Five Sneaky Truths About Co-op Living

Why does the housing co-op experience often feel like a permanent plumbing disaster? — Even in buildings where there are no permanent plumbing disasters?
Five subversive, mind-altering forces are at work. No one will tell you about them. Here they are.
1. The Daffy Duck Syndrome — This condition is not named for the popular cinema star. It’s the daffiness triggered by misleading duck verisimilitude.

Inhabiting a co-op apartment looks, acts, quacks, feels like a property-owning duck but genetic testing reveals a very different bird. What you really own are pieces of paper — a proprietary lease, a prospectus — contracts that stipulate choreography between you and the true apartment owner, the cooperative corporation.

You don’t really own your apartment. But your reptile brain insists you do. It’s crazy-making. The result? You’ve got a subliminal, sometimes overt simmering territorial tension between co-oper and co-op

2. Co-op Exceptionalism — The technical term is “illusory superiority.” To paraphrase the Billy “the Kid” Emerson song, “My Co-Op Is Red Hot; Your Co-Op ain’t Doodly Squat.”

Co–opers “know” that the history of Western civilization, a miraculous assortment of too strange to be accidental accidents, and divine intervention have converged to make their cooperative housing corporation the city’s one Sceptered Isle, one’s precious stone in a silver sea, etc. etc. Such sweet loyalty inspires Xenophobia and a mission:

Must protect co-op. Must defend against all enemies foreign and domestic. I’m looking at you, penthouse owner. Your trees must go.

3. Birth Trauma — Why are cauldrons of boiling oil poised on the ramparts to greet co-op applicants? Most inhospitable!

A co-op must beware of Trojan horses. Screening is a co-op’ s best defense against deadbeats, vandals, the litigious, the blatantly antisocial and other such undesirables.

The pathway to acceptance is a bumpy, graceless lurch through the birth canal — fraught with bruising disclosure, harsh scrutiny, probing personal questions, and lots of Virgo inflicted paperwork.

One Brooklyn co-op interviewed prospective buyers and their pets. In at least one instance the pet passed, but the owner failed. (Well the dog was a golden retriever.)

The process hurts. The scars remain. The trauma persists. and it can affect all future dealings.

4. The In Law Problem — Romance is a beautiful thing, But it leads to in-laws. Co-op living may be all about claiming your castle, renovating your nest, living in the dream location. But it also ties you to people you might possibly detest.

Your fellow shareholders are not unlike your in-laws. Some of these characters can be so embarrassing, annoying, obstructive, stubborn, unpleasant, reckless, dangerous, delusional, imperious, so out of their $%&$#! minds — and yet so close and influential. They’re like neighbors from hell, only worse. They are your partners.

5. Blood Feuds — Co-op government can be a blood sport. You find yourself in mortal combat with people who oppose and obstruct all that is good and right because it is their nature. It’s the gallant rebels vs. the sneering despots; the ragged remnants of civil order vs. the raging barbarians.

Add to this a cast of haters, resenters, bottom liners, rulemakers, rule breakers, paranoids and Pollyannas. Reasonable discussions? Ha! It’s a holy war, my friends. Pamphleteering! Buttonholing! Rumor mongering! And worse!

In another Brooklyn co-op an incendiary device was discovered in a board member’s doorway. Apparently there was a difference of opinion about lobby decorations. This weird force is sometimes observed and dismissed as politics. But differences are tribal and theological in the extreme.

Fortunately, there is a way to deal with all of this. It is called fantasy. Simply remind yourself that you are living in the best of all possible co-ops; that your admission to the co-op was really very smooth . . .all things considered; that your fellow shareholders are an asset to the community; that by and large your fellow shareholders cooperate; that all problems are met with rational solutions; all this, and the gentle, quiet knowledge that your fellow shareholders can all go to hell

Originally published in The Norm 8 January 2013

Illustration — Building the Ark. Credit: Wellcome Library, London