Mixed Support for Co-op Bills

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City Council members cite pros and cons

A bill designed to prevent discrimination on cooperative boards is receiving mixed support from two council members representing parts of the Upper East and Upper West sides.

The bill, introduced by Brooklyn Democratic Councilman Lewis Fidler, would require co-op boards to respond to applicants within a 45-day window and provide disapproved applicants a certification that they were not discriminated against, signed by all members of the board.

However, Fidler said that when he introduced the bill he knew there would be changes to its provisions and welcomes input from other council members.

"I opened up the hearing by saying that the bill as it presently stands would have to be altered, that numbers of suggestions had been made by people on all sides of the question that would make it a better bill," said Fidler. "I'm sure there will be many changes."

Fidler is not, however, willing to accept that there isn't a problem in co-op discrimination.

"Any attorney who practices regularly in the world - as I do - laughs out loud at the idea that there is no discrimination going on in co-op approvals," said Fidler.

One marked difference between Fidler's anti-discrimination bill and one introduced by Brooklyn Democratic Councilman Brad Lander is that Lander's bill would require co-op boards to provide reasons to a denied applicant why they were denied. Detractors of that bill say that it would discourage co-op members from serving on boards and could expose individuals on these boards to lawsuits.

That provision isn't part of Fidler's bill. "The bills designed not to punish, but to prevent," he said. Fidler's bill, which had a hearing April 30, has gained more traction than Lander's bill.

Fidler added that the majority of buildings don't discriminate but that it's enough of a problem that it should be addressed through legislation. "There are mechanisms in place now to report discrimination]," said Fidler. "But what this bill does is try and make it harder to discriminate."[

He said compelling everyone on a co-op board to certify that no unlawful discrimination took place during an application process would make it hard for discrimination to occur because each member would have to lie.

The other main tenet of Fidler's bill would require boards to rule on an application within 45 days of receiving it. He said some boards effectively deny an application by allowing it to languish for months without ever ruling on it, a view that District Five Councilwoman Jessica Lappin, representing parts of the Upper East SIde, is sympathetic to.

"The complaints that I have heard over the years have not centered around discriminatory complaints, they've centered around a board refusing to take action for whatever reason," said Lappin. "I think it would make some sense for us to discuss having a time frame by which a board had to make a decision."

Lappin said that discussion is crucial as many boards have irregular schedules and oversee applications to buildings of various sizes. "If this bill were to move forward I certainly hope there would be changes to it," said Lappin.

District Six Councilwoman Gale Brewer, representing parts of the Upper West Side, said she's served on a condo board and has many progressive friends who serve on co-op boards.

"They feel that if the bill were to pass, people would get off of co-op boards," said Brewer.

Brewer said that she doesn't want anybody to be discriminated against and thinks that the city's Commission on Human Rights may need to be more aggressive in preventing discrimination by sending applicants before co-op boards undercover. "They need to do more of that," said Brewer. She also said the commission needs to make it easier for individuals to lodge complaints of housing discrimination and get answers in a timely manner.

However, Fidler said undercover operations aren't realistic because the process between a buyer and seller, before the application goes before a co-op board, necessitates legitimate financial disclosures.

As for the proposed deadline in which a board would have to respond to an applicant, Brewer said 45 days is not a lot of time on a volunteer board that may not meet over the summer and have to schedule meeting times in which all volunteers are available.

Brewer said she's heard from many co-op board members that the application process simply takes a long time, especially when the board requests additional information or documents from the applicant. "It's not a 1-2-3," said Brewer. "It takes a lot longer than 45 days."

Stuart Saft, Chairman of the Council of New York Cooperatives and Condominiums, said the bill is unnecessary and that discrimination on co-op boards doesn't exist.

"[The bill] is not needed because the law already adequately protects buyers who feel that they have been discriminated against," said Saft, during his testimony at the bill's first hearing on April 30. "Perhaps this is the reason why the council has found no evidence to believe that housing discrimination exists among co-ops."

Saft said the bill doesn't take into consideration the time it takes to review an application due to the various contingencies that occur during the application process. He also said the bill would discourage co-op members from serving on the board and is a threat to the co-op system.

"What this bill does do is assume that the boards and the owners, who elect the boards, are somehow involved in a scheme to discriminate, which the City of New York and its thousands of administrators has been unable to figure out, so the City Council is going to create more paperwork and more of an opportunity for lawyers to sue co-ops for missing deadlines and failing to act the right way, and that is somehow going to solve the problem that doesn't exist," said Saft.

Fidler, who adamantly believes a discrimination problem does exist, said some aspects of the bill - such as how long a board would have to respond to an application - need to be worked on. He allowed that there are "legitimate complaints about some of the technical provisions, but I think in the end they can be resolved."

The bill was laid over by the Committee on Housing and Buildings after the hearing on April 30 and is still being considered. No date for a second hearing or vote has been scheduled.

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