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BrickUnderground and about 100 frustrated co-op and condo owners attended an educational forum last night sponsored by the grassroots advocacy organization ACCO (aka The Alliance of Co-op and Condo Owners) and hosted by New York State Assemblymember Linda B. Rosenthal.
The panelists, convened in an Upper West Side synagogue, included two co-op and condo lawyers, an assistant state attorney general (see related post) and ACCO leader Larry Simms.
Simms devoted his opening remarks to a half-dozen tales of co-op and condo board malfeasance, eliciting bitter chuckles from an otherwise somber crowd. Two tales concerned the potentially abusive practice of billing unit owners for attorneys’ fees.
In one case, said Simms, a co-op owner’s kitchen ceiling collapsed as a result of a pipe leak elsewhere in the building. She hired experts and went to small claims court to disprove the board’s initial claim that the cause was high humidity. She won $2,000 and had her kitchen ceiling fixed. Then the board billed her $4,000 for its own legal fees.
In another abusive billing situation, a condo owner in a building with a rule against outdoor cooking was bothered by fumes coming from his neighbor's illegal barbecue. The neighbor (a board member) refused to stop, and when the owner raised the issue at the annual meeting, the condo's attorney asked him to put it in writing. He did—and was billed $200 for the attorney’s advisory letter to the board. He never even found out what the letter said.
Simms used the stories to underscore the need to pass a bill that would establish an Ombudsman’s Office to mediate issues between boards and owners.
The panel answered some questions from the audience, including these:
Q. How can you get a board to open its minutes and records?
A. Boards usually hide behind NY Business Corporation law, which gives limited rights of inspection. But judges have ruled that condo and co-op owners have a right to find out the information necessary to be a well-informed investor. Make your request often and in writing, as if one day you might need to demonstrate the board’s refusal in court.
Q. How can I pass on my co-op apartment to an heir so that a co-op won’t reject them? What about a gay partner?
A. Some proprietary leases allow only spouses to inherit. Others allow more distant family. Since gay marriage isn’t legal in New York, a board can object to passing along an apartment even to a registered domestic partner; based on an analogous case involving a rent stabilized apartment, the board’s decision would probably be upheld.
Q. Our building is being held hostage by an entrenched co-op board that meets in secrecy, levies assessment after assessment, etc. What should we do?
A. Don’t litigate—the board has its own attorneys and deep pockets consisting of your money. “I always tell people to organize, organize, organize,” real estate lawyer Kevin McConnell told the crowd. “Crystallize around an issue, knock on doors, pass out flyers. This is supposed to be a corporate democracy.”
Though dates and places aren’t set yet, ACCO says four more forums are in the works. To request one in your neighborhood, ask your council member, assembly member or senator to sponsor one, or contact ACCO.