Bill Morris in COVID-19 For Habitat Magazine
On April 2, 2020, the Small Business Administration (SBA) ruled that housing cooperatives were ineligible for a slice of the $659 billion of forgivable loans provided by the CARES Act’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).
It was the shot heard round the co-op world, and in New York City it mobilized a small army of advocates who set out to reverse a bureaucratic decision they viewed as unfair and potentially ruinous to housing co-ops. The point man in bringing the army together was Geoffrey Mazel, a partner at the law firm Hankin & Mazel and legal advisor to the Presidents Co-op & Condo Council (PCCC). This group, which represents more than 100,000 units of housing, now faced its biggest battle: wrestling a New York City issue onto the national stage.
Mazel understood the magnitude of the challenge as well as its source: housing cooperatives are not common outside metropolitan New York City, and few national politicians are familiar with their peculiarities or their needs. As Mazel puts it, “Nobody outside the metro New York cares about housing cooperatives.”
Shortly after the SBA’s April 2 decree, Mazel started recruiting. Among the first to enlist was the Council of New York Cooperatives & Condominiums (CNYC). “Our first salvo was to contact our elected officials – on the City Council, the Legislature and the New York congressional delegation – and make them aware of the issue,” Mazel says. “The next step was to engage co-op and condo boards to write letters to their legislators. The response was immediate and encouraging. The legislators had been made aware of the issue, and they were engaged.”
By now the army had the ear of U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, then minority leader, who delivered a message to the troops: “When we spoke to our New York co-ops, to Geoffrey Mazel and Mary Ann Rothman (executive director of the CNYC), we said, ‘Reach out to other co-ops. There are general cooperative associations that include housing co-ops.’”
Mazel and his fellow troopers got in touch with the National Cooperative Business Association and the National Association of Housing Cooperatives (NAHC), among other organizations. “We did a full-court press,” says Judy Sullivan, the government relations representative at NAHC, which represents more than 1 million units of cooperative housing nationwide. “We sent out e-blasts to our members to contact Sen. Schumer’s office. We sent out e-blasts to co-ops wherever we could find them.”
Down in the trenches with them was Rep. Grace Meng of Queens, who had been alerted to the problem back in the spring by the Presidents Council. “We worked with Reps. Nydia Velázquez and Tom Suozzi and Sen. Schumer to help the (Trump) administration understand that co-ops are small businesses, and therefore they should be eligible for PPP loans,” Meng says. “Many people don’t understand how co-ops function. Plus, back then, New York City co-ops had the added burden of being in the epicenter of the epicenter of the pandemic.”
Meanwhile, Schumer was doing some old-school political arm twisting. “I had to fight and fight and fight,” he says. “I had to persuade so many different senators and congressmen to go along…but I didn’t get much support from people because they didn’t understand. I do understand because in the state Assembly and in Congress, I represented neighborhoods that have lots of co-ops. I’m a cooperator myself, have been since 1982.”
In December, the months of work finally paid off. A new $900 billion COVID-19 stimulus bill passed in the Senate – with a specific provision making housing cooperatives eligible for the $284 billion set aside for PPP loans. (Condominiums and homeowners associations were not included.) President Trump signed the bill into law two days after Christmas. The co-op army had won the war.
“It’s a major sea change,” Schumer told Habitat the day after he became majority leader of the Senate. “It’s the first time that housing co-ops were recognized for their importance and vitality. I was able to get legislators who didn’t know about housing co-ops to come on board to help me. And I think it’ll be a change that will work in the future.”
The man who marshaled the troops shares was elated. “It’s extraordinary that such a niche type of housing got included in this legislation,” Mazel said a few days after the bill was signed into law. “This is the result of a concerted effort by advocates and elected officials at the city, state and federal levels. It’s a model of how good government is supposed to work.”
Asked to sum up what he and the army had accomplished, Mazel put it succinctly: “We moved the needle.”