Barred from my living room

The Berkeley Town House board of directors has begun censoring meetings organized by residents of this housing cooperative. If the board dislikes the proposed event (or the person asking), it denies use of the common spaces. No reasons given.

Members of some housing cooperatives, like Berkeley Town House, get the benefit of large shared spaces where they can host parties, meals, receptions, study groups, lectures, or whatever they want. Think of these as supersize living rooms when you need them.

One hitch: If the cooperative’s board of directors hates or fears one of the members, it can claim that this member’s proposed uses of the common spaces are illicit and declare them prohibited.

That’s what the Berkeley Town House board of directors did today to me. I had submitted routine requests for reservations, one in mid-September for a potluck supper and a free talk by a local expert on aging-related conflicts and communications, and the other in November for an annual meeting of a small group called the Bay Area Community Land Trust. These would both be of interest to some folks here at BTH. We’re a senior community with communication problems and conflicts galore. And we’re a housing co-op, something that BACLT helps promote and advise. If meetings like these aren’t appropriate for BTH, what would be? Nonetheless, the board of directors wrote back, said that BTH was “not appropriate” as a venue for either event, and unanimously and summarily rejected my reservation requests.

I take it as well-established that at least a majority of the board hates (and probably fears) me. That’s only fair, given my harsh public criticisms of the board. I, in turn, think that they should all resign in disgrace after trampling on members’ rights and squandering our funds on secret and horribly planned projects. Such animosities are normal in co-ops. But this isn’t about who hates whom. It’s about whether co-owners of the cooperative (including despised owners) may conduct activities in the common spaces.

So, then, what if the board had been considerate enough to give me reasons for rejecting my reservation requests? Were there reasons it could have given?

The strongest argument I can think of against my proposed activities is that they would go beyond the normal and intended uses of common areas attached to a private dwelling. Our Occupancy Agreement says we occupy our units as private dwellings, and the Declaration of Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions grants members the right to use the common spaces for “the purposes for which they are intended”. Arguably, then, these spaces were never intended to be used for lectures, or for business meetings, since those usually take place in libraries, schools, offices, etc., not homes.

Under such a strictly residential interpretation, we could reserve spaces for dinner parties, Trivial Pursuit, bridge, scrapbooking, and movies, but possibly not for musical concerts, dramatic performances, art exhibits, instructional and training sessions, exercise groups, research collaborations, or activist planning meetings. There are three candidates running for our city council seat in Berkeley; we could probably get the OK to invite one at a time for an informal chat, but maybe not to invite all three for a debate.

Is that the board’s rationale? Probably not. There probably is no rationale. After all, a few weeks ago I reserved space for a visiting talk on “Core Elements of Thriving Communities” about innovative housing models in Europe. No problem. A member of the board attended and was one of the most active discussants.

BTH tells all incoming members, in the information package, “We hope you will use and enjoy the first floor. Any of the rooms, except the Library, can be reserved for entertaining or for meetings of organizations to which you belong.”  That’s now a lie. Until a couple of months ago, the board didn’t even get involved in space reservations; they were processed automatically by the management. In this new era of board paternalism, there is much room for discretion, arbitrariness, bias, and conflict.

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