What the BLEEP is it about strata living that causes so much conflict and divisiveness?
Rules. Rules are necessary of course so everyone plays nicely with one another. Rules are necessary because strata living is communal living whether individuals like to admit it or not. Communities without rules are just little groups squabbling over points of view, power and control. People are people so rules exist for people.
The concept of strata living is straight forward. A group of people agree to contribute fairly and equitably to the maintenance of the property they all own based upon -for the most part-a mathematical equation. This is no secret. Prior to purchasing, buyers get to read all the rules and regulations of the strata corporation and they are advised of their share of the maintenance fee to be paid for common areas.
Generally, owners like to pay their fees, skip the AGM and live a polite, neighbourly existence staying away from scrutiny or participation in governance. Many would say, “So what – live and let live”.But….rules are meant to be ignored if they are inconvenient and strata fees aren’t a priority as much as a nuisance for many owners. These owners don’t like to participate until there is some sort of issue they can take a perceived moral position on.
Take for example an owner who thoroughly researched strata living and studied the corporate bylaws before purchase. This owner is a regular Joe. He has a family and kids and a job. He gets together with his neighbours and likes a good belly laugh once in a while. He does read every set of Minutes and compares them to previous sets. If he has questions he asks. He attends AGM’s and Special General Meetings. Without realizing it though, his questions needle the Council which has never been asked to clarify its actions. Rather than dialogue with the owner, the Council starts a quiet smear campaign while continuing to act like good friends and neighbours. After a time, the owner becomes a little frustrated that he gets no answers from his Council regarding his questions. Over the course of a few months the owner notices he is no longer receiving invites to socialize although he is always acknowledged on the street.
Joe decides he should get some outside advice because he has some real concerns about the corporate monies and the how the Council is governing; Joe believes the Council is withholding information. He seeks advice from a homeowner’s association he read about on the internet. He was advised to send a written request to see the strata documents – a right given to him through the Strata Property Act – but Council denied the access. The whispering became audible and now people stopped talking whenever he walked by council members as well as neighbours he used to share belly laughs with before he started asking questions.
Joe was starting to feel on edge. Anger, frustration,confusion and anxiety were making him snap at his family and soon he dreaded driving into the community after his work day. But he was also still investigating and researching and networking with strata authorities and other strata owners. Eventually, one strata council member started looking into Joe’s requests after Joe strongly suggested a lawyer might have to represent his interests to Council.
Now, the strata council member was a newer owner and a newer council member but she was well liked by everyone in the community. She hosted parties and invited everyone – Joe and his wife included but she was also a bit of a people pleaser and intimidated by the older, entrenched council members. Because she tried to please everyone, she resisted any action that might make the Council appear lacking in knowledge or contributing to Joe’s perception he was being ignored. She also listened to gossip about Joe and was constantly seeking clarification from him. Joe began to feel worse because now his integrity was being questioned and the Council was still not providing him opportunity to access documents. Then, the gossip became outright slander and the council was sharing private information with anyone who would listen. His neighbours labelled Joe an ungrateful troublemaker who was ruining their quiet, happy little community while taking no responsibility for their actions and inaction.
One morning, Joe found his car keyed and a bag of garbage dumped all over it. His wife’s flower pots were destroyed and his kids’ bicycle tires were slashed. Joe’s wife was distraught and begged him to stop harassing the strata council so everyone could be friends again. Joe felt diminished but he remained steadfast. As soon as he got to work he called a strata lawyer and made an appointment.
When Joe returned home that evening the largest member of the strata council, a man with a big deep voice and intimidating body language was leaning up against his vehicle. He didn’t take his eyes of Joe. Joe asked him if he had a problem. The council member replied, “No, but you are going to have a very big problem if you don’t shut your mouth.” He didn’t move. Joe went inside and found his wife in tears in their bedroom. She was packing. “He was out there for an hour Joe just staring at the house. I can’t live like this anymore. Fix this. I’m going to my girlfriend’s place for a week with the kids.” Joe noticed the blinds were shut on every window. I’m a prisoner in my own home he thought to himself.
Joe eagerly went to his meeting with the strata lawyer. His jaw dropped when he was told it would cost about $850.00 to write a legal letter to the strata council advising it of Joe’s right to see documents. He went home defeated. Later that evening he answered a knock at his door. It was the strata council member trying to fix things. She asked to come in; she had a bottle of wine.
After they were settled and exchanged a few niceties, the strata council member asked Joe to answer the gossip. “It is untrue,” he replied. The councillor asked Joe what he was looking for to which Joe responded, “Respect for the process and my rights as an owner.” The councillor went off on a diatribe about the goodness of their neighbours and council members but still managed to spin it as though Joe’s constant questions had caused terrible harm to the feelings of good council volunteers.
“Well,” Joe sighed, “if asking for documents is such an offence then describing the council as “good volunteers” is a contradiction.” Joe continued, “The Council does not want to lose its perceived status or be accountable to any owner. That bothers me as a business person and an honest person. Council doesn’t have to like me but they can’t bully me into going away. I have visited a lawyer and I am prepared to use the very tool Council disrespects to get some respect.”
The strata councillor appeared taken aback but asked Joe to give her some time and she would do her best to turn things around. It wasn’t lost on Joe she only took a step toward action after he told her he sought legal advice. He finished off the wine and stared at the blinds on his living room windows after she left.
Three days later Joe received a letter from Council advising him he could see the documents. He was also given an apology for Council’s refusal to let him see the documents citing “unfamiliarity with the Strata Property Act” and, “Council is taking proactive steps to fully understand its duties and obligations to all owners so this doesn’t happen again”. The letter ended with a request for Joe to write Council and acknowledge their, “…extra efforts to properly respond to his written requests and present a formal apology.” Joe laughed and thought that in this case, silence would probably be the best response.
Despite council’s conciliatory effort, relationships did not heal. Joe’s wife and children couldn’t trust people not to do vandalize their property and Joe’s wife refused to open the blinds because she felt everyone was staring at her and whispering behind her back. She cried all the time and the kids spent most of their time at their friends’ houses. Joe preferred to work late or come home and sit in front of the television. He stopped reading the Minutes and going to meetings because he felt it was a waste of time. The councillor who tried to “fix” things became the President and soon, in an effort to win the recognition and appreciation of her neighbours was hosting parties again but not inviting Joe and his wife. She also spent a lot of time with the bully councillor because he became the Secretary-Treasurer. Joe figured no one would dare question the big guy about anything.
The unhappiness became too much to bear and Joe and his family quietly found a buyer for their property and moved out on a Monday when all their good neighbours were at work. Despite the beautiful strata properties out there and the availability of those properties, Joe and his wife bought their own house on their own lot and discourage people they care about to avoid purchasing in a strata.
This story only goes to show the influence a group of people can use to control a larger group of apathetic people. The emotional duress and stress of standing up against your neighbours because they are not following the rules is very real and can have very detrimental and long lasting effects. Some people snap under that kind of pressure. Other people bear the stress, bend under the weight but they don’t break. In the end, when you are suffering from p.t.strata.d, you have to make some very careful decisions about how important the rules and process are to you and if the risk is worth the cost. I’m on the “bend don’t break” side of things and use this blog as a form of stress relief for other owners out there trying to negotiate the BLEEP that is strata life. I thank every visitor and every follower for your stories and your comments. Keep them coming.