Defining Strata Terms For Dummies

The Strata Property Act is cumbersome mostly because it is written for legal relevance. Understandably, lawyers and Supreme Court judges understand terminology because that is how they make their living. Strata corporations with lawyers who are owners most likely save time on the nuance of defining terms while the rest of us labour through them and not always with a successful outcome.

Weaved throughout the Strata Property Act are the words, “must”,”shall”, “may” and “will”. On the surface of things these words are fairly simple – we all learned them in grade school. Toss in some rules and regulations though and these simple words create some serious firestorms where context is concerned.Fortunately, “shall” is being phased out because who really speaks like that anyway these days?

Back in the day, “shall” had some muscle.It had that aura of authority but nowadays it just sounds pompous or better served raining hellfire from a church pulpit or maybe a political stage. It is a word best used for the dramatic.

A more serious word – more powerful than dramatic – is “must”. Must leaves no room for interpretation because the weight of it is balanced between either/or. If the legislation indicates something “must” occur then there is a requirement for action. To ignore a “must” will entail some sort of consequence.

Think of the bylaw common to most strata corporations requiring strata owners to pay their fees. It usually reads something like this: “A strata owner MUST pay strata fees on or before the first of every month”. What happens to that line when it reads, “A strata owner SHALL pay strata fees on or before the first.” The latter suggests something a little less mandatory. Throw “may” or “will” into the language and there is definitely room for discussion as to when an owner actually pays strata fees beyond personal discretion.

Discretion is the key thing to consider in terms of language directing the obligations of strata owners. Anything without definitive language in the legislation can be open to interpretation. As it is, any council with a degree of intelligence working towards the most successful outcomes for asset management and governance should read the Strata Property Act side by side with The Interpretation Act especially for actions defined with “shall”, “may” or “will”. These three words are the litigious ones.

Of the three “shall” is most like “must” but, “may” or “will” are the kinds of words that trip most strata owners up because strata owners as a group are allergic to “must” because they don’t like rules interfering with community. Strata owners transform “may” and “will” into terms of “maybe”, “maybe not”,”should” and “shouldn’t” or “possibly”. In this way, no one strata council member or owner is a “decider” because in strata corporations, “deciders” are demagogues.

“Must” authoritatively stands alone and assists “deciders” working towards the best interests of all owners. It leaves no room for misunderstanding or interpretation.If you don’t believe me, try arguing against “must” in a Supreme Court chamber and see how long you last.Playing at “must” with softer, gentler alternatives open to misinterpretation create divisive cliques within a community and foster ill will and perpetuate all the negative aspects of strata life. Strata owners interested in doing right within their own communities MUST step off the dummy train and take some time to define terms written to assist them not confuse them.

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Strata Council Lifers

Strata corporations are political hotbeds and don’t listen to anyone or any entity that tells you different. They can get super hot if a couple of owners actually own the council – nothing will ever change unless it serves those particular council members.

Every council has a caricature of some newsworthy politician. Every strata corporation has cliques of owners who choose their representatives based largely upon perception rather than truth. Every strata corporation has one or two owners who actually know something, try to do the right thing but get shut down by spin and whispers over muffins and tea or wine, lots and lots of wine.

It is so easy to stick a bug in someone’s ear and have it turn into a magnificent malfeasance(Yeah, so what it’s a big word but I learned it in Grade 6). Strata crap goes viral really, really fast depending on the gossip train. Sometimes runaway trains can be stopped without too much damage but other times the damage is devastating.

Oftentimes a strata corporation will have a core group of owners who really like to control things for “the good of everyone” of course. Problem with a heavily supported core group? The heavy support is really not educated or willing to be educated about strata law, strata bylaws, or logic and common sense. Essentially, the heavy support amounts to a passive-aggressive majority present and accounted for at the Annual General Meeting. Just get a good seat at an AGM next time and watch the visible cues between present council members and their core. Pay attention to the timing of statements and even the lack of statements. Listen to how certain types of questions are raised and answered and others are raised but put down – I mean out and out PUT DOWN. Observe which particular council member deals with which particular topic.

A strata corporation with long serving members is not a good thing. It’s not a good thing in national politics so why small communities of people believe it’s a good thing is baffling. Yet, year after year the same people step forward and year after year they are unchallenged. The owners only know what they choose to know. The council cannot and should not be blamed for this. If a strata corporation has the same faces on council year after year – well that’s the fault of owners. No lawyer or association or tribunal will challenge an election outcome unless a law is compromised.

Owners have rights to most corporate documents because owners are the corporation. The S.P.A. provides owners with legal access save specific types of information and circumstances. It may take numerous visits to research and study it and money may have to be spent on copies. More research and study may be required but if it turns out the same faces serving on Council are contravening the legislation and/or bylaws and/or human rights and/or privacy, then one person with one voice can and should challenge those long serving council members.

Often, long serving members are unaware they are making mistakes because there has been no effort on their own part to stay on top of changes to the Strata Property Act,Privacy Act,Human Rights Act, etc. Often, long serving members are simply just as comfortable with the status quo as the owners who keep re-electing them. Often, long serving members are a little too comfortable with power and control and for this group it is best to keep the majority blissfully ignorant. Best to have lots of socials so council manipulation feels like individual thought before an AGM, or have meetings behind closed doors with owner lobbyists who like to pull strings without taking any heat.

The best advice for ANY strata owner out there is this: A collective requires everyone’s participation to succeed. A healthy strata will see all owners volunteering for a term or two as council members and then time as executive members. In this way all owners are contributing and the chances for a well run successful strata corporation are greater. It’s like any election where every voter votes and every citizen contributes – everyone’s a winner not just willing “lifers”.

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Post Traumatic Strata Disorder

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.

 

 

 

 

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Strata Patriarchy

Once upon a time women were restricted to parlours with other women while men talked about politics and current affairs. They talked quietly of course but almost certainly, some also spoke about politics and current affairs because women vote now and hold high political offices. It appears this fact still upsets some types of men. As strata is a microcosm of the larger whole, it may be timely to discuss how old meets new in strata.

When two people purchase a property, two people are named on the registration which is filed legally. When it comes to strata voting of course, the rule is one property, one vote. It would seem rather obvious that two owners would choose which one would carry the ballot and represent the best interests of the unit. As in every relationship/partnership, how two voices collaborate to achieve one voice is unique just as two voices might remain independent within one relationship/partnership.

In strata, asset management takes priority over the idiosyncrasies and nuances of a single relationship. Things become interesting when the more vocal owner has an opinion that does not quite flow with the current of the majority. Things become even more interesting when perception suggests a female voice is the problematic voice behind the scenes and the male voice is enabling dissent.

How old fashioned is this kind of thinking?

A group of “deciders” being hobbled by whisperings behind parlour doors. Here we go again with the whole “group-think” process. And what about when a council of seven is predominantly male? Are the women on council there because they are token representatives or, is it possible they chose to stand for election because they truly believed they could provide something to the whole governance and maintenance of the corporation?

A few things stand out when men suggest other men are unable to silence the opinion of their partners; insecurity is insidious and prevalent all at the same time and opinions are opinions not a criticism unless of course an opinion can lead to positive change. Sometimes “deciders” don’t have knowledge, they just have opinions. Sometimes facts are disguised as opinions in order to start a dialogue.

Dialogues between men and women making decisions for the whole corporation should always be fact-based,  and carefully considered. Personalities and emotions have no place in fair, judicial governance. To that end, the government gave strata owners a huge piece of legislation to assist “deciders” both male and female ( it doesn’t appear to be a piece of gender specific legislation). There are books The Condo Manual by Mike Mangan for example and associations, VISOA (Vancouver Island Owners Association, CHOA (Condo Home Owners Association and newspaper columns, “StrataSmarts” by Tony Gioventu, to help men and women navigate through their little microcosm with some balance and fairness. It doesn’t have to be a  patriarchy to be well run but some things take time to undo especially well worn thought habits.

For stratas to be efficient and well run all owners need to accept the importance of their individual role in participating in the governance and maintenance of the corporate asset. To presume only certain stereotypes can adequately fill the role sends strata owners backwards to parlours and luncheons and smoking rooms.

 

 

 

 

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Scandal, Slander and StrataGate

I am fortunate to know some real stellar strata people. These people work very hard to promote the interests of strata owners every day, all day in many ways. Often, they are only as valuable as the immediate crisis a strata owner will be in and yet they keep on keeping on through all the scandal and slander that make up strata life. I call the whole mess “StrataGate” and I believe it is a label that should stick!

Living in a strata is a microcosm of our larger society. It has all the politics, bureaucracies, special interests,business, and crime of our larger communities. What is interesting of course is that most strata owners don’t see it this way; it is interesting that strata lawyers, association leaders, property managers and land developers do have 20/20 vision. As with anything, opportunity is a magnet for exploitation and really needs to be a forethought in any strata dealings. In other words, don’t be blind.

Blindness is not one of my preferences. I hate sunglasses because I believe I miss clarity! My perception of things can be a little different in the spotlight.

I believe you can’t have enough strata information for strata owners. Despite all the glowing rhetoric about development in the real estate market, really, we are just developing future slums where there will be little to embrace beyond location if we are unwilling to educate ourselves about our assets and how those assets work collectively. In order to write a column, newspaper editors want clean facts nothing that should remain buried within heaps of dirty laundry — who likes dirty laundry?? Well, actually, we all have it and deal with it every day. How can strata owners learn if not through the mistakes of other people?

Mistakes I have learned I have learned the hard way. Subsequently, I chose this blog forum to address some of my own conundrums  as well as those experienced by others. Many strata owners have thin skins and don’t like to look in the mirror so my blog represents characters created from a variety of people: Owners, property managers, realtors,and lawyers from far and wide. I also write under a pseudonym which angers  a number of folks. However, by writing the blog anonymously, people see themselves without having to out themselves and sometimes can gain some insight and solutions from the issues addressed while at the same time, be more willing to contribute to the conversation.As soon as you stick a name on things, I find people spend more time judging than learning!

Finally, we all have to stick together. It is not my intention to hurt specific people so I create characters. I had to learn through tedious research after being bullied and browbeaten for questioning the status quo. If we build a sense of community we can really enjoy living in the strata world. We share, we learn, we develop strength so all of our links are strong. We leave scandal and slander on the doorstep but we can use it to make a better microcosm that maybe our larger society will learn from and then we can take a deep breath in and admire the view from behind a new kind of “StrataGate” label that just might stick!

 

 

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Strata Weeds of Burden

 

Altering Common Property is one of those systemic overgrowths that roots like Morning Glory and never wants to yield. Honestly, most strata owners don’t care about Common Property until they have to pay to maintain or repair it – interestingly enough, the whole concept of strata living. Appropriation for Common Property is a tricky little business best left to third parties without a personal interest in the outcome and supervised by the Strata Council elected to do so. Where individual owners believe they have control over the strata council well, you don’t really have a strata do you –  plenty of eaten cake – but not really a strata.

Rigorous examination of any changes to Common Property is the job of the strata council not individual owners. Granted, owners have no difficulty pointing out what they want they just don’t want to be bothered with the burden of responsibility required to get there. Subsequently, the Strata Council exercises accountablity to owners, accountability to and through the Strata Property Act and corporate bylaws and accountability to themselves as beneficiaries of the effort.

Property values are subjective, can be litigative and can have significant negative impacts on strata owners. So the whole “one for all”  idealism must be considered for all owners that may be affected by any change to Common assets. This of course requires council members to have far sight and knowledge beyond appeasement of the neighbourhood status quo. Tough decisions have many working parts to them and should never be a bare whisper of a motion at an AGM. Structural peculiarities, architectural integrity, reduction or increase of the actual Common Property, are some of the beasts that certainly add some burden to the responsibility of Council members.

Council needs to research municipal permits and bylaws; investigate and hire a competent and licensed contractor, plan, write and agree to detailed structural drawings and satisfactory completion criteria, and finally, budget for the finished structural drawings indicating expansion or diminishment of space to be registered with Land Titles. After all this, then Council MUST propose the whole project to the owners through a Special General Meeting or an Annual General Meeting.

Council members who enjoy the title but not the work or pay without knowledge will not be inclined to expend so much effort on one alteration to Common Property. Depreciation reports are actually a very good thing for Strata Properties because there is a general assumption on the part of owners unfamiliar with the Act that the commitment on the owners’ part through its council to undertake the burden of responsibility through supervision and completion of the work together with the commitment to pay all costs, is sufficient reason to approve an alteration. A depreciation report is good for business especially when strata owners can be morning glory flowers for appearances and weeds for responsibility towards their elected Council. Let Council armed with depreciation reports, be the beast of burden and the weed kill for mistakes when altering Common Property that will not have negative impacts on the value of the strata property for buyers and sellers alike.

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Gaming The Strata System

 

In the swamp, perception is everything. The best way to distract attention away from scrutiny in one corner is to make a whole bunch of noise in another. Take this one step further and the whole process is refined enough to be spin buried under layers and layers of deliberate and cunning manipulation.

Spin begins, of course, to reach a market for the purpose of a gain. In real estate, a landowner will market a piece of property with the intent of selling to a developer. That developer will then prepare the land and market it to individuals. Eventually a neighbourhood springs up. Where a developer creates a strata plan, the stage is set for rules and regulations in order to govern and maintain the property.

Sometimes developers can be attached to their property enough to live within it and become part of the community. They move about with projected authority. Neighbours like to believe developers make good leaders. This of course is a misguided perception because a developer develops for gain;anything beyond development gain is icing on the cake.

Developers are clever. They are busy developing. If they choose to reside in a development of their own, it is wise to have a hands off approach to the whole “Good Neighbour Sam” current that twists and pulls within the community (any and all neighbourhoods are mini political arenas). Makes sense though to have a member of the family be front and centre within the neighbourhood so one can appear to be hands off.

So, unsold strata units within a corporation are represented by the developer until they are purchased. Strata Councils are of course full of politics and people placements. It should raise eyebrows when a developer controls a number of votes and her husband sits on the council as President. In any other business or governmental department, this scenario has conflict of interest written all over it but, when it occurs within a nice little neighbourhood of “Sam’s”, no one is the wiser.

Once the strata units are all sold the developer is off the radar but her husband is still very much involved. The neighbours all like it that way because they feel secure and well managed and, most importantly, they can abdicate their responsibilities for asset management to a “ghost in the machine”.

For years this little relationship thrives. Liberties are taken. Kudos are self-directed and complacency sets in. Money starts being charged for work that is ideally volunteer- based upon the strata concept- but justifications abound. Christmas parties happen, friendships are established and the status quo is celebrated in earnest for another year at the AGM —- what a marvellous time of the year to do so when joy and peace and love are all forefront.

Happy New Year! Christmas is over. Time to do some catch up reading and wouldn’t you know, there is interesting reading when you aren’t caught up in Christmas spin and nostalgia.

The developer’s husband did not serve on Council for only one term. Interestingly, during that absence, the Strata Council started looking at property management but didn’t really disclose to owners what fuelled the search. Documents indicate a discussion will occur at the AGM.

The AGM begins but who is sitting at the head of the table reading out Minutes from the previous year and the agenda for the present meeting? Why, its the developer’s husband. Odd! The present council(on which the developer’s husband did not participate) is not terminated yet and a new council hasn’t been elected yet. The Corporation is advised by council – contrary to what it said it would do—-that management proposals were considered but the developer’s husband agreed to do the work for less than half of the professional fees and so at this AGM, he is the unelected, paid owner with the responsibility of Secretary and Treasurer!

So, the present council installed a previous council member for pay without authority and in contravention of the Strata Property Act. The legislation makes clear a corporation MUST have a Secretary and MUST have a Treasurer elected by owners not positioned by opportunists and lazy persons looking to offset their burden of responsibility. In addition, any paid owner with fiduciary responsibility needs to be very careful about trust and conflict. An owner paid to prepare the budget should certainly NOT manipulate owners to sign over proxies to him either.

Every year,without question, discussion or argument, an owner handled the corporation’s finances without been overseen by an elected Treasurer. That owner also prepared and handled all correspondence which smacks of Privacy Act violations not to mention spinning perception, without being overseen by an elected Secretary. And, perhaps most offensive of all, set his own price and conveniently neglected to advise Council to revisit his “agreement” annually. Very nice set up. And owners said nothing.

Why?

In strata every one wants to pretend they own their own property. They like the economy of it. If one person is willing to do it all and keep strata fees low (a misinterpretation because fees would be lower without paying one of their own) no one is going to complain. Fire Chiefs, Developers, Public Service Representatives, Accountants, Lawyers, Consultants, Entrepreneurs and even Artists and Do-gooders turn in their strata driveways everynight having left their working brains at the office. They become the most uneducated bunch of professionals within such close proximity to one another….sheeples. They pay homage to the developer’s hubby (wolf in sheep clothing) counting cash on his stoop while they drive by and they say to themselves, “Aren’t we the lucky ones?”

Duh….there are none so blind in strata swamps as those who will not see.

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