Going Up? - Co-op Week


By Jess Goulart

Photo courtesy of @NYCphotos-flickr.

Bed bugs. Rent spikes. Badly-trained house pets. Welcome to urban living… but it gets worse.

How about decomposing bodies above you, uninvestigated until the smell overwhelms the building, or co-op board members rejecting someone because they questioned a rule stating all tenants must use a certain kind of toilet paper.

These are the kinds of horror stories Alex Norman (and millions of others living in New York City) faced before he created Mycoop.com–a social media platform specifically designed to facilitate communication between residents of the same address.

Norman tells BTR that in 2006 he would pace the halls of his Chelsea co-op trying to galvanize interest in building problems by literally knocking on neighbors’ doors and slipping pieces of paper under them. He was even on the co-op board, but left after experiencing mounting adversities and ambivalent attitudes.

He began to meditate on whether or not others suffered similar fates, and how he could change that. Norman had worked previously to bring digital trends into big industry, developing new strategies to connect brands to consumers using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. But of all the industries building a presence in social media, Norman realized real estate was not among them.

If you label a resident the “consumer” and their building the “brand,” not much was being done to enrich that bond. In fact, apart from the intercom and integrated alarm systems, technology had virtually forgotten urban homeowners.

Thus, Mycoop was conceived. Norman built out the platform based on a symbiotic relationship with a resident of the Ansonia, one of New York’s oldest and most famous residences, which was eventually the first to use Mycoop.

The initial launch came in November of 2012–and was scratched in December of 2012. Norman and his team had modeled the platform to emulate Facebook, assuming residents would want that same scope of interaction. With the prototype you could look for restaurants in your neighborhood based on communal recommendations, get Groupons for nearby services, and make photo albums. What they quickly discovered is social media sites like Yelp already deliver those services, and their users wanted something different.

In November 2013, Mycoop released their second platform, this time to success. They launched in tandem the premier of documentary called Declarations of Love a short film about Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer who shared a thesis similar to their own; in urban living, community is based more vertically than horizontally.

“In densely populated areas, you may not choose an apartment based on neighborhood but rather on income,” Norman says. “So you need more than just what restaurants are around and where to go shopping. You need what happened down the hallway, that there’s a broken window, that the heat is off, or if you want to throw a party on the rooftop how to invite people–things that happen at a micro level.”

Some architects have already built shared communal spaces into high-rises to promote this “vertical community,” but Mycoop takes that shared space and makes it digital, easily accessible, and versatile. To sign up, you go to the website and put in your address, which is verified through your phone bill. If your building is already part of Mycoop, they will grant you access. If it’s not, a basic skeleton site will automatically generate, which you and your neighbors can then build up.

The main message board looks very similar to a Facebook wall. You can post messages about pretty much anything, add photos, create events. There’s also a space to meet your neighbors, organize around building problems, and (most popular) a marketplace where neighbors can buy, sell, and borrow.

Norman says some of the coolest ways in which communities have used this technology to come together he did not predict. Mycoop has seen buildings trying to develop sustainable farming by organizing rooftop gardens, improve recycling, or create easy access for the physically disadvantaged. On the Mycoop blog, author and member Zac Zaremba chronicles other ways residents are using the site, like organized salsa lessons at 1 River Place and book clubs thrown by recent college grads in Crown Heights.

Mycoop is expanding rapidly, no longer contained to just New York or even the states. Preliminary research indicated that Boston, Miami, Philadelphia, Toronto, and London have similar communal needs, so Mycoop is predicting continued growth. They’re also starting to partner with popular home goods outlets like Ikea to provide users with pertinent ads and discounts.

To date Mycoop is only prevalent in affluent areas, as opposed to low or middle income, probably because people who have bought into their buildings are much more invested in making their communities better. Still, Norman is hopeful that renters will eventually use Mycoop, too.

As for property managers…

“Most understand and embrace what we’re trying to do. They see that if their tenants could communicate with each other, they would help each other solve non-emergency issues without management involvement,” Norman explains.

“Basically, we’re trying to promote cooperative living. There’s sharing, there’s collaboration, there’s a ton of things for people of all incomes. At our core, we’re a way to help improve living conditions, improve people’s lives through our platform. We believe in a cooperative economy.”