So You Want to Join Your Co-op Board?


The people who sit on co-op boards in New York City generally skew older than the rest of the shareholders in those buildings. One reason: Sitting on a board can be a thankless and all-consuming task — one that is definitely unpaid — which makes the toil of running a building impractical for most people who are in the early stages of their careers or starting a family.

“It’s kind of like having a part-time job on the side,” said Melissa Leifer, a licensed real estate saleswoman for Keller Williams NYC TriBeCa. “It’s easier if you’re retired.”

But there are some young shareholders who are stepping forward and taking responsibility for their co-op buildings and the work that needs to be done there.

“Young people may want the amenities and structure of the building to reflect their lifestyle,” said Stewart E. Wurtzel, a partner of Tane Waterman & Wurtzel, P.C., a law firm that counsels about 150 local co-ops. “They may be more budget conscious. If they’re new parents, their interest in the building’s common areas may be to be more family-friendly. And they may be happier with a virtual doorman, or more concerned about package- and food-delivery capability.”

Carol J. Ott, the publisher and editor of Habitat, a magazine for co-op and condo board members, said people usually join their boards to address maintenance fees: whether they are rising too fast or remaining artificially low (and the building is consequently being neglected). In smaller buildings, she said, new buyers are often recruited: “You may have been flattered, and it’s hard to say no when you’re the new kid in town.”

Regardless of the reason, new shareholders should take a few months — or a few years — to learn about the building and its inhabitants before taking a seat on the board, said Arthur Weinstein, a lawyer who represents about 100 co-ops in the New York City area.

Mr. Weinstein, a founder and board member of the Council of New York Cooperatives and Condominiums, also recommended scrutinizing the proprietary lease and bylaws, the documents that govern the co-op’s existence. “It’s very sad to see someone who’s not familiar with the basics, the very landlord-tenant relationship that exists between the co-op and its owners,” he said. “Without knowledge of the proprietary lease, a board can easily make an incorrect decision with potentially expensive, detrimental consequences.”

Still, the necessary training can sometimes occur on the job, said Phyllis H. Weisberg, a partner at Armstrong Teasdale and a leader of the firm’s cooperative and condominium law practice area. A newer resident, she pointed out, may have expertise in a field like engineering, finance or law that would prove useful in co-op deliberations.

While longtime residents “may have a better understanding of the culture of the building,” she added, “they do not necessarily have a monopoly on good ideas.”

For those who are intimidated by the complex skill set required for building oversight, the Council of New York Cooperatives and Condominiums offers seminars for new board members, and Habitat has an online platform called Habitat U. Some law firms, including Armstrong Teasdale, also offer their own classes. These programs focus on the governing documents, the board’s responsibilities, legal matters and finance and insurance basics.

Mr. Wurtzel’s advice to new directors is simple: “Listen and learn — and then speak your mind.”

We talked to five shareholders who recently joined their co-op boards and asked them to share their experiences. (Their responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.)


Neighborhood: Upper East Side

When she joined: May 2018

Size of board: Seven members

Size of building: 100 units

Why did you join?

I’m into politics and community activism, and I liked the idea of participating in this little micro-democracy.

Did you have to campaign?

It was between me and one other person. It was scary for me because I don’t like public speaking, and two days before the election I was informed that we would have to stand up in front of the shareholders’ meeting and present ourselves.

How much of a time commitment has it been?

Last year, it was a lot of time. We were inspecting the facade, and I needed to understand building ventilation and how the exterior walls were constructed. And because the facade repair coincided with the terrace restoration, I had to call the roofing company to learn about waterproof membranes, and paver companies to learn about how much heat is retained and reflected by different materials.

The biggest challenge for me has been getting up to speed on the complexities of running a building in New York City, and becoming conversant in real estate issues, as we have several street-level commercial spaces. Also tax issues and a number of complex financial issues. You have to wear so many hats. A lot of it has been trial by fire.

What surprised you?

What was shocking and eye-opening was the annual shareholders’ meeting. That was much more contentious than I’d anticipated.

What advice do you have for others?

In the beginning, my impulse was to think, “I’m the youngest and newest to the building … is it even acceptable to put myself forward and say I’d like to help?” It’s a little bit compounded by being a woman. I think you have to override that feeling. I really mean this: Everyone’s perspective is really valuable, including your own.


Neighborhood: West Village

When she joined: February 2019

Size of board: Six members

Size of building: 14 units

Why did you join?

There would be sudden water shutdowns and other inconveniences, and I had no idea why these things were happening or when they would happen. I joined and realized that everything was going on in these meetings.

Did you have to campaign?

Because it’s a small building, anyone can join.

What kinds of decisions do you make?

It is an older historic building, built in the mid-1800s, that needs a lot of specific attention and upkeep. It’s not just, “Who can do this for the right price?” but “Who is qualified to work with something so old?”

How have your ideas been received?

I’m the youngest by far, and I feel like I’m picking up everything as I go along. Everyone else has much more experience. But they take me seriously.

Has it been a good experience?

I like it a lot more than I thought I would. As a fiction writer, I love listening to people’s stories. It’s a constant revolving door of the tiny fascinating issues of this microenvironment that I live in.

What surprised you?

I was surprised by just how long things really do take, the process of selecting new companies to provide services to us and getting things rolling. I always found it frustrating, but now that I’m on the board I can see why the process has so much inertia.

What advice do you have for others?

Even if things have been done one way for decades, it won’t help to assume that they can’t change radically, even faster than you think. The change you can effect may be bigger than what you can imagine.

Neighborhood: Rose Hill

When she joined: December 2018

Size of board: Five members

Size of building: 16 units

Why did you join?

The board approached me about it. One reason I agreed was that I wasn’t happy that they raised the maintenance fee. I wanted to be part of that conversation.

How have your ideas been received?

They expect me to have opinions on these conversations that I’ve never been a part of before: whether this unit can be combined with that unit, what are the laws involved. It’s empowering that they value my opinion so much, but I definitely have had to be like, “I have to look this up and get back to you.”

How much of a time commitment has it been?

Everyone has very busy lives, and our president lives out of state, so we don’t actually meet that often — just two or three times since I joined. We have a group text that is always buzzing, an email thread that is a little bit less active and a few conference calls.

What surprised you?

We are self-managed to save money, and I didn’t think there would be quite so many decisions happening all the time. I knew that we would have to interview potential tenants, but I wasn’t quite sure how much detail went into it. Once, a mattress had been left outside, and we had to figure out what to do with it because it was disposed of illegally. Even getting paint colors picked for the doors, it’s a big discussion.

What advice do you have for others?

Maybe talk to a few members of the current board to really understand what you’re getting into. I’m happy that I’ve done it, but I really didn’t know what I was getting into.


Neighborhood: Hell’s Kitchen

When he joined: October 2016

Size of board: Seven members

Size of building: 20 units

Why did you join?

At the annual meeting, a couple of shareholders announced that they didn’t want to do it anymore. They were looking around the room in silence to see if anyone wanted to join the board. People weren’t exactly scrabbling to fight over a seat. It was an ad hoc decision, on a whim.

How have your ideas been received?

I’m kind of analytical; I like looking at numbers. When the intercom system was starting to have issues, we debated replacing it with a digital system that was voice-only or a video intercom system, which was more expensive. I made the case that the video intercom only added $30 to $40 per shareholder; in the life span of the system, that wasn’t that much for a very modern improvement. We went with the video system.

Also, the carpet in the front hallway gets a lot of wear and tear, and it gets gross during the winter. It’s something I personally hated. I brought that up to the board, and there was a debate, because people thought it would be noisy without it. Finally, we removed it and kept it as exposed tile.

How much of a time commitment has it been?

The meetings end pretty quickly, half an hour to an hour. Because the co-op is in good condition and generally people are pretty happy, there’s no real need to have a long conversation.

Has it been a good experience?

To be honest, it might be a little selfish for me. If I don’t like the temperature or the way the hallways look, it’s easier for me to propose changes on the board than calling up the management company and asking them to change it, because they still have to go through the board.


Neighborhood: Yorkville

When she joined: March 2019

Size of board: Seven members

Size of building: 56 units

Why did you join?

I’d just moved in and was interested in learning more about how a building is operated and taken care of. I also liked the idea of being able to contribute to my community.

Did you have to campaign?

Seven of us ran on a slate. I got up at the annual meeting and gave a little speech. I wasn’t kissing babies and shaking hands; I wasn’t debating.

What kinds of decisions do you make?

For the past few years, we’ve had a spate of young families moving in, and their needs or wants may be different from somebody who doesn’t have kids. Should we have more toys so the kids can play? Should we have a whole play area? How do we make that happen while staying within the constraints of our budget?

Has it been a good experience?

When you’re looking to buy an apartment in New York City, you hear all kinds of horror stories about boards, how they’re cloaked in mystery and you don’t know whether they’ll let you into the building. I’ve found it to be a very rewarding experience.

What advice do you have for others?

You have to be prepared to do research, get quotes from vendors, run numbers and talk to people. Nothing is going to change unless you pick up the ball and move it.


Jonathan Vatner is the author of “Carnegie Hill,” a novel about an Upper East Side

co-op published by Thomas Dunne Books in August 2019.


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