Fifty-One Homeless Vets Given Cooperative Keys to a New Home & Life

In 2018, in Agawam, Mass., the last of a group of homeless veterans was handed their keys to home ownership. In total, 51 homeless veterans were not just given keys to their own housing cooperative but keys to a new life. For the first time in a long time, these veterans had a stable roof over their head and a host of supportive services to give them independence on their new journey.

When Anthony Wilson moved in that first week, he told his case manager, “Walking into my unit brought tears to my eyes. This is MY home, and no one can take that away from me.”

For Soldier On, a Northampton, Mass.-based veterans’ organization, the Gordon H. Mansfield Veterans Community in Agawam was a key chapter at the end of an almost 10-year struggle for this site to be a veterans’ community. When staff from Soldier On set its eyes on the empty former home of the Western Massachusetts Regional Police Academy, it was love at first sight. The academy with its classic architecture of white Greek columns highlighted the stately four-story building on seven acres of landscaped open space. It would surely be an uplifting palace for poverty-stricken homeless veterans.

Anthony Wilson resident poses at Soldier On in Agawam CREDIT: ANTHONY WILSON

The state of Massachusetts handed over the property to Soldier On for $1 in 2010. Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Timothy P. Murray called the act “a generational responsibility” to help the nation’s veterans. John (Jack) F. Downing, president of Soldier On, joined Murray in saying there is an obligation to help out “those who aren’t as gifted or able.” State Rep. Rosemary Sandlin, D-Agawam, who initiated the project and filed the state bill to allow for the sale, characterized the project as “a hand up, not a handout.”

Not only does the community provide veterans with housing, but it also prepares them for practical living. The veterans go through a 35-hour life skills program, involving decision making, cooking, budgeting, weight loss, anger management and coping with mental health issues. The program also offers day trips, games and art to spur personal interests such as reading groups, performing arts and museum visits, fishing and camping excursions and professional sporting events. It also encourages veterans to volunteer in the community. For example, residents partnered with the Agawam Garden Club to weed and plant along Main Street. After years of homelessness, fighting isolation is a priority objective of Soldier On said Casey DiCicco, director of communications at Soldier On. Thus, each veteran is assigned a case manager, along with peer support, transportation to appointments in the community and a meal a day that veterans can eat in the dining room or take to their apartment. In addition to regular checkups, Soldier On has supplied each apartment with a 32-inch monitor that is both a TV and an interactive computer. The monitor, set up to encourage face-to-face meetings, is tied into a Soldier On service desk where the resident veterans can get immediate help and support through Skype or text. The organization has created a $2 million-dollar call center to serve its thousands of clients including the vets at Agawam.

These units will also build community by announcing activities via calendars for Agawam and other Soldier On sites. Additionally, the veterans will be able to make appointments online with a caseworker or medical staff. Currently, residents not only Skype with their case managers, but they are able to attend groups at different campuses and Skype with their families and other residents.

The community hosts 47 one-bedroom apartments of 475 square feet each and four studios with vaulted ceilings with large windows. The common areas include two patios with gas grills, a dining area for special events and social events, a greenhouse, laundry rooms, onsite office rooms and a converted auditorium that houses two units, a library and/or meeting room.

The organizational structure of the Soldier On cooperatives is modeled on Gordon Housing for Veterans These new housing cooperatives are not the first of their kind, but there should be many more. Thompson has written elsewhere about how after World War II housing cooperatives gave a home to veterans and their families (www.thenews.coop). Former NAHC Executive Director Doug Kleine also has written about them. From 1945 on, veterans housing cooperatives helped returning veterans to rebuild their lives. In an amazing national effort, 46 housing cooperatives for veterans were built in 15 states providing 14,721 units of cooperative housing for almost 50,000 members of veteran families. Soldier On Statistics A homeless vet can cost the public nearly $80,000 each year. The annual cost of a veteran at Soldier On is $17,000. This is a savings of roughly 80 percent for taxpayers. Gordon Mansfield Gordon Mansfield, a former deputy secretary of Veterans Affairs, was a Pittsfield native and highly decorated Army veteran who survived two tours of duty in Vietnam. As company commander of the 101st Airborne Division, Mansfield sustained a spinal cord injury during the 1968 Tet Offensive for which he received the Distinguished Service Cross — the second highest personal decoration for valor in combat. Anthony Wilson resident poses at Soldier On in Agawam. CREDIT: ANTHONY WILSON 5 NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF HOUSING COOPERATIVES Mansfield Agawam Veterans’ Village. The property is owned for the first 15 years by Agawam Veterans Village LLC, which used state and federal historic tax credits to obtain the equity financing. The limited equity cooperative is the non-profit partner in the ownership of the project. The intent is for the cooperative to have an advisory board of four to five members elected by the residents and one or two board members appointed to the board from the Agawam community. After 15 years, the board of the limited equity cooperative will assume the property from the LLC.

Homeless veterans who meet U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) and low-income housing credit income thresholds are eligible to be cooperative members. Due to the VASH vouchers, the monthly carrying charge or rent to live at Agawam is set at one-third of their income.

Members of the cooperative have to obtain $2,500 to invest in one share. However, many of the homeless veterans are not able to raise the full amount. Fortunately, Soldier On has worked with a number of local banks and credit unions on a pool of funds. Those dollars can be donated or lent to prospective members. At the end of the year, if there are surplus funds after paying off all obligations, the cooperative issues a rebate to each member.

The Gordon H. Mansfield, Veterans’ Community in Agawam is a replication of the idea of the first limited equity cooperative that Soldier On completed nearby in Pittsfield, Mass., in 2010. The Pittsfield cooperative provides housing for 39 veterans in a community of all newly built housing.

Downing conceived and spearheaded the program for limited equity housing. Just before the dedication, Downing said, “Agawam is a community that many of our people would be comfortable living in. It offers a lot of supportive services, and this building is on rural property that allows our veterans to live together and do very, very well.”

Many groups involved in housing veterans are beginning to take a look at the veterans’ cooperative housing program at Solder On that promotes ownership and involvement.

To learn more about Soldier On, visit its web site at www.wesoldieron.org.

Read more articles like this in the current issue of CHQ


This article first appeared in Shelterforce.

David J. Thompson has visited Soldier On twice to learn about the progress of the limited equity cooperative model. He has worked on the California legislation and successful bond measure in 2014 which made $1 billion more available to house veterans in new ways. David is president of Twin Pines Cooperative Foundation and a co-principal of Neighborhood Partners, LLC. www.npllc.org

 

Government Relations is a Member Benefit that Garners Many Cooperative Achievements

Housing Cooperative Victories

Over the years NAHC has had many successful victories legislatively and in the courts. As mentioned in the Report from Washington, a disaster relief bill for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide eligibility for housing cooperatives and condominiums was enacted into law on October 5, 2018. The following are some of the other major victories:

Veterans Affairs (VA) Home Loan Guarantee Benefits for Housing Cooperatives

In 2006, Congress passed legislation allowing veterans to use the Veterans Affairs’ (VA) Home Loan Guaranty Program to purchase cooperative housing shares (units) using their low-interest loan benefits. These loan benefits allowed veterans to buy homes with no down payment and limited closing costs. However, the program to allow loans for cooperative housing ended at the end of 2011. In order to allow our nation’s veterans to use the VA loan for all forms of home ownership, we will be reintroducing legislation that would permanently offer this benefit to housing cooperators. To ensure that veterans are aware they can use the loans for cooperative housing shares (units), we are adding a provision so that the secretary of the VA can advertise the program to eligible veterans, participating lenders, and interested realtors.

HUD Assistant for Cooperative Housing

Legislation enacted to create the position of
senior adviser and special assistant for cooperative housing at the Department of Housing and
Urban Development (HUD) resulted in the 2003 appointment of a point person for cooperative housing issues and policies reporting to the federal housing commissioner. Congress created the special assistant for cooperative housing role so that an appointee reporting directly to the Federal Housing Commissioner could focus on the critical issues facing cooperative housing.

Housing Cooperatives and Subchapter T of the Internal Revenue Code (IRC)

In 1999, after a long and difficult challenge, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) finally agreed to
no longer apply Section 277 of the IRC to housing cooperatives and found that housing cooperatives correctly belong under Subchapter T of the tax code.

Section 277 applies to membership organizations such as country clubs but never should have been applied to housing cooperatives. Interest income on reserve funds and revenue from parking facilities for the use of residents in the building should not be subject to taxation under Section 277 because housing cooperatives have no “net” income when the expenses of operating the cooperative are taken into account.

A cooperative action fund was created to help pay for expenses involved in the fight. NAHC waged an intense battle in Congress to gain support for bills to remedy the problem. Housing cooperators from all over the country contacted their members of Congress resulting in legislation in the House of Representatives and the Senate

to stop the IRS from applying Section 277 to housing cooperatives. One senator even told NAHC he would definitely introduce legislation because they received so many calls on this issue that they were unable to use their phones.

The ultimate victory on Section 277 occurred
in the courts after the 1998 successful decision in the Rutherford Tenants case brought to a successful close a long campaign waged in the courts and in Congress to establish that housing cooperatives are not subject to Section 277 of the IRC.

Looking Forward

NAHC’s success depends on its members. NAHC needs members to respond to NAHC’s “Calls to Action” and to stay informed about the issues. Remember, everyone in Washington wears a hat representing the issues they support. Wear your cooperative hat.

NAHC Board Member Addresses College Students on Housing Cooperatives

IN NOVEMBER, NAHC board secretary Karen Harvey spoke with diverse attendees at the North American Students of Cooperation (NASCO) Institute’s 2018 Annual Conference and forged connections to educate and encourage participants to take advantage of NAHC’s resources.

Leadership at this year’s Ann Arbor, Mich., conference encouraged attendees to try new things, expand their cooperative skills toolboxes, make lasting connections with fellow co-operators and use the conference theme, “A Legacy of Cooperation” to explore ways that cooperatives are connected to a resilient global movement.

Conference attendees followed a set of agreements as ground rules throughout the institute. The framing and language for these community agreements were created in partnership with Anti-Oppression Resource and Training Alliances (AORTA) and borrowed from various people’s movements for justice. To learn more, access AORTA’s website at www.aorta.coop. Here are a few with a short explanation which would be useful for many business meetings and conferences:

  • One Diva: One Mic. In both large and small groups, one person speaks at a time.

  • No one knows everything; together we know a lot. Practice being humble because we all have something to learn from everyone in the room.

  • What’s said here stays here; what’s learned here leaves here. Respect confidentiality. Keep personal stories confidential but share what you learn.

 

The keynote speaker, Esteban Kelly, was interesting and enlightening. NASCO inducted Kelly into its Cooperative Hall of Fame in 2011.

NASCO offered the usual cooperative course tracks, such as Staff and Management, Building Cooperative Skills and Creating New Cooperatives, along with other tracks such as Anti-oppression, and Connection to the Cooperative Movement. Their caucuses provide opportunities for participants with shared identities to raise issues, build connections, and organize for change. The caucus groups are:

 

  • Women’s Caucus

  • People with Disabilities Caucus

  • Queer and Trans Caucus

  • Working Class Caucus

  • People of Color Caucus

NASCO encourages the importance of NAHC networking with millennials for there is much each group can learn from the other to ensure the future of cooperatives.

2019 Cooperative Hall of Fame Inductees Announced

Four outstanding cooperative leaders will receive the cooperative community’s most prestigious honor on May 8, 2019, when they are inducted into the Cooperative Hall of Fame at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

The inductees are: Terry Appleby, retired General Manager of Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society; Richard L. Ensweiler, retired president and CEO of Cornerstone Credit Union League; Anne Reynolds, former Executive Director of the University

of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Cooperatives; and Richard Stammer, retired president and CEO of Agri-Mark Inc. and Cabot Creamery Cooperative.

Under Appleby’s leadership, Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society quadrupled its store locations and created hundreds
of jobs, grossing more than $75 million in annual sales and transforming the regional food economy. Hanover sells $13 million dollars of local and regional products. Appleby also helped form National Co+op Grocers that represents close to 150 cooperatives operating in 37 states with combined annual sales of more than $2.1 billion.

In 2013, Ensweiler led an effort to merge the Texas Credit Union League with the Credit Union Association of Oklahoma and the Arkansas Credit Union League, forming Cornerstone Credit Union League. He helped build Credit Union House, a facility cooperatively funded by each of the 38 state credit union leagues. At Texas Credit Union League, Ensweiler created Juntos Avanzamos (“Together We Advance”), an outreach program focused on serving Texas’ Hispanic population.

Reynolds, who overhauled the university’s course on cooperatives, is the force behind the Madison Cooperative Development Coalition, community-based organizations, unions, and cooperatives. The group is currently implementing a $3.2 million City of Madison program that creates jobs and increases equity by developing unionized worker cooperatives. Reynolds also continues to develop and direct workshops on strategic planning and board training and business feasibility with groups like Cooperative Network and CooperationWorks!

Stammer helped New England dairy cooperatives sidestep bankruptcy with a merger with Agri-Mark, a cooperative of dairy farmers, and Cabot, a creamery cooperative that today generates sales approaching $1 billion and helped shape public policies
to protect the economic interests of the nation’s dairy farmers.
In 2014, Cabot received the U.S. Dairy Sustainability Award for Outstanding Dairy Processing and Manufacturing Sustainability.

N.Y. Appellate Court Opinions Say No to Board’s Business Judgment Rule Reliance

By Herbert Fisher, Esq. and Randall Pentiuk, Esq.

Authors’ Note: The authors did not research N.Y. Probate Law to see how it treats the inheritance of the shares as personal property (personalty). Under most state laws, the shares would transfer upon order of a probate court or a small estates affidavit, if applicable.

Once that occurs, the shares are the property of the heir. The heir’s ability to take possession may be controlled by the cooperative’s documents, such as permitting only limited number of people in occupancy, income maxima for occupancy or terms of a contract, e.g., regulatory agreement. If the heir cannot take occupancy, he or she still has inherited the shares and whatever realizable value goes with that ownership and is entitled to sell those shares to a person qualified to purchase. There may be a difference of opinion as to whether the cooperative can deny the right to inherit possession, i.e. entitled to a proprietary lease, or whether the cooperative must wait and declare a default once the heir takes possession that is in violation of the lease or breaches the lease.

On December 20, 2016 of the Estate of Del Terzo v 33 Fifth Ave. Owners Corp., in which a board ofOn February 11, 2016, a New York Appellate Court decided the case and the Court of Appeals (N.Y.’s highest court) affirmed it directors, relying heavily on the business judgment rule, denied an application for “ownership” and possession of a cooperative apartment (which was two apartments consolidated at the time of conversion) owned by sons’ deceased mother. The court, split 3-2, was in agreement that the business judgment rule did not apply where a proprietary lease provides, that in event of inheritance, the cooperative shall not unreasonably withhold consent to an assignment of the lease and shares to a financially responsible member of the lessee’s (i.e., decedent’s) family and that the cooperative unreasonably denied the application. Proprietary leases are issued by N.Y. statutory cooperatives and those incorporated under business incorporation acts. Sometimes, they are called Corporate Lease to Shareholder. In cooperatives incorporated under their respective state’s not for profit statutes and in the HUD world, they are ordinarily referred to as occupancy agreements.

The business judgment rule, as interpreted in New York, provides that a board’s decision will not be questioned by the courts if the board “acted for the purposes of the Cooperative, within the scope of its authority and in good faith.” However, the majority held that provisions of the proprietary lease took it out of the scope of the business judgment rule and imposed a standard of reasonableness as the test of the board’s decision. The facts relied upon by the majority were that both sons jointly applied for board approval. Son A was wealthy enough to afford the maintenance of the unit, but son B was not. Son A, in addition to becoming a co-owner with son B, offered to guarantee son B’s performance under the proprietary lease. Son A had a medical practice and resided with his family in Pennsylvania and stated that he would  be staying in the apartment only periodically. Son B was in occupancy of the apartment with his family  and would physically remain in the apartment. The proprietary lease does restrict occupancy to one married couple. The minority noted additional facts relevant to the ownership in that the application for approval presented to the board was on behalf of both sons and their families, which totaled eight occupants. The minority also noted that son B had a substantial inheritance from his mother and that son B had filed his tax returns with a Nevada address. The majority, in finding that the cooperative had breached its duty to act reasonably by denying the application, relied upon:

  • The history of no arears or any documented complaints against the applicants;
  • Finding that the board’s concern that two families would be living in the apartment, and the apartment would be over occupied was contradicted by son A’s intent not to live there. The concern was speculative;
  • The board’s disfavoring “nonprimary occupants” as lessees was also speculative in light of son A’s intent not to live there; Although ordinarily the board is not restricted in its   withholding consent to transfer of an apartment, it is held to a standard of reasonableness when dealing with an inheritance; Son A could easily afford the apartment   alone;
  • The board’s concern about son A not living in apartment full time, “being an absentee owner,” is inconsistent with the
  • concern that the apartment would be overcrowded and owner occupancy is satisfied by son B being in occupancy; and
  • The proprietary lease does not require that the “lessee” be only one person but can be multiple since the lease provides for joint ownership and for all owners to be liable.

The minority, in finding that the cooperative had not breached its duty to act reasonably by denying the application, relied on:

  • The consent sought included a family member who was not financially responsible;
  • Part ownership would be held by a non-resident;
  • The lease prohibits more than one married couple from occupying an apartment (the two former apartments are now one apartment) which is covered by one lease;
  • The joint ownership as proposed could create more potential complications; and
  • Any future disagreements between joint owners as to occupancy could entangle the cooperative in legal problems.
  • The majority also held that although the proprietary lease did not provide for the sons to recover legal fees, New York’s real
  • property law provides that if a landlord has the right to recover legal fees, there is implied right for the tenant to recover fees if the landlord does not comply with the lease.

The majority also held that although the proprietary lease did not provide for the sons to recover legal fees, New York’s real property law provides that if a landlord has the right to recover legal fees, there is implied right for the tenant to recover fees if the landlord does not comply with the lease. Regardless of how strongly each of the opposing parties felt about the positions in pushing this litigation, the above summary shows how tenuous a party’s position may be in light of the interpretation that is to be given to the facts and the law by the court. Consequently, it is important to keep an eye open to the possibility of  compromise in the event that any dispute leading to litigation or in litigation may be settled and yet meet the goals of both parties or come close enough to doing so as to bring about agreement. 

It would appear that the cooperative did not want to get involved in any disputes that might arise between the two brothers in the future in the event of a disagreement as to who should have occupancy in anticipation of a violation of the provision of the proprietary lease that there is to be one married family per unit or over  any other occupancy situation. The cooperative could have tested out son A’s confidence in he and son B working out any problems between them should they arise or the ability of the sons to make an agreement between them in advance of the board’s decision by offering that son B be the applicant as sole owner with son A transferring his inherited interest to son B with son A being a full guarantor of son B’s performance under the lease and by taking into consideration son B’s sizeable inheritance (unless it was left to him in a spendthrift trust, not touchable by the cooperative) and son A consenting to be sued in New York. Son A’s refusal to such an offer might have turned the minds of  the majority of  the  court.

The take away lesson for housing cooperative boards from this case is that in the event of a dispute, there can be different legal outcomes. Here, the court held in favor of son A and B, and the cooperative not only lost on the substantive issue and had to grant shares and a lease to the two brothers, it also had to pay their legal fees. It is an obligation on the part of attorneys to advise their clients of the strengths and weaknesses of positions taken by each party, and a probability of outcome in terms of degree of favorableness, unfavorableness or a toss-up, which is what we believe this case represents. Additionally, housing cooperative boards should work closely with their attorney to make sure that their governing documents, such as proprietary leases or occupancy agreements, bylaws, or articles of incorporation do not have contradictory provisions, which would lend the cooperative to future litigation.

Lessons Learned for Those Residing Outside of New York

Of interest to non-New York attorneys is both the majority and minority recognizing that the application was “to transfer shares allocated to a cooperative apartment and the proprietary lease appurtenant thereto” from the deceased’s estate to the sons. Yet, in the minorities’ opinion, there is reference to the application “being for the transfer of the apartment to them jointly” and  “to approve part ownership of the apartment by an individual who would not be living there.” New York Courts, lawyers and cooperators appear too often to short circuit the definition of what is owned by wrongfully condensing the joint interest of corporate shares (memberships) and possession as apartment ownership, potentially misleading those unsophisticated in housing cooperative terminology or those outside of New York.

Conclusion

So, be aware that the business judgment rule does not apply if corporate documents or the law puts a reasonableness standard on a board’s decisions on behalf of the cooperative in specific situations; and the reasonableness, oftentimes, is in the eye of beholder, whether board member, attorney or court.