Building house rules are the "Thou shalt not’s" of the co-op and condo world. Unlike the proprietary lease or bylaws, which cover operational and administrative matters, the house rules cover behavior of the residents–you know, the types of situations that arise when more than one person lives in the same building…
Standard rules typically include policies about subletting, pets, noise, obstruction of hallways, amount of carpeting required in each unit, window cleaning, handling complaints about building services, cleaning of windows, plantings on terraces, garbage disposal, storage, things projected from windows or attached to building, or sills or terraces, where children may not play, hours construction work may be performed, building’s right to exterminate. In other words, quality of life issues.
How the house rules are enforced–and how well–can have a big impact on life in a particular building. If they are not enforced, residents pay the price, which could be anything from small annoyances to decreased safety or building damage. And if regulations are administered too harshly, residents can feel harassed. Techniques of enforcement have three levels of severity: talking and letter-writing; consequences such as fines or withheld services; and finally, legal action.
When asked which rules are most frequently violated, building managers are pretty much in agreement: noise and pets. "What’s so difficult about noise is that it’s subjective," says Gerard Picaso, president of Gerard J. Picaso, Inc., a property management company in Manhattan, "Someone who wants to sit and read is obviously going to be more disturbed than someone who’s moving around, with the radio or TV on, whether by floor-related or general noise. Most of the problem isn’t late at night–it’s after work when everyone’s home. One person might want to take a nap, while the people upstairs are having company, and walking around and moving chairs. Maybe Billy next door is practicing his violin for a half hour every day after school–that’s a normal part of life. If you’re extremely bothered by foot noise, or the sound of the elevator next to your apartment, you probably shouldn’t be living in that kind of situation."
According to Picaso, "Most buildings have an 80 percent carpeting rule; that has become the standard. If someone has carpeted 80 percent of their floor, and someone complains of their footfalls, there really isn’t much you can do about it. Generally you can write letters suggesting to the people upstairs that it might help if they took their shoes off when they come home from work, and make sure the kids aren’t bouncing a ball around. Usually people work it out."
Regarding illegal pets, attorney Errol Brett of the Law Office of Errol Brett in Manhattan says, "My policy is to find out about it immediately, because there is a city law that if a person has had a pet for 90 days, they can keep it."
Talking It Out
Mainly boards and managers seem to prefer personal communication, whether in person or by letter, to handle most infractions. Michael Berenson, executive vice president of AKAM Associates, Inc., a property management firm in Manhattan, says, "When we get complaints, the management company tries to sit down with unit owners to work out differences between them, or with the violator, and 80 percent of the time that works." Or as Al Volpe, vice president of the Federation of New York Housing Cooperatives and treasurer of Berkeley Towers, a co-op in Woodside, Queens, says, "You use jawboning. You talk to people. Ninety-eight percent will say yes [to complying]. That solves your problems."
Making sure people are aware of the rules is something many managers feel is an important part of this process. AKAM likes to give out handbooks covering policies and procedures at closings or when an apartment is sublet. Berenson also likes to circulate the house rules on an annual basis, highlighting items that have surfaced as particular problems. "Sometimes there are a lot of newcomers; and people do forget." In Volpe’s buildings, any changes in restrictive rules or regulations are posted on a public bulletin board outside the management office after each board meeting.
Larry Vitelli, senior vice president of Insignia Residential Group, reports that, in fact, only about ten percent of buildings use fines to enforce house rules. He describes various ways fines are used: One building charges $100 per month to keep a dog, and $1,000 per month for illegal subletting and another assesses fines for cars parked illegally. It’s $100 for the first offense, $200 each time thereafter. The board allows dogs, but charges $100 for each accident in a common area. These charges are billed along with maintenance. Manhattan co-op Lincoln Towers "has a sliding scale of fines for things such as dogs off their leash, not cleaning up after the dog, and bike riding on the sidewalk," Vitelli says. "The fines start at $25 for the first offense, $50 for the next, and $100 for the third. Then it’s time for legal action."
If you are going to assess fines, it’s good to keep a couple of things in mind. Donna Klein, executive director of the New York Association of Realty Managers (NYARM), says, "The fines and severity of each infraction have to be determined at the time the guidelines are drawn up. You can’t make it up as you go along. The residents need to know what you’re doing, so everyone is aware of the rules and the retribution."
Another thing to watch out for is that fines are within lawful limits. Brett advises, "Usually the proprietary lease sets forth what fines may be charged. Buildings should also be aware of legal limits on fines. A building might want to charge late fees for payment of the maintenance fee. It would be illegal to compound the rate of interest. In other words, if a resident didn’t pay January on time; they might be fined $25. Then, maybe they are late on February as well; now the building wants to up the January charge to $50 and add a February charge of $25. If the maintenance was $2,000 a month, this would be considered usurious, as the statutory rate of interest would be 24 percent a year, or two percent a month."
Brett is, in fact, against the use of fines to enforce house rules. "Issuing fines implies a judicial process on the part of the board, which I don’t recommend. I feel the appropriate action is to bring a proceeding in the state’s Supreme Court. In landlord/tenant court, the tenant does not have to have a lawyer, whereas in Supreme Court, it is required and already puts you up a leg. In the case of a pet violation, for instance, you can go in and say, here’s the house rule, here’s the pet, and if the information is correct, the Supreme Court judge will issue an injunction. If the resident doesn’t get rid of the pet, then the court will consider them in contempt and they will receive jail time and a real fine."
There are other reasons to avoid fines. Volpe says that his buildings occasionally charge $25 for repeat offenses, but explains, "No one gets an administrative charge without the entire board’s approval. We try not to charge anyone, because we don’t like to aggravate people. By jawboning and staying on top of things, the administrative fee can be avoided."
So, if one is opposed to fines, what other enforcement is there that has teeth, short of eviction proceedings? Depending on the amenities offered by a co-op, there may be services that can be withheld to good effect. Volpe says that with increased car ownership, buildings have long waiting lists for parking spaces. "If someone on the lists parks illegally, we tell them, ‘If you do it once more, we’ll take you off the list.’ That works!"
Vitelli describes a number of additional ways buildings can withhold services from repeat offenders. Many buildings restrict access to parking or the health club. Another solution is that the doorman not announce their guests. In one building, the visitors are told to phone the shareholder from a phone booth down the street, where they will have to wait to be met. And–to cover the full range of the issue–one building on Park Avenue prohibits cooking in the maid’s apartment. Violations result in the shareholder losing said apartment.
Of course, boards cannot create rules for every possible circumstance. Volpe recounts a recent episode where a new resident moved into an apartment on the first or second floor, and immediately had beautiful wood floors installed. "Then she rolled up the old carpeting, and threw it off her terrace! Now, we don’t have a rule covering that! But it’s obviously a violation, and after the board meets, it will probably agree to charge her $25." He explains, "When the rules and regulations don’t cover something, you’ve got to use your good judgment."
The Manhattan co-op in which Mary Ellen Goodman has been a long-time resident is small–only 14 units. Thus, they don’t have any hard and fast rules. Still, an incident in her building proved that serious problems can arise for everyone when a resident acts without the approval of fellow members. "Against our express disapproval," she recounts, "one owner put in a Jacuzzi and a hot water heater. As we predicted, it cracked the exterior wall–not seriously, but still–and drew hot water from his neighbors. When he went to sell, we did refuse to approve a buyer until he removed the Jacuzzi and the heater, and he did lose his first opportunity to sell. He threatened to sue for the money we had cost him, but his own lawyer said he had a poor case. So he undid the offending items, sold and moved away."
Each building has to decide what combination of enforcement best meets its members goals. In the end, Vitelli points out, "All methods work."
Ms. Goodman is a freelance writer living in Westchester.