Co-ops — democracy at work

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If you want to find a genuine New York City success story, look no further than the nearest residential cooperative or condominium. The first New York City housing cooperative was organized in the late 1800s. Since those earliest days, millions of families of all income levels have called co-ops home. Cooperatives in large part now represent the last bastion of middle class housing in the city and allow many people to achieve the American dream of home ownership.

To see democracy at work, once again look no further than the nearest cooperative or condominium. New York state co-ops fall under the umbrella of business corporate law and are run by a volunteer board of directors who are elected by the shareholders. During the annual meeting, cooperators are given an opportunity to select or reject the individuals who will serve as directors and watch over their investments. The co-op where I reside permits any shareholder to run for the board. Win or lose, the final decision lies in the hands of friends and neighbors. It doesn’t get more democratic than that.

Even the sometimes-maligned process of interviewing prospective new shareholders is relatively painless and non-invasive with numerous safeguards in place to prevent discrimination. Buyers must of course meet certain financial requirements in order to ensure they can meet their mortgage and monthly maintenance commitments. Performing a credit check is perfectly legal, reasonable, done with the applicant’s full knowledge and consent and constitutes an important element of the board’s fiduciary obligation. The purchaser also consents to a criminal background investigation that includes checking the sex offender registry. There is a responsibility to ascertain that our neighbors will not pose a risk to the larger community. In a future blog I hope to delve deeper into the often-misunderstood co-op interview/application procedure.

It may be this very success that consistently places co-ops and condos in the cross hairs of government agencies, elected officials and self-serving “good government groups.”

New York City views us a cash cow to be milked at will. Elected officials are constantly introducing ill-conceived legislation designed to inhibit a co-op’s right to self-determination, while at the same time seeking to create burdensome and repetitive oversight mechanisms. I have to ask who’s watching the watcher? What is that old saying about “people who live in glass houses?” It’s important to note that co-op/condo directors are volunteers who generously give their time and energies without receiving any financial compensation or special benefit. The not-for-profit “good government groups” can’t make that same claim. Do they really want to fix what’s not broken or are the attacks on co-op and condo living about getting a piece of the pie.

Ten years ago I became president of a housing cooperative in northeast Queens and found myself in charge of the day-to-day operation of a 200 unit, 16 building, garden apartment complex, sitting on 14 acres. It’s a full time job that makes it possible for me to improve and maintain the quality of life enjoyed by my friends and neighbors. What could be more satisfying?

I want to thank The Queens Courier for giving me an opportunity to communicate with their large audience. This was just a quick introduction but in time to come I hope to take the mystery out of co-op/condo operation and organization.