www.fnyhc.coop and include upcoming seminars on hot topics like bedbugs. “We haven’t even put the fliers out, and people are calling and wanting to come to this one,” says Shyman.

Other seminar topics include courses in building alterations, how to read a financial statement, how to rewrite a proprietary lease, “Board Training 101,” how to hire a managing agent, and how to revise corporate documents.

Taking advantage of the Federation’s offerings is simple, says Pennisi. “All they have to do is join the organization. Next up we have a seminar on fuels: oil, gas, alternative fuels, using the blends, ethanol. We bring in an expert to talk about the options, the costs the benefits, and the problems.”

“The flyers are addressed to boards, but [the Federation] is available to anyone,” adds Shyman. “The seminars that we run are generally free to the public. We try to concentrate on what the current problems are, and we are listening to the calls that come in—like the bedbugs issue, for example.”

“We educate the management companies, too,” continues Shyman. “Now there is a new thing [for co-ops] called reverse mortgages, and this can often result in a win-win situation, but people aren’t aware of how they work.”

The CNYC

The Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums (CNYC) is a sister organization that works in tandem with the FNYHC, says the program’s director, Mary Ann Rothman. “We work together on all the political issues, which is why there is a property tax abatement program in New York, and why we have succeeded with federal legislation. We are good friends.”

Organizations such as the Federation and the Council are not necessarily one-stop shops, although many answers can be found there. “We don’t claim to have the answers to everything,” says Rothman, “but more often than not we can at least provide the logical next step or the benefit of other people’s experiences.”

Current efforts by the CNYC are focused on making sure that the property tax abatement program for homeowners in New York City for co-ops and condos continues beyond its sunset date in June, says Rothman. “We were immensely successful in Washington after 30 years of trying. In December, President [George W.] Bush signed a law that is very beneficial to our community.”

Just as the FNYHC is open to all unit owners, being on the board is not a requirement to utilize the services of the CNYC, says Rothman. “Our members are associations. The building is paying membership dues, and we will do our best to answer questions from anyone in that community. It’s not that the board or any individual; it’s that the board or the association has joined.”

Services are even available to people who are not part of the organization, continues Rothman. “Members and non-members can take advantage of our services, but non-members will have to pay a fee.”

The Council offers educational seminars as well. Upcoming CNYC seminars include: shareholder surveys that succeed; buildings that are affected by or involved in the subways being built, both the Second Avenue Line and the cross-town line to the Javits Center; and breaking the grip of an entrenched board. “We feel strongly that every unit owner is a potential board member,” says Rothman.

Questions are generally handled by either organization—or both, Rothman continues. “We work together on the big issues. The important thing is that every co-op or condo should belong to at least one group.”

Offerings and more information can be found on the web at www.cnyc.coop. “Any co-op can have a .coop suffix, says Rothman, “which is a nice kind of branding on the Web.”

Call-ins and Common Questions

“Also, when we aren’t running seminars, we are available to members who can call or e-mail us about a problem with objectionable shareholders, or a tenant who is in arrears, or to ask what do we do, how do we do it, how do we handle it,” says Pennisi.

“Often we get calls that were referred from the Attorney General’s office,” says Shyman. “We sort out the problems and try to send them to the appropriate place. Often it gets resolved on the phone in one call. When they call me, I try to make them understand that the board is subject to their own policies. Often they think that the board is the landlord, especially when the maintenance is increased.”

“Objectionable conduct is a current hot topic, and we get a lot of questions about it,” says Pennisi. “Someone may call, saying ‘We have this person in our co-op who is objectionable,’ and then we have to sort out why. If there is a valid heat problem in the building and someone is complaining about it, you can’t kick the person out for being ‘objectionable,’ for example.”

“In one case a person tried to get rid of the person above him,” Pennisi continues. “He claimed [his neighbor] had environmentally unsafe materials in his apartment. He started eight lawsuits against the board, and became a real pest. However, even in this case, the person has to be called in and told that they are objectionable. They have to come before the board and give their side of the story. You can’t just kick the person out—you have to give them due process, and you have to make sure your corporate documents allow you to do this.

Sometimes help is needed with seemingly simple tasks, especially when city codes or other building rules are involved. “They will help with forms and documents, like a proposed alteration agreement,” explains Pennisi.

The combined efforts of these organizations have lasting legislative effects as well. “Co-ops and condos used to have the same real estate tax rates as landlords,” says Shyman, “and through our advocacy we are now classified as private homes. The tax rate [for co-op and condo apartments] isn’t quite as low as for a private home, but it is much better. We have been getting all the advantages of private homes: abatements, STAR, seniors citizen’s allowances, these types of benefits.”

“Currently, we are hoping to offset a scam that some unscrupulous exterminators are perpetrating,” continues Shyman. “They are going in and charging all kinds of money and it really isn’t necessary.”

If your board has a burning question, or if you’re a shareholder unsure about where to turn with a question or a problem with how your building’s board is conducting community business, it might be worth it to give either of these organizations a call—after all, they’re there to help.

Denton Tarver is a freelance writer and student living in New York City.

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