BY DICK KORAL, DIRECTOR, APARTMENT HOUSE INSTITUTE
Apartment House Institute (AHI), a unit of the Division of Continuing Education of New York City Technical College of the City University of New York is organizing a technical society of New York multifamily building maintenance personnel, the Superintendent's Club of New York.
In New York, the title Superintendent is equivalent to the title Custodian or Caretaker used in other parts of the country. Often called Super, he (rarely she) may work alone or be in charge of a maintenance staff that includes a handyman, porters and, in luxury buildings, doormen and a concierge.
The responsibilities of building superintendents is becoming more highly technical as the technology of building operations becomes more complex, and more critical as efficiency of building operations affect housing's bottom line due to ever higher energy, water and building maintenance costs. On the other side of the coin are buildings' generation of atmospheric pollution. Hence, the professionalization of supers increases in importance.
AHI was created in the seventies in response to the advent of the energy crisis and its devastating impact on the viability of housing, especially low- and moderate-income multifamily buildings. Rapidly escalating costs for heating fuel and electricity were significant factors in landlord abandonment. A study by the NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) showed that the level of maintenance in multifamily buildings of all income levels was abysmal and that fuel consumption in poorer buildings, for instance, was often six times that which would be required in a well maintained building. AHI's objective was to train owners, managers and maintenance personnel to operate and maintain their buildings efficiently. Of these, the supers constituted a unique challenge to us.
With rare exceptions, building superintendents have little opportunity to share expertise, to learn of new equipment and maintenance procedures, etc. because they are isolated in their own buildings. There are no periodicals written for superintendents. By contrast, building owners have their real estate organizations and publications and the building managers, theirs. Hence, the incentive to enable maintenance personnel to have their own industry organization and publications.
Seven years ago, we experimented with the concept with the organization of an Hispanic supers club in the Spanish speaking neighborhood of Williamsburg, Brooklyn called Los Sures (in English, Southside) with a small grant from the now defunct NYS Energy Office. We were provided space for the club by the neighborhood local housing development fund corporation, which released its maintenance employees to meet every Wednesday from 11 AM to noon. Members paid modest monthly dues, elected officers and chose topics and speakers for upcoming meetings. Speakers from the college, Brooklyn Union Gas Company, the manufacturer of the most common type of heating control, etc. provided useful information. After the meetings, beverages and snacks were served. The grant ended in a little over a year, before AHI had been able to make the club self-sufficient, so it no longer exists. Still, the enthusiasm of its members, especially for the content of the meetings, proved the value of the concept of a Supers Club.
The members of the Los Sures Club, being drawn from very low-income buildings, were, by and large, semi-literate. With the advantage of drawing upon a larger area (the entire city rather than one neighborhood) and from both low- and moderate-income buildings, from the affordable, private and cooperative sectors, we could expect to find among the members more suitable leadership material.
In March of last year, we received a grant from the New York office of Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) to create a technical society of housing maintenance personnel. The director in charge of the Urban Technology Institute at the college brought in an additional sponsor, the US Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory (ANL). ANL sees the budding Club as a vehicle for transferring housing energy conservation expertise developed in the laboratory to the inner city. The Argonne representative, in turn, informed the Boston office of DOE of our work. The Boston office has enrolled the Club as a Rebuild America partner and is seeking funding for energy conservation work in the members' buildings.
The Club, which meets monthly at our college, has conducted seven meetings, the last two with technical presentations on lighting efficiency and window maintenance. On the 20th of October, the monthly meeting will be a field trip to the NYARM Real Estate Expo. This will be the first time that the members will attend a trade show. By going in a group, the experience will not be intimidating. November's meeting will feature a presentation on pest control. January and February will be devoted to heating topics.
The media find the Club of great interest. At the outset, Habitat, a leading magazine for cooperatives, published a long article on our organizational efforts. Recently, the president of the Club and I were guests on a real estate radio program. More recently, a large article on the Club in the New York Times drew not only calls from building owners for information on the Club to give to their superintendents but offers from several sources to make presentations at future meetings. Among these are a consulting engineer who will talk on "How NOT to Maintain a Building" at the March 1999 meeting and the office of the Manhattan District Attorney, who will address the supers on the importance of calling the DA's office upon witnessing any evidence that drug dealers or prostitutes are doing business in their buildings.
Member recruitment started with superintendents in my class in Managing Maintenance. Now, we are helped by notices in the newsletters of Association for Neighborhood and Housing Development, which represents the affordable housing groups in the city, and Council of New York Cooperatives. An important recruiter has been the superintendent training program of HPD, which reproduces the Club's monthly newsletter, Super!, distributing it to its trainees.
The goal is to create an independent technical society within two years, to be able to conduct itself and finance its activities. Hence, while I counsel, I make every effort to have the members make all decisions, setting meeting dates and topics. This is a new experience for the members, who have to be reminded that I am not the boss, they are! They elected a president, a vice president/membership secretary, and a treasurer. They are learning how to function as organization officers. They are learning about Robert's Rules of Order. They set the dues for superintendents at $25 a year, handymen and porters at $15, and Associate Members (vendors) at $100.
I function as the Secretary pro tem, writing, printing and mailing Super! to a large mailing list cobbled together from the directory of New York Association of Housing and Rehabilitation Officials, a list of client housing companies supplied by the New York office of The Enterprise Foundation, a list of Bronx landlords, etc. We are taking steps to incorporate in New York State and then to apply for federal 501©(3) tax exempt status. In the meanwhile, dues collected are deposited to the Club's account in our college's own 501©(3) foundation. All expenditures from the account must be approved by the Executive Committee (the officers). Because I am a professional person, who has been an active member and an officer of various professional organizations typically American, all these things come easily to me.
Through our sponsors, and venues such as this, I hope that our Superintendents Club will be replicated in many other urban areas. I will happily share any details that you need, will put any who ask on the mailing list to receive copies of Super!, and will appreciate any information on similar efforts elsewhere from which I may learn some valuable lessons.
Dick Koral is Director, Apartment
House Institute. He can be reached at 300 Jay Street, M214
Brooklyn, NY 11201, 718-260-5225, fax 718-260-5438, firstname.lastname@example.org.