Thursday, February 16, 2006

Getting the monkey off our back, going off the deep end

"a 40-year old building with an elevator that I'm pretty sure is operated by a monkey in a shaft using a pulley system."

That's a perfect description of the elevators in our building. They were installed when the building was constructed in 1966, and haven't been significantly improved since then. It's not uncommon for them to stop working altogether, although they tend to have the decency to fail one at a time, so Grandma Rose and Millie and all the others who really rely on the elevators can get in and out of the building.

They're probably the favorite complaint topic around the building because they are like taxes:
  • they benefit us all
  • they're not going away
  • they're a pain for everyone
  • they seem to be out of our control

There was a minor improvement a few years ago when we switched maintenance contractors to a company that responded in an emergency--a time when both elevators did go out at the same time--when our then current contractor wouldn't even return our calls. Turns out that not only is the new contractor cheaper, the elevators fail much less frequently now. However, there's no getting around the fact that replacement parts, if they exist, are harder to find and more expensive to buy. In addition, the mechanics of the elevator are getting more and more touchy, like an old toaster. So we have to baby them, by putting a space heater in the elevator control room in the winter, for example.

It's not easy or fun, and it costs us all time and money.

Last year, however, we--the board of directors, that is--commissioned a replacement reserve study, as required by Virginia law. One is required every five years, and it had been seven or eight since our last one. Apparently nobody was aware of this requirement, including our management company, but that's another story unto itself. Once I brought it to the board's attention, we got right on it and had the study completed by late summer. In reviewing the assets of the association, the largest of which is the building itself that we all live in, the study reveals assets and liabilities with the goal of ensuring--as best it can--a stable financial future for the association.

It found that not only were the elevators 10 years past their regular lifespan, they had not been treated with great care over those 40 years, and so were well past due for replacement. It also found that the masonry on our building, including that on the terraces of the eighth floor (one of which Mama, Barky, and I live under) was failing to keep water out of the interior of the building, which was leading to rapid decay of both the masonry exterior and the structural element on the interior of the building. In addition to those two and other minor failures, it also found that our exterior doors and windows are "functionally obsolete."

In response to this last finding, one man told us that his doors and windows work "just fine." Yes, well, he's on the leeward side of the building, so his curtains don't blow back and forth when the wind is heavy, as they do in our unit. He also doesn't see the building's heating and cooling bill (there aren't individual meters for each unit), so he can't see how much money blows out the windows and doors that are both single paned and no longer adequately weatherstripped.

Although he does love to complain about rising fees that result from all that hot and cold air that pours through his "just fine" windows and doors.

To fix all of these elements at once--and the architect who conducted the study told us that they all have to be fixed immediately to prevent further damage and losses--the board had to recommend a $600,000 assessment, which is a one time charge, shared proportionately by all co-owners, above and beyond the regular monthly fees that we all pay. Admittedly, the board didn't handle the announcement of the proposed assessment well--we were rushing to get the word out and get started on the projects--but there was an violent backlash from the same owners who just the day before were grousing about the elevators and high energy costs/monthly fees.

Board members wanted to get to the work as soon as possible, based on the dire warnings of the study--like, that the elevators could both fail completely at any time--however, the co-owners wanted to put off the work for as long as possible. Many suggested for five years. Funny, that's not what you said early Sunday morning when you had to walk down eight flights of steps to get to church. Or later Sunday night when you had to carry your groceries up those same eight flights--fixing the elevators seemed a more pressing need at that time.

Most of them hadn't been at the previous meeting when I asked the architect if, when the masonry failed, we might see parts of it falling off. He replied that, yes, bricks and mortar would eventually begin to fall from the building if we didn't start repairs on them immediately. Do you want to catch a brick from the eighth floor on your head? I didn't think so. And they aren't going to get fixed for free.

My favorite neighborly moment was when one co-owner said that if the assessment passed, he was going to "call his lawyer and sue each of you [board members] personally."

Perhaps you could pay your lawyer to read you the sections of the Virginia Condominium Act and our association's bylaws that state in no uncertain terms that the board would be negligent to not act on such expert advice as a replacement reserve study that was conducted as required by the VA Condo Act itself. Your suit would last about at long in court as a snowball on the face of the sun. You would only prevail if we didn't do everything in our power, once we confirmed the validity of the study's findings, to get the assessment passed and the repairs completed as soon as possible.

It's not like board members are exempt from the bills either, or that we have more money than anyone else in the building to pay our share. It hurts us just as much as it does our neighbors, but it will also help us as much as it does our neighbors. To be honest, it would cost us more than our neighbors in the time we have to spend through the contracting and construction projects that the repairs would require.

In the end, the assessment passed. It took a heroic effort of our neighbor, the board president, who went door-to-door to answer everyone's questions about the study, the repairs, and their payments, but in the end, it passed 71-9.

Everyone who has advised the board along the way has predicted not only lower energy usage (which, with rising energy costs, might not lead to reduced energy bills) and faster, more reliable elevators, but also an increase in property values of several thousand dollars per unit. This is based on their experience with similar projects in other locations in our area. There are no guarantees, of course, but I am waiting for the day when someone has the temerity to actually thank the board for passing the assessment.

I'm waiting, but I'm not holding my breath.

Now that it's all over and I had some time to let all the heated debates--and my reactions to them--fade in intensity a bit, I wanted to let y'all know about it, since that's been weighing on my mind and taking up quite a bit of time. In another year, I'm sure that I'll be writing a similar post about how the contracting and construction process went...there's something to look forward to.

But seriously, this was a good lesson to me about going off half-cocked about what I see as a screwball scheme by a legislator, manager, or other authority. I hope that before I do that the next time, I spend some time asking questions, getting the facts, and understanding the issues...before I go off the deep end.


  1. Anonymous8:24 PM

    WOW you have more moxy than I. This is another example of why I will die a lonely hermit, as I hate to get to know my neighbors and desise any sort of housing commitee telling me I cant have a lawn jockey on my porch(see dave Jernbergs dad for that one). You did well though and just yesterday I watched the Sienfeld in which Kramer runs for board president. Also if you dont mind, if you do I understand, but what does a unit like that go for? It is a whole new world to me to own a home in a hi rise. they are building multi million dollar ones here in Vegas now. OK my Itunes just went from Jefferson Airplane to Diana Krall. Also email Paul Fickett at Please check my spelling on cirque.

    King Out

    PS we went from Krall to kiss

  2. Hey, there's still two ways to do things: the nice way, and the Franklin way. Just ask my neighbors. They'll tell you that I'm about as personable as ever.

    We weren't too excited about buying in a high rise either, but that was all we could afford in Alexandria. And we're not even in Olde Towne Alexandria; we're out in West Alexandria, which is like North Palm Springs. However, all real estate prices here are rising here. We just got our annual assessment and our property value went up 78 percent in the last year to 260K or so, which is much more than we paid three years ago.

    Of course, that means that taxes will soon follow that rise. Sometimes it's not so good to be a tax and spend liberal, you know?

    That said, there are also high-rise condo buildings around here that we can't afford to park in front of. All depends on how old, how posh, how fashionable, and so forth, just like with houses. Some people don't want a lawn to mow.

    Good to know that Cheney's eavesdropping on your iPod too, King.

  3. Anonymous7:55 AM

    $600K divided among how many units?

    This is exactly why the VA Condo Act requires periodic reassessments of the reserve: Your co-owners do get ticked off at surprises. CA requires the same reassessments, I think more frequently, and many boards here don't do them either.

    As with car repair, some people have the means to fix everything right away, and some people's budgets make it make more sense to spend $1 million over 3 years instead of $600K this year. Hospitals practice triage too.

    Especially when prices are rising so fast, the most recent move-ins are likely to be living in a higher income bracket to begin with, so a $10K assessment fits their budget better. For a guy who paid $50K for his place 10 years ago (or whatever), $10K sounds high. If you paid $200K a year ago, even though you're probably still stretching to make every mortgage payment, $10K is more in line with your revenue stream. (And even then it's a hefty chunk.)

    Sometimes a shrewd board will offer three options to the electorate, with one obvious best choice. That way people don't feel like the cost is being rammed through, as they might with a yes-no vote. Going door-to-door to explain was a good call too, and clearly effective. Still, I bet the ones who complained about the assessment are going to look at any window you install and complain again. Either you should never have spent so much on the Mercedes Benz of windows (even if it's really a Volkswagen), and they're still convinced you could have got away with half the assessment, or for the amount you're spending on these windows, they'd expect them to be covered in gold leaf, and if you hadn't been ripped off so badly you could have got away with half the assessment.

    Lovely world.

  4. 106 units, but the assessment is distributed proportionately. Owners with larger units, who also have a larger percentage in any vote, pay more.

    If one percent of the assessment was $100, for example, an co-owner with 1.09 percent ownership in the association would pay $109, while a co-owner with .71 percent ownership--because they own a smaller place--would only pay $71.

    We became intimately familiar with all of the issues that you describe. The one that we didn't expect was the overwhelming trend among co-owners to decry the burden of the assessment as too much for their neighbors to bear in public meetings, demanding that, for the good of the building and out of compassion for those who could not pay, we drop the assessment entirely, spread it over five to ten years, and so forth. In private conversations with these same people, however, they calmly and confidently told us that they would have no trouble making the payments, and that they thought the assessment was in the best interests of the building.

    That's why going door-to-door was so critical, as was having private, written ballots, rather than a voice vote or some other public declaration. No one wanted to stand up in front of their neighbors and say that they supported an assessment--hell, none of us on the board wanted to say that, but we have a legally mandated duty to do so--but they were perfectly willing to, in private levy such a fee.

    An instructive lesson in the importance of confidential ballots.

    At the end of the day, people made tough choices that will result, I think, in a a more secure financial plan for the association and increased comfort and financial security for each co-owner. They chose to sacrifice their short-term comfort for long term gains, to sacrifice some of their personal comfort for the good of the order. That they did so after so many public declarations that they would not do so, we were surprised. But, at the end of the day, they reaffirmed my faith in, my optimism about, my neighbors and people in general. It was hard work, and I wouldn't want to go through it again, but often, what is most rewarding requires the hardest work.

    In this case, the reward made the work worthwhile, both for the tangible outcome and the deeper understanding of and renewed faith in my neighbors and co-owners.