By Robert Kroll
Life in an apartment building is tough; it’s treacherous, death-defying. Apartment residents are literally at the mercy of all the other people who live, sublet, and visit in their building. If one person leaves a burning cigarette or a candle alight, you could become a crispy critter. If one person leaves the front door ajar, everybody is at risk. Stoves, ovens, toasters, and blenders are all potential weapons of mass destruction.
In other words, we co-op, condo and rental apartment tenants are all dependent on the good sense, care, and responsibility of everyone else in the building. The backstop for those people, when they drop the ball and put us at risk, is the Superintendent. The Super is the town cop, the referee, and the shortstop picking off runners at 2nd and 3rd.
Fortunately for many of us, there are those apartment occupants at the far end of the OCD spectrum, the obsessors, who see things and say things. Their eyeballs, ears, and noses save lives. Here are some recent samples:
“Hey, the cellar window is open…that could allow our water pipes to freeze.” “I’m getting hot water coming out of my cold water tap in the kitchen.”
“I heard the steam boiler firing constantly…that can’t be good.”
“There’s a tree in the neighbor’s yard that is leaning on our building.”
“My chimney flue is not drafting properly, and it fills my apartment with smoke. Does anyone else have this problem?”
“I smell gas!”
These are not problems that the occupants, generally, are expected to handle personally. These issues get passed on to the Super, who either is skilled enough to make some of these repairs or knows people who are.
Knowing people who are skilled in residential building repair is a skill in itself. It is not enough to know someone who knows something. As a co-op Super, I have discovered that you must cultivate people with skills. You must nurture them; make them feel special and appreciated. The good repair and maintenance people are always busy and are not often looking for work. Work comes to them. You want them to want you. You want them to feel good coming to your building. The ones who feel appreciated will show up much, much sooner. They will send over their best and most efficient people.
But the Super’s job does not end with his or her bringing in a chimney sweep, an electrician, or the fire department to the building. The Super must aggressively follow through, and oversee what is done and left undone by these repairmen. The Super must ask questions and get complete, checkable answers. Supers must know the right questions to ask and understand the answers and if they don’t understand, they need to work on that until they do.
What I am describing is the application of a process used for decades in commerce and industry: the notion of applying “quality control” or “QC” to the running of a multi-unit residential building. It is one of the reasons why the Super’s job will not soon be taken over by a robot. It is easier to teach a robot to answer a question than to figure out the right question to ask, and then know when you are getting a snow job. That is human intelligence.
Quality control, that wondrous process that catches and minimizes errors, inefficiencies, and embarrassments, needs to be employed in the property management and caretaker field to ensure positive results from the efforts of the Super. Licensed plumbers, electricians, carpenters, and boiler makers are expert at what they do, but they are not infallible.
A few examples of failures to QC a project, and the waste and disappointment that ensues:
—On a $100,000 chimney maintenance project, two of ten chimney flue liners were not installed as contracted for and most of the liners that were installed did not penetrate as deeply as they were supposed to and resulted in fireplace smoke problems. No one can use their fireplace until this is resolved.
—Replacement window installers installed a defective window that slammed shut and shattered. The window was not fully repaired. The window does not stay open when it should and may close on people’s hands, or head.
—The steam boiler heat controller was reset and put on settings that turned the boiler on at inappropriate times. The residents were either freezing or uncomfortably warm and much fuel was wasted.
—Electricians installed an exterior light timer that fell apart within a month. Residents were left fumbling for their keys in the dark.
—Roofers left a vent hole into a chimney flue open to the elements causing interior water leak that ruined plaster. The occupants wound up paying $1,100 to a plasterer to patch the bulging plaster.
Some of these are relatively trivial, but all of them required further efforts to complete the repairs effectively. All these examples could have been caught prior to the departure of the appropriate tradesman and dealt with. Instead, completion of these projects was delayed for weeks or months and in some cases required finding a second tradesperson to complete the job. This is not necessarily slumlordism. It is sloppy or unsupervised work. Quality control at a relevant time can save a great deal of aggravation for residents and the Superintendent.
If you live on the fourth floor of a 100 unit building at Christopher and Gay Streets, or the third floor of a MacDougal Street walkup, your life can depend on whether your Super is able to apply quality control to his or her work or not. Otherwise, you are living under a regime of squalid-y control and are very much at risk. Take care, tenement dwellers and I wish you well until my next installment of Superhero arrives on your quaint little West Village doorstep.