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PROMOTING EXCELLENCE IN NYC MULTI-FAMILY BUILDING OPERATION AND MAINTENANCE

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Porters, Handymen, and Doorman, or PHD's Blog
 
  About the Formation of the Association  
  (Dick Koral's 04/29/99 Address About The Formation of The Supers Club of New York)  
 

 
  What follows is a short history of how the Association was formed.  
 

 

The issues of global warming, energy efficiency and pollution abatement apply to housing as much as to other sectors of the economy.

In the Seventies, New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development's Division of Energy Conservation (alas! now defunct) conducted a pioneer survey of fuel consumption in the City's multifamily buildings. It surveyed old, new, high-rise and low-rise buildings, those that used natural gas and those that used Nos. 2,4 and 6 oil. The data were normalized in terms of annual Btu consumption per apartment. The startling conclusion was that the ratio of consumption was 6 to 1 and that the principal factor that determined a building's place on that scale was its general level of maintenance!

Penny Wise and Pound Foolish
With significant exceptions, multifamily building management invests very little in the education and training of its workforce. This is true of affordable housing as well as the private sector. Except in the case of some luxury buildings, maintenance personnel are recruited from among the least educated and trained sectors of the population, paid the lowest wages possible, and almost no effort is made to educate and train the workers. There seems to be little understanding that this policy is penny wise and pound foolish. The penalty to owners is rapid deterioration of building systems, hence high maintenance costs and high energy costs and, to occupants, discomfort.

I became acutely aware of this phenomenon when, in the late Seventies, I began to teach classes of building maintenance workers in efficient operation and maintenance. I had been warned that the effort was a waste inasmuch as building superintendents (in New York, the term for chief custodians) were largely an ineducable bunch! I discovered that the opposite was true. The New York supers were eager and quick learners. For the first time in their lives, some one was telling them how those boilers they had struggled with for years really worked and how to optimize their performance. As I got to know them, I sensed that, had my students been born to a higher estate, they probably would now be high-level technicians and engineers.

Early Experiment: The Los Sures Supers Technical Association
Some years later, under a contract that my Apartment House Institute had with the (alas! Also now defunct) New York State Energy Office, I was granted a pittance to create a building maintenance worker technical organization in Hispanic Williamsburg, Brooklyn, called the Los Sures Supers Technical Association. It met every Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in a storefront donated by the Los Sures HDFC management. With the help of my then Hispanic secretary, each week we discussed, bilingually, a topic chosen by the members. It was a great success while it lasted, re-confirming my appreciation for the maintenance worker. When the grant ran out a year later, the workers had not yet learned how to run a technical society, and it died.
 
Almost all professions, from doctors to plumbers, have their professional societies and their professional publications that keep the members abreast of developments. Identification with these societies and publications help the individuals to practice their professions but, perhaps just as important, they bolster the individuals' sense of self worth. This I knew as a member of quite a few of them. How impressed are some people when I hit them with these mouthfuls, that I am a member of the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-conditioning Engineers or the Association of Energy Engineers!
To the best of my knowledge, the building worker has none such, except, in some cases, he/she belongs to a powerful union with a decent education program.

Birth of the Superintendents Club of New York
Last year, we solicited and received a grant from the New York Office of Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC-NY) to organize a technical society of maintenance workers. LISC is interested in keeping the affordable housing that it finances in the black and has the sophistication to know that maintenance worker-training can be critical to achieving that end. The initial recruits came from my class that was partially subsidized by LISC, The Management of Maintenance, in which there were many superintendents from the Affordable Housing sector.

At our first meeting in March 1998, the students named the new organization The Superintendents Technical Association and elected its officers. I was elected the secretary. What ensued is certainly remarkable.

The Club began to hold monthly meetings on our campus. I created its newsletter, Super! and collected lists of community based organizations from The Enterprise Foundation and LISC and other sources. Today, we mail out over 800 free copies a month to maintenance workers, managers and owners. In March, we created the first Spanish language edition, to increase the outreach of our organizing efforts to the great number of Hispanic maintenance workers in New York.

The officers set modest dues for voting membership: $25 a year for superintendents and directors of maintenance, $15 for handypersons and porters. Later, in response to others who were knocking on the door, we created non-voting associate memberships; $100 for vendors, which includes an ad each month in Super!, and lesser amounts for building owners, co-op board members, managers, management companies and professionals. Some of these are in it to support what they believe to be critically needed aid for housing.

As of this writing (March 24, 1999) total paid membership is up to 43 and the enrollment rate is accelerating. Attendance of members and guests at monthly meeting, so far, peaked at over 45, so we have had to hold our meetings in a large room in a nearby building in space generously afforded us by a social agency, Services for the Underserved (SUS).

The announced goal of this Apartment House Institute project is to create a completely independent, self-sustaining technical-professional society of multifamily building maintenance personnel in about two years. Now one year into the project, I think I might have been a little optimistic about the timeframe. The officers are quickly learning how to conduct organizational affairs but still depend mightily on this poor, if enthusiastic, secretary and the mainly in-kind services of this unit of New York City Technical College. It is projected that, supplementing the meager income from newsletter advertising, that there will be income from vendors at a Supers Trade Show that needs be organized and advertising revenue from the newsletter grown into a slick professional journal, the usual sources for non-profit societies.

Help from Argonne National Laboratory
Early on, the Apartment House Institute's efforts to organize the ASupers Technical Association@ caught the attention of a professor in our college who had created the Urban Technology Institute (UTI) and its Journal. He brought the Club's activities to the attention of a unit of  DOE's Argonne National Laboratory concerned with energy conservation in housing, with which UTI had been working. Argonne was impressed with the possibility that the Club could be a prototype for organizations that could help it with its mission, the transfer of its expertise to the inner cities, and augmented LISC's funding with its own.

That was encouraging, to say the least! Since then, the Club's relationship with DOE has grown. The Club is now a  Rebuild America@  partner and the members of the Club were promised continuing technical help with any energy-related upgrades of their buildings.

The Club as a National Model?
As we succeed with building the local New York operation, we are ever more aware of the essential replicability of the concept in other urban areas of our country. To test the thesis, I addressed a conference last Spring at the University of Louisville (with minimal results) and I eagerly accepted the suggestions of my colleagues in the energy conservation community to present at this conference. My objective here is to find out what you think of the concept and how need it be modified if it is to work in your communities. Hence, this presentation is brief and, I hope, the dialogue will be longer. But first, a few more details:

Maintenance Personnel and the Web
It turned out that one of the first superintendents to join the Club has a little business on the side designing and hosting sites on the Web. He has put many hours into creating  www.nysupersclub.com. Our Web presence rivals some of the best, with useful articles about the Club and technical matters and many links to other sites of interest to supers. Many who we did not know signed up for free trial subscriptions to Super! and a number of recruits have come in that way, too.

The number of our members who own computers and mine the Web is a small fraction of the total. We devote fifteen minutes of every meeting to a discussion, led by our webmaster, on purchase of personal computers, types of software, and relevant sites on the Web. It's a struggle, as so many of the supers have been told that they belong Downstairs and that computers are the world of the Upstairs directors, managers and owners. However, the bottom line of the whole project is empowerment, for their sake and that of society. The battle to enable the super to be computer literate is one front in the battle for empowerment.

 

 
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