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Having never been a New Yorker, the fact that most Big Apple residents pay mortgages, property taxes and co-op maintenance fees (which are sometimes the highest of all three!) has always been mysterious to me. But an enlightening feature titled Necessities or Frills? in this Sunday’s New York Times Real Estate section shed lots of light and brought the dynamics of the practice oh-so-close to home.

The article profiled a cluster of Queens co-ops called Southridge 1 where demographically disparate factions of residents have clashed over building repair and upgrade issues. The latest round of controversy revolves around a co-op board decision to “take down the walls, connecting two lobbies so that residents of one building would no longer have to walk outside to get to the laundry room in another. The $120,000 renovation also created an extra bathroom for residents’ use and a library nook, now outfitted with a few chairs, a table and donated paperbacks and board games.”

Modest as those improvements might sound, they have vocal detractors. Larry Wilkes, a former board member who bought his apartment in 1992 for $25,000, commented that, “I don’t feel that this place needs a glorious library. I spend less than a minute in the lobby, it doesn’t need to be the Taj Mahal.” He laments the “plethora of younger people hankering for more facilities,” wondering “why did they come here? We’re not a country club, we’re a nonprofit corporation. We don’t have to match the Joneses.”

On the other side of the fence from Wilkes are the newbies, younger residents like co-op board president Leon Geoxavier, who bought his apartment in 2008 and contends, “We didn’t even go with granite or marble paneling in the [elevators]. We did Formica that looks like marble, but some people are like, ‘Oh, this looks too fancy.’ Everyone’s property value rises, but the older people don’t want to go anywhere.”

The most insightful quote of the article came from an attorney who specializes in co-op and condominium law. “Co-ops are like families, and one of the areas where families disagree is how to spend money.” Substitute “towns” or “small cities” for “co-ops” and there’s wisdom for us here in Piedmont about our own upcoming spending decisions. As the article points out, the essence of community living, as frustrating as it may be, is this: you get a say, but not necessarily your way.

For those who haven’t already voted by mail, next week brings the opportunity to get our say about Measure H1, Piedmont’s School Improvement/Modernization Bond. Like some longtime Southridge 1 residents, there are Piedmonters who don’t see the point of issuing such a large bond to tackle the facilities improvement projects detailed in PUSD’s Facilities Master Plan. They’ll make noise about ‘transparency’ and a need to slow down and share more information with voters, but in reality there’s nothing to wait for. The only reason to vote ‘no’ is if, like Larry Wilkes, you’d prefer not to spend money for something you don’t personally value.

Others, including virtually every past and present School Board Member and City Council Member, all six schools’ Parents’ Clubs, ALPS, PAINTS, CHIME, Piedmont Makers, the Piedmont Education Foundation and the League of Women Voters, feel the time has come to make overdue and unavoidable improvements to our aging school buildings and that it’s worth the investment. They believe the additional annual tax – $60 if your house is assessed at $100,000, or $600 if it’s assessed at $1 million – is a reasonable price to pay to significantly upgrade Piedmont’s school facilities and increase their own property values.  

So we’ll all have our say. Then, the magic of representative government will take over. Southridge 1 has a nine-member co-op board. That board is responsible for sound fiscal management of residents’ maintenance fees on every project it undertakes. Piedmont, too, has an elected School Board (we all get a say there, too) as well as professional district employees. Individual voters are not supposed to be evaluating detailed cost estimates, contractor bids, or construction timelines. Pretending we are is just a silly delay tactic.

As Necessities or Frills points out, while co-op residents don’t necessarily get their way on every potential improvement, they do get to choose which building to live in. Piedmonters, too, have chosen to live in a town known for consistent financial support of a nationally recognized school district. This November 8th, as the bumper sticker says, we all need to vote as if our right to vote depended on it.