Co-op Board Asked to Interview Homebuyer's Child, Mom Says

DNAinfoMay 26, 2015

MIDTOWN EAST — They’re not kidding around.


A co-op board at a fancy Tudor City apartment building doesn’t just grill prospective buyers to see if they would make suitable neighbors — it also wants to interview their children.


In what could be a first for the city — even in one with such a cutthroat and capricious real estate market — co-op board members at Woodstock Tower have instructed buyers to bring along their kids to interviews that determine whether they get apartments.


That’s what one buyer, Joyce Kacin, said in a complaint she sent last year to state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and Mayor Bill de Blasio, claiming the co-op board made the unusual request to her — and that it was discriminatory.


“I was invited to a Coop Board interview,” Kacin, 53, wrote in her two-page complaint. “However, the invitation included the need to bring my minor child! Why, in Heavens Name, would a minor child be required to participate in this?? Why would a child be required to go through such an ominous meeting? What could the child add to the interview that anyone has any right to question or expect?”


Kacin, a publishing executive, said in the Aug. 30 complaint that she reached out to Schneiderman and de Blasio because “discrimination is a blight [they] have vowed to defend” and believed this was affecting co-op buyers and their children around the city. She fumed that the Woodstock board’s request to bring her “minor” son to the interview violated the city’s Human Rights Law, which makes it illegal to reject a purchaser for having a kid.


 “Questions and requirements in these areas are illegal,” she wrote in her complaint. “But, the slippery slope of empowered Board Members took undue license in my case, and I dare say, I’m not alone. If even the ‘existence of children’ cannot be questioned, then how can it be legal to require their participation in a Coop Board interview?”


Kacin said not only is interviewing kids discriminatory — it could leave them scarred.


“Should the applicant be denied, what would the effect on the child be? Children would feel only one thing: responsible,” she wrote. “That is just how children are built. The child would assume the burden of having lost the home that was the hope of the family. That is wrong, unfair, and even abusive.”


Kacin said the board president, Susan Isaacs, only dropped the request to meet her son after she wrote a long letter to the board explaining her reasons for not wanting to bring him along. Even then Kacin wondered whether Isaacs, 71, backed off on the request because she realized it was discriminatory and left the building open to legal action.


“Did she recognize that if she persisted she might be faced with a lawsuit and that is why she relented?” Kacin wrote in her complaint.


A co-op board interview is perhaps the most dreaded step for any apartment hunter looking to buy a unit in a cooperative building.


The board chooses who lives in its building by either rejecting or approving the apartment sale after meeting the prospective buyer. Adding to the unnerving experience is that the board doesn’t have to explain its decision.


Doug Heddings, an executive vice president at real estate brokerage firm CORE, said that prospective buyers shouldn’t panic about a co-op board interviews, but they often do because of “the private and almost secretive atmosphere” surrounding them.


“No two boards are alike and it is like interviewing for a private club,” he said. “Boards are also dynamic so it is difficult to ever know precisely what is being sought in a prospective shareholder at any given time.”


Heddings and other real estate experts told DNAinfo New York that some co-op boards make unusual requests like wanting to meet a buyer’s significant other or a pet dog before deciding, but asking to speak to a child was unusual.


“I have never in my 23 years in this business heard of a co-op board interviewing a child,” Heddings said. “I can’t fathom why they would want to interview children unless they had some sort of difficulty with other shareholders’ children in the building.”


Kacin, who splits her time between New York and Connecticut, told DNAinfo she bristled when the Woodstock co-op board asked her to bring her son to her interview over her potential purchase of a $250,000 pied-a-terre at the 32-story landmarked building on East 42nd Street.


“I nearly walked away from the apartment,” she said, declining to give the age of her son at the time. “I didn’t want my son to be there. I didn’t want to him to deal with this.”


Kacin said that, in her case, she feared if she refused the board’s request, its members would reject the sale and she would lose a $25,000 deposit.


There were also non-financial factors that made walking away tough.


“It’s daunting to consider backing away from the investment of time, the relinquishing of privacy, financial information, and the swallowing of pride to begin all over again at another location,” she wrote in her complaint.


Kacin initially told her broker she wouldn’t bring her son to the interview, but he advised her to comply with the board’s wishes.  When she stood firm, the broker called the seller’s broker, who also said she should follow the board’s request.


Kacin’s broker suggested she contact her lawyer, who said, after looking over her application, that he “felt confident” he could fight and win her deposit back if it were forfeited. But that didn’t assuage Kacin because a fight would mean lawyer fees.


Kacin, who describes herself as a “mature and educated woman” in her complaint, said she decided to take a different tack — by writing the board a note.


“I wrote a letter to the Coop Board and gently, sweetly, and diplomatically asked them to interview me alone, without my child,” she said in her complaint. “To ‘apologize’ for my request, I went into descriptions of my child and my life circumstances which, in hindsight, were an invasion of my privacy and should have been unnecessary.”


The letter swayed Isaacs, the board president, to drop the request to meet Kacin’s son. After interviewing only Kacin, the board approved the sale in April 2014.


When Kacin moved in, she cleared the air with Isaacs over a cup of coffee.


Kacin told DNAinfo that Isaacs said she always asked to meet any buyer’s kids. But Kacin said she believes the board president was not intentionally trying to discriminate and didn’t know that it could be violating the city’s Human Rights Law.


“My point in the [complaint] was to show the ill-preparedness, the lack of training that co-op boards have and real estate agents have,” she said. “They don’t know that this is not legal. It’s completely unethical, but it’s also illegal.”


While most real estate experts told DNAinfo that the Woodstock board’s request to meet her child seemed unique, Kacin believes this practice is going on around the city.


She said boards have become too empowered, making decisions with impunity.


“It’s so discriminatory,” she said. “They could not like the freaking shirt you’re wearing and you could not get in.”


That’s why, even though Kacin said the Woodstock board "saw the light" and believes it is no longer interviewing prospective buyers’ children, she wrote a complaint to Schneiderman and de Blasio in hopes that they’ll crack down on this practice citywide.


The attorney general’s real estate finance bureau enforces rules and regulations governing the sale of real estate, including cooperatives. It also looks into complaints of wrongdoing about developers or sponsors of condominium and cooperatives.


DNAinfo New York obtained Kacin’s complaint from Schneiderman’s office through a Freedom of Information Law request.


A Schneiderman spokesman declined to say whether his office is or had investigated the complaint. However, Kacin said she received a letter from the attorney general’s office telling her it was not pursuing an investigation but that she could take her own action against the board.


Mayor de Blasio’s office did not respond to requests for comment.


Isaacs and Orsid Realty, Woodstock’s property manager, declined to comment for the story, or say if the board’s practice of interviewing children is continuing.


One real estate law expert, Adam Leitman Bailey, said he believed the board was legally allowed to interview children, so long as the parents accompany the child and it doesn’t reject the potential buyer solely on the basis of having a kid.


He noted that under New York law “there are no limits on a cooperative’s power to want to meet with a family member, whether it be a child or a dog.”


Bailey also said buyers shouldn’t be surprised their kids are getting grilled considering they’re looking for a home in Manhattan.


“Remember that this is New York City where 5 year olds are interviewed to get into kindergarten,” he said.