Five candidates vying for seats in two different Southern Brooklyn City Council districts participated in a heated debate on Sunday, focusing on reforming co-op laws to benefit as many as one million New York City residents of co-ops.
All candidates expressed support for a shareholder’s bill of rights, which would grant new protections from potentially abusive and exploitative boards of cooperative housing units. Despite the support, the frustrated shareholders – all with horror stories of their own – expressed a lack of confidence in much-needed reform and ultimately turned on the candidates.
The following five candidates, all Democrats, gathered with close to 60 co-op shareholders on August 11 for the drawn out three-hour debate: John Lisyanskiy and Mark Treyger (District 47 – Coney Island, Gravesend) and Chaim Deutsch, Ari Kagan and Theresa Scavo (District 48 – Sheepshead Bay, Midwood, Brighton Beach). City Council candidates responded to questions from a moderator before turning to an open question-and-answer format at the end.
The Cooperative Community Organization, the organizer of the event, planned for the meeting to be a direct form of communication between shareholders of cooperative housing and their political candidates.
The goal, the organizers said, was to alert the candidates to the magnitude of the situation, including the insufficient laws in the State and City of New York concerning rights of shareholders of co-ops, which they allege have caused a pattern of fraudulent elections, kickback schemes, power abuse, tenant evictions, and the funneling of shareholder money into private pockets. Co-op regulation continues to be a long-standing issue in New York City, as the government regards them as corporations, putting them under the same oversight agencies as major companies and financial institutions. Regulatory authorities rarely take on co-op cases or dedicate resources to oversight of co-ops specifically.
The candidates agreed that the situation is untenable.
“This is practicality. We can actually make change,” District 47 candidate John Lisyanskiy said after the event. “Tenants are very cynical about this whole situation. We need to be proactive.”
Mark Treyger, another District 47 candidate, said, “This is a huge issue. People all across New York City are affected. This meeting was a great first step for change. We need to keep organizing, to create partnerships between city, state and federal leaders and focus on enforcing tenant shareholder rights.”
But although the event was well-received by the shareholders in attendance, it seemed that few walked away hopeful about influencing direct change for tenant shareholders as a result.
“We have a disaster,” said an audience member, who asked not to be identified due to fear of adverse consequences from her co-op board. Referencing that she had been taken to court three times by her cooperative housing board, she cited a rise in building maintenance fees, and a lack of fund-distribution, as one of her top concerns.
When Theresa Scavo suggested requiring financial disclosure statements from those on co-op boards to avoid conflicts-of-interest, the audience member hastily responded with: “I can’t get a financial statement! No one will give it to you.”
The mood quickly turned after that, as the crowd began crowing their frustrations and pessimism.
“We came to America for freedom!”
“We are being harassed!”
“We need rights.”
“What can we even do?”
According to the Cooperative Community Organization’s website, New York City has about 370,000 cooperative apartments with approximately one million residents, and many thousands more with shared-ownership. The New York City Cooperative Community Organization has members in over 60 of these buildings in New York City.
Alex Litvak, the coordinator of this debate, said that a discussion between co-op shareholders and City Council candidates is vital for change. They noted that all candidates in both races were invited, including the controversial Trump Village co-op board president and District 48 candidate, Igor Oberman, who declined the invitation. Litvak said that Districts 47 and 48 have more than 100 cooperative buildings with about 30,000 voters in each, a large population that has the potential to influence election victory in both districts.
In an email following the event, Litvak wrote, “We will work with these candidates during the election period and wish them full success in the election. We also hope they will realize their promises to push cooperative housing issue to an ultimate solution.”
After the debate, the group’s members voted to endorse Ari Kagan for the District 48 race, and John Lisyanskiy in District 47.