Thursday, May 30, 2013
NYT: Because the Board Says So
No long chats with the doorman.
No umbrellas or wet boots in the hall.
No welcome mats or decorations on the front door.
No wearing flip-flops in the lobby.
These are but a few of the more extreme rules that apartment boards in New York City have imposed, or at least thought about imposing, on the residents of their buildings.
The average co-op or condominium has two dozen house rules. “Typically, they’re quality-of-life rules meant to benefit everyone in the closed community,” said Toni Hanson, a vice president and senior managing director of Douglas Elliman.
While there’s good sense behind many of these rules — don’t hang or shake things out the window; lay off the stereo before or after a certain hour — certain strictures can charitably be described as quirky, not to say capricious or overreaching. Your home is your castle? Think again.
It’s all, of course, in the interest of helping a building full of strong-minded New Yorkers coexist in (relative) harmony. Co-op boards have long issued directives about deportment and decorum, and condo boards are increasingly following suit. For the most part, they are well within their rights. Residents can either get with the program or get behind a co-op coup to remove the big-brother board members in their midst.
Generally, thanks to what’s known as the business judgment rule, boards have broad latitude in making, amending and rescinding house rules — the good, the bad and the decidedly wiggy. If board members think a situation needs to be addressed, they can address away without input from residents.
According to Steven D. Sladkus, a real estate litigator at Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz, one of the few exceptions is a stricture with a financial impact, for example, a proposal to institute a flip tax. “Then,” he said, “there has to be an amendment to the governing document, which requires a vote of the shareholders.”
Certain boards are more controlling than others, said Aaron Shmulewitz, who heads the co-op-condo practice at the law firm Belkin Burden Wenig & Goldman. “Some seek to regulate everything you do in a building, which I think would make it a less enjoyable building to live in,” he said. “But some residents like that, because they say it keeps inappropriate behavior out and keeps prices up.”
Rules tend to fall into several categories, including the use of shared spaces like the lobby or the elevator, pets and their comportment, and outward appearances — both of the apartment owner and the apartment itself. And then there’s the whole vetting process to even get into a building.
For one woman, an office coordinator in her late 20s who moved into a one-bedroom in the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn last summer, it was the application request that took her by surprise.
In addition to the employment, asset, credit, reference and background checks a co-op board generally requires before scheduling The Interview, the officers of this particular building also demand that a security company check out the current residence of would-be buyers, a visit for which applicants must pick up the $50 tab.
“The lease on my rental was up, so I was staying with my parents on Long Island,” said the woman, who requested anonymity to avoid offending the co-op board. “I don’t think my childhood bedroom was going to give any clues about how I live, but if that was the policy, that was the policy. I wanted the apartment, so I was willing to do what I needed to do.”
The scrutinizing, which took 45 minutes, included questions about the number of beds in each room, the number of people who slept in the beds and the nature of the flooring. The inspector also took photos of the interior of the house, the applicant and her parents.
Reader, she passed muster — but remains puzzled. “I guess the board members wanted to make sure I was a regular person,” she said.
When it comes to the space right outside an apartment, Eva Talel, a partner at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, said that in certain buildings (and not just those that cater to the hoity-toity), tenants who deploy welcome mats, keep the front door propped open when they’re home, decline to lock the door when they leave and hang decorations on that (unlocked) door, are guilty of inappropriate behavior — guilty, in any case, of breaching house rules.
“But one person’s decoration is another person’s religious symbol,” Ms. Talel said, referring to mezuzas, prayer cases that observant Jews affix to their door frames. “They can create controversy as well as a lawsuit. But the goal is uniformity within the building.”
That seems to be the goal at the Upper East Side building where Mr. Sladkus lives. There, it’s “a violation to leave wet umbrellas, boots, shoes, et cetera, in the hallway outside your door,” he said. Mr. Sladkus received a reminder of this stricture via a building-wide memo one wintry night after his two young daughters — “briefly,” he said — left their snowy boots and umbrellas leaning against the door jamb.
“I responded with a terse, intemperate e-mail how absurd I thought it was, since this is a family-friendly building,” Mr. Sladkus recalled. “And the response was that the building was redoing the halls and didn’t want to get them mucked up.”
He then wrote back: “I can see if we had mahogany-lined hallways it might make sense, but we’re not living in the Taj Mahal.” And, he added defiantly, he continues to leave his umbrellas in the hall.
Lucky for Mr. Sladkus, he doesn’t live in the Midtown East co-op where Dennis Paget is the president of the board, and where the “no umbrellas and boots in the hallways” rule is also in place.
“I tell the staff people to confiscate them,” Mr. Paget said.
Other “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots” seem like a throwback to an upstairs, downstairs world. “The more controversial rules have to do with which people are required to use the service elevator,” Ms. Talel said. “Some buildings require it of everyone but residents and their guests. Some buildings may make an exception for nannies if they’re with their charges, and home health care aides if they’re with their patients.”
Mr. Shmulewitz represents a Park Avenue building that for a few decades had a house rule barring nannies and other domestic employees from using the passenger elevators at any time. “The children had to be taken down by their caregivers in the service elevator,” he said. “It wasn’t a coincidence that they were often of a different ethnic persuasion than the shareholders.”
“I think this shocked the conscience of the residents,” Mr. Shmulewitz continued. “There was enough shareholder dissent that the law was rescinded five years ago.”
In some buildings, the double standard doesn’t involve residents and the hired help; it concerns residents and temporary residents. At a condominium on East 79th Street, people subletting apartments are not permitted to have pets, smoke or use the gym. “When a condo board imposes rules like this, they want to maintain differentiation and to keep things special for permanent residents,” said Gary Malin, the president of Citi Habitats. “They’re trying to make sure amenities like the gym don’t get overtaxed. The funny thing is that gyms rarely get used anyway.”
Dogs are another bone of contention, thus the source of some singular rules. One East Side condo allows man’s best friend but specifically bans pit bulls, Rottweilers, German shepherds, Doberman pinschers, huskies, malamutes and chow chows, and reserves the right to prohibit additional breeds.
Steven Wagner, a real estate lawyer, is on the board of a Midtown East co-op that is broad-minded about breeds but requires prospective canine residents to submit to an interview. “It’s a funny rule,” Mr. Wagner said. “I’m never sure what to ask. I just say: ‘Nice doggy,’ and I pet the dog. And then I say, ‘I have no more questions.’ No dog has bitten me yet. I think that would be a problem.”
Jeffrey S. Reich, a lawyer at Wolf Haldenstein Adler Freeman & Herz, recently encountered an Upper East Side building that allows residents with pets to ride on the passenger elevator, but requires maids or dog walkers tending resident pets to use the service elevator.
“A shareholder took offense,” Mr. Reich added, “because she didn’t think the service elevator was clean enough for her dog.”
Some board fiats are catchalls to deal with unforeseen behaviors and situations. “A lot of the rules are reactive,” Ms. Talel said. “They’re a response to a negative experience in a building or a response to something that happened in another co-op. People will hear about it and they say, ‘we can’t let that happen in our building.’ ”
That may explain the Chelsea co-op where a shareholder offered music lessons at home and the board responded with a rule that “no resident or their guests shall sing or coach another singer for more than two hours followed by a break of at least two hours — up to a maximum of six hours per day.”
Several years ago, Mr. Sladkus said, his firm did work for an Upper East Side co-op with “a nice elderly woman who enjoyed spending her days in the lobby. She would read, she would greet the children as they came in after school,” he recalled. “She was lonely is what she was. She wasn’t doing anything destructive, but the lobby wasn’t sprawling.”
Thus, some shareholders took issue and the board took action, drafting a rule prohibiting lobby visits that exceeded two hours. “It was passed,” Mr. Sladkus said, but some residents took pity on the lobby greeter and the rule was rescinded.
Similarly, Mr. Shmulewitz tells of a building whose shareholders were perturbed that a wheelchair-bound resident was spending long periods of time in the lobby. “They felt it detracted from the look of the building, so they drafted a house rule that said ‘no wheeled vehicles in the lobby,’ ” he said. In the end, the rule was not enacted. “But,” Mr. Shmulewitz said, “a crafty board with an experienced lawyer can make a rule to address something they think is objectionable without seeming to target the situation that caused the problem in the first place.”
Lobbies, it seems, are as much a flash point as elevators. Recently, Jay Molishever, a sales agent at Citi Habitats, took a client to look at an apartment on First Avenue in the high 50s. “It was a rainy day, but the doorman said there was a rule that buyers and brokers were not allowed to wait inside,”
Mr. Molishever said. “My buyer was furious. He’s Israeli but looks Hispanic and he was concerned that it was prejudice.” When the selling broker showed up, the buyer announced he didn’t want to live in the building. “He thought the rule was rude and exclusionary and not the sort of place that merited it,” Mr. Molishever recalled. “He said: ‘This isn’t a Park Avenue building.’ ”
In some instances, house rules seem more than anything like pre-emptive strikes. An Upper West Side co-op that wanted to bar a shareholder from using his apartment to screen what Mr. Shmulewitz characterized as “a highly charged politically controversial movie.” Thus, house rule No. 33, which in addition to limiting gatherings to 20 nonresidents and demanding — in advance — the names and addresses of all guests at a gathering of more than 10 people, also prohibited any gathering with a fund-raising purpose — a key component of the event in question.
Penalties for noncompliance vary. Fines are one option for a board. “They can seem like slaps on the wrist — $50, $100,” Mr. Sladkus said. “But they do start adding up for repeat offenders.” Some buildings set at a certain amount for a first offense, with subsequent offenses carrying steeper fines.
“And some governing documents provide for unpaid fines to be treated like unpaid maintenance or common charges,” Mr. Sladkus said, which would mean that offenders could lose nonessential services like food deliveries and use of the gym. And persistent violations could land the shareholder in the cross hairs of a claim “that gets your lease terminated,” he said.
Most boards think carefully before passing a rule and take pains to look at it from all angles, said Ms. Hanson of Douglas Elliman. “They’re residents, too,” she said, “so it’s in their best interest to be judicious.”
Perhaps checking out a building’s fiats isn’t quite as important as checking out its financials. “But you do want to see if they suit your lifestyle,” Ms. Talel said. “If you’re having 100 people to a party, some buildings require you hire someone to stand at the front door to identify everyone. Some buildings even have a limit on the number of these parties you can give each year.”
Still, whether it’s the cachet of the address, the flow of the rooms or the view from the library, “if you’re in love with an apartment you’re not likely to change your mind based on a house rule,” Mr. Shmulewitz said. “There are very few egregious enough for that.”
Copyright 2013 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.
Posted by James Shenwick