Q. My super told me that this year our co-op board plans to ban Christmas trees from the building. Is this allowed? Why would the board do this? Do I have any recourse?
A. Is your super’s name Ebenezer, perhaps? A Christmas tree embargo is an excessively Scrooge-like move—even for a New York City co-op—but has little chance of surviving a challenge, our experts say.
“Wow! This is a first,” says Douglas Heddings, the executive vice president of sales at the brokerage CORE. “It surprises me that a co-op board would consider banning such a popular religious symbol.” Corcoran Group broker Deanna Kory concurs: “I have never heard of this. I can't even understand necessarily the reason why.”
Here’s why: real trees create a lot of extra work for building staff, between damage to hallways and light fixtures when residents cart them upstairs, to an increased risk of fire when they’re combined with decorative lights or candles, to the mess of pine needles that inevitably accompanies their disposal come the new year. “The trees are molting; every piece of the tree is left in the elevator by residents that don’t really think twice about it,” says Mark Levine, executive vice president of Excel Bradshaw Management Group, a property management firm.
That said, a prohibition that extends past common areas and into your apartment may violate religion-based housing discrimination laws, says real estate attorney Steve Wagner of Wagner Berkow LLP. “It’s one thing to say you can’t practice your religion in the hallways,” he says. “It’s another thing to say you can’t practice your religion in the home.” Additionally, many by-laws and proprietary leases in condos and co-ops, respectively, explicitly state that owners have the right to decorate their apartments, he adds.
Your best bet is to ask for a copy of the written policy that (hopefully) outlines the reasoning behind the rule; you can then consider its merit and challenge it accordingly, says property manager Thomas Usztoke of Douglas Elliman Property Management. “Word of mouth by a super doesn’t make it an official board-initiated policy, nor does it mean he or she explained the policy’s nuances correctly,” he explains.
“If the policy is not written and the building then tries to go and enforce through either removing the tree or fining the resident for having the tree,” says Levine, “there will likely be no legal standing to carry through with the threat as there wasn’t a written rule in place with penalties for violations of the rule noted.”
A better bet than outlawing trees entirely? Implement a set of rules for residents to minimize mess and damage. “Establish a clear protocol for bringing in the tree and removing the tree after the holidays to ensure that the building is kept clean and the staff does not have to work overtime to clean up after the mess,” advises Levine.
Luckily, if your Christmas tree does catch on fire, the damage would be covered by apartment insurance, as would damage to other apartments if you face a lawsuit, notes apartment insurance broker Jeff Schneider of Gotham Brokerage.