Condo hell

Thanks to neighbour disputes, crazy restrictions and incompetent boards, condo dwellers are increasingly finding themselves boxed in

George Rose/Getty Images

George Rose/Getty Images

Elizabeth Dyke’s blissful experience with condo ownership lasted for 13 years, right up until her upstairs neighbours ripped out their carpeting and installed hardwood floors. “The very next day, I could hear somebody walking in high heels right from my master bedroom, through the living room, down the front hall and to the door,” says Dyke, a Toronto employment lawyer who had enjoyed condo life so much, she bought a second unit in her building to use as a home office. Nuisance turned to nightmare when Dyke’s neighbours moved out and rented their condo to a dancer, who turned the unit into her full-time dance studio. “It sounded like a jackhammer on your head,” says Dyke. “That’s when I thought, ‘I’m a reasonably successful lawyer and I’m living like this? What’s wrong with me?’ ”

For months, Dyke complained of the noise to the property manager and then to the condo board. When the thundering sound of dancing continued unabated, she called police. Instead of addressing the problem, the condo board launched a campaign against Dyke and, according to court documents, accused her of operating an illegal law office in the building. A board member fessed up to leaving an anonymous note on Dyke’s door accusing her two dogs of disturbing neighbours. Dyke and her daughter finally packed up and moved into a rented apartment down the street. Last year, after two years of court battles, an Ontario judge fined the condo board nearly $60,000 for failing to enforce its own noise regulations. Dyke “is entitled to live underneath a residential apartment unit and not underneath a professional dance studio,” wrote Ontario Superior Court Justice Edward Morgan in ordering the condo management to notify Dyke’s upstairs neighbours that “adequate additional floor covering” was required. The dancer eventually moved out, but the legal battle is far from over. Dyke is preparing for a new round of court cases to determine what the court considers “adequate additional floor covering.”

Dyke’s story is just one of many from the front lines of Canada’s condo wars. As thousands of homebuyers flock to condos for the promise of affordable home ownership and carefree living, they’re learning that life in a condominium is far different from the suburban houses where so many of us were raised.

Never mind that owning a condo usually means sharing your walls, floors and ceilings with your neighbours. Canadian condos are rife with internal politics, neighbour infighting and power struggles stemming from the complicated network of condo boards, owners, investors, tenants and property managers.

In some buildings, the rule book governing what owners can and can’t do with their property can span 70 pages. Disputes over issues such as pets, squeaky floors and visitor parking spots are escalating into epic and costly court battles. “They are little fiefdoms,” says Don Campbell, senior analyst with the Real Estate Investment Network, who owns several condos in B.C. “Each one has a king. Many of the people who get elected to the boards have time on their hands, and this is the only place in their world where they have power. Unfortunately, that starts to go to their heads.”

Granted, neighbour disputes existed long before we invented condominiums. (Just ask the Hatfields and the McCoys.) But Canada’s condo boom is ushering in a new chapter in the long history of Canadian home ownership, one that involves an unprecedented amount of shared space and collective decision-making. In condos, the old adage that “good fences make good neighbours” no longer applies. “It’s pretty hard to have a fence when you have to walk by a problem neighbour just to get to the elevator,” says June Donaldson, a veteran condo owner and former condo board member from Calgary. The condo boom isn’t just reshaping our skylines; it’s changing how we live. Are Canadians—long accustomed to detached houses and backyards—ready for a world where being a happy condo dweller means accepting that we’ll have to give up some of our personal freedom, and that our neighbours may always be too close for comfort?

As a legal entity, the condominium (sometimes called “strata”) has existed in Canada for more than 40 years, ever since a boom in high-rise construction and innovations in property law essentially allowed developers to privatize the air space above the ground and carve it into small blocks that could be sold for profit. Many of the original condos were designed to encourage low-income Canadians living in rental housing in big cities to embrace home ownership, while the middle class continued its inexorable march to the suburbs. The condo boom of the past decade has, however, been marked by a renewed interest in urban living, driven by increasing numbers of Canadians who want to live closer to where they work, along with a cultural and environmental backlash against suburban sprawl, with its commuter traffic and car-induced smog. The rising number of people putting off marriage and children, as well as seniors living longer, has also helped fuel demand for smaller homes.

To understand how quickly we’ve shifted from detached homes to condominiums, consider that condos made up less than 10 per cent of all homes built in our 10 largest cities before 1981, but more than a third of those built in the last decade—around 413,000 out of roughly 1.2 million new homes. While the majority of those are clustered in the big cities—Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver—condominiums are going up everywhere from St. John’s to Regina to Victoria. Cities as different as Guelph, Ont., and Whitehorse are now building more condos than single-detached houses. More than 1.6 million Canadian households, or 12 per cent, now live in condos. Despite the focus on the investor market, close to 70 per cent of the people living in condos are owners, not renters.

The shift toward condo living is both more recent and more profound in Canada than it has been south of the border. The U.S. National Association of Realtors estimates that, last year, 77 per cent of first-time buyers in the U.S. purchased detached homes, compared to just 53 per cent of Canadians. Meanwhile, 17 per cent of Canadian buyers say they intend to purchase condos this year, compared to just seven per cent of American buyers. We can thank our red-hot housing market for the difference: The average Canadian house price last month was $406,372, compared to a median of US$189,000 in the U.S. (The average price of a condo in Canada was $312,800 in February, compared to US$187,900 in the U.S.) Skyrocketing house prices are forcing more first-time buyers into condos in order to get a foothold in the housing market. Some aren’t prepared for the life they encounter there.

One of the biggest sources of conflict in condos stems from the fact that developers pitch buyers on the benefits of a worry-free lifestyle without all the responsibilities of home ownership. While it’s true that condo living usually means that owners pay maintenance fees so that someone else can shovel the driveway and mow the lawn, that act of sharing general household expenses with your neighbours creates its own set of responsibilities. The result is that most condominiums have been turned into corporations with their own shareholders and boards of directors responsible for multi-million-dollar budgets.

In some buildings, just finding enough owners willing to take on that kind of responsibility is a challenge. “You’re selling someone on a carefree lifestyle and then, in the same breath, you turn around and ask someone who didn’t want the responsibility of looking after a detached home if they mind looking after 300 homes,” says Tom LePage, a former condo property manager turned consultant in Collingwood, Ont. However, once they get into power, LePage says many condo boards end up operating less like businesses and more like mini-governments. Owners campaign for election to a volunteer board, raise taxes and set the rules for how other owners can behave—often going to great pains to police their neighbours.

“It’s gotten to a level where people who are on these boards take it as: ‘It’s my job to make sure that you’re in your unit at 10 p.m., the lights are out and I want to know you’re in your room,’ ” says Bernice Winter, who runs Condo Check, a Calgary company that consults with condo boards and reviews condo documents on behalf of prospective buyers.

That has sparked pitched battles among condo boards and owners. Don Campbell, the real estate analyst, recently witnessed a shouting match between two factions of owners at a condo board meeting in Abbotsford, B.C., over how much to spend on maintenance. “You have no idea how close it came to violence,” he says. Perhaps not surprising, the people who seem to struggle the most are those who move into condos after having lived in single-family homes. “They are, generally speaking, not used to being in such close proximity with other people,” writes Vancouver condo lawyer Paul Mendes. “They also struggle with the concept of ‘common property’ and the related concept that the strata corporation can regulate the way they use their own homes.”

That’s particularly problematic because developers are churning out condos filled with one-bedroom units, which attract precisely the two demographics least accustomed to communal living: first-time buyers moving out of their parents’ basements and Baby Boomers downsizing from larger homes. Nearly 45 per cent of people living in condos, as of 2011, were single, Statistics Canada reported, with those younger than 35 and older than 65 making up the largest share of owners. Often, the two groups end up living side by side in the same building, Campbell says, and arrive with very different opinions about what condo life should look like—from Friday-night noise curfews to the need to set aside money for future repairs. “The Millennials and youngsters are going to be saying, ‘Why are we raising the condo fees to start saving for a roof that won’t be fixed until 25 years from now, when we don’t know if we’re even going to be here?’ The elders are going to be saying, ‘Well, that’s how life works; you maintain stuff,’ ” he says. “I think there are going to be some really ugly battles in the condo-board world because of how the condo society itself is going to mix.”

In some cases, it’s the older residents who resist spending money on costly renovations that appeal to younger buyers. In 2011, the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal fined the board of a condo building in west Toronto $10,000 because its ban on allowing children in diapers into a communal pool discriminated against a mother and her baby. The building had once been restricted to seniors, but had recently opened its doors to young families. The board had planned to build a separate new pool for children, but shelved the idea after many of the elderly residents balked at the cost.

Another such generational dispute played out last year in a Montreal courtroom, where Michael Rehmat, a 60-year-old long-time resident of an upscale condo building in the city’s Côte Saint-Luc neighbourhood, sued his new neighbours, a couple and their five-year-old daughter, over noise complaints. “The kid runs . . . She’s a little child,” Rehmat wrote in his affidavit. Unlike Elizabeth Dyke’s experience living below a dance studio, however, the court sided with Rehmat’s neighbours and found Rehmat’s ongoing calls to neighbours, condo board members and the police bordered on harassment. “The occupant of a multiple-dwelling unit cannot expect to live in a silent environment comparable to that of a single-family residence without horizontal or vertical dividing walls,” Quebec Superior Court Justice Pierre Tessier wrote. The whole affair cost both neighbours and the condo board $315,000.

While generational issues can cause plenty of tension, some of the most heated battles between neighbours are playing out in condos aimed exclusively at seniors. An ongoing dispute at a 55-and-over building in Abbotsford, B.C., called the Carlisle has sparked more than a dozen lawsuits between residents accusing each other of, among other things: spraying the words “cow” and “pig” on a car, throwing eggs, dislocating a resident’s thumb and tampering with a scooter. One owner accused her neighbour of taking pictures of her in the parking garage while he was hiding under a blanket in his car. The dispute reached a “depth where one would expect to find emotional children who have not yet learned the basic tenets of acting civilly toward each other, not senior citizens,” wrote Provincial Court Judge Robert Hamilton.

More common than neighbour disputes are battles between condo boards and owners over the growing laundry list of rules governing what owners can and can’t do with their property. Typically, when developers first build a condo, they write up a list of basic rules, running about two or three pages. Once responsibility for those rules is handed over to a condo board, however, that list can swell to anywhere from 20 to 70 pages, depending on the building and personalities involved.

Most of the rules are designed to protect property values and keep maintenance costs low, says Alberta condo consultant Winter. Banning condo owners from storing their custom $3,000 bikes inside their units might seem excessive—until board members start getting calls from neighbours angry that bikers are tracking dirt across the hallway carpets, she says. Winter recently helped a condominium that was drafting a rule requiring owners to hire only licensed and insured contractors to do work inside their units. The restrictions came about after an owner hired an uninsured painter who left a balcony door open to clear paint fumes. In the brisk Calgary winter, a pipe burst in the building, sparking a battle over who would pay for the $75,000 in damage. In the past year, human rights tribunals across the country have mediated disputes over whether a condo board’s ban on putting Christmas decorations on the outside of unit doors violated an owner’s freedom of religion (yes), whether a condo owner was allowed to have a hot tub because of a disability (yes) and whether a townhouse condo owner should be able to keep her backyard trampoline because it alleviated the anxiety suffered by her three children (dismissed because the condo board said it was still debating a ban on trampolines). Last year, an Ottawa family was evicted from their rented condo after neighbours complained of noise from an indoor trampoline used by their autistic son.

Boards don’t often realize that strict rules, like bans on children or pets, can actually lower property values, since they shrink the pool of prospective buyers, says Winter. Having owned condos since 1977, including serving as president of a condo board, June Donaldson figured she knew everything there was to know about how condo rules worked. Then she tried to sell her Calgary condo to a couple who wanted an exemption to the building’s rules against pets. Donaldson herself had been given written permission to own a small dog for 17 years. But instead of rubber-stamping the exemption, the board abruptly revoked Donaldson’s dog privileges, which, under the condo bylaws, they were allowed to do with 15 days notice. The kicker, says Donaldson, is her buyers didn’t even own a dog; they just wanted to be able to take care of their daughter’s dog when she was away for work. The board hired a lawyer to defend its decision and the buyers walked. Donaldson eventually sold her condo for close to $60,000 less than the original offer.

“I was a pretty seasoned condominium owner, and that situation knocked the feet right out from under me,” she says. “The irony is that I helped pay the board’s legal fees so that they could do a disservice to me.” The experience prompted her to co-found the Alberta Condo Owners Association last year as a way to give owners more of a voice in helping to influence provincial condo policy.

Courts have generally given condo boards wide latitude to draft and enforce their own rules, with judges usually taking the stance that the rules are reasonable unless an owner can prove they’re not, says Toronto condo lawyer Audrey Loeb. “Some people may not like it, but that’s part of the freedom you give up when you move into a condo,” she says. “You have all the obligations of a homeowner and all the obligations of a tenant, because condos are really a combination of the two.”

As much as she counsels condo boards to stop enforcing their rules so zealously, Winter has also noticed that one of the best-run buildings she’s come across also happens to have some of the stiffest fines for bad behaviour she’s ever seen. The one upscale, 500-unit condo in Calgary collected $80,000 in fines from owners in one year. Owners whose dogs damage common property are slapped with a $950 fine. Violating the building’s noise bylaw costs $1,500. (One owner who liked to throw parties in his unit paid $15,000 in noise-related fines before selling his unit.) “I was horrified when I saw their fining policies. I told them, ‘Please don’t give this to a buyer; they’ll never buy in here,’ ” she says. “But I can tell you, if someone is walking through the halls with the dog, it’s on a leash. People are saying hi to each other. The building is spotless.”

In extreme cases, condo boards have been able get a court order forcing owners to sell their units for being, essentially, very bad neighbours. In 2012, the B.C. Supreme Court ordered Rose Jordison to sell her condo in Surrey after her adult son had terrorized their neighbours by screaming obscenities, spitting, blocking their way in the hallway and throwing water at them from his balcony. “The old adage, ‘A man’s home is his castle,’ is subordinated by the exigencies of modern living in a condominium setting,” wrote Justice Richard Blair. In the wake of more and more lawsuits, mediators specializing in condo disputes have sprung up, charging as much as $800 an hour to settle disagreements over barking dogs and crying babies. Despite the cost, mediation is usually the cheapest option, costing an average of $12,000, compared to the $222,000 it typically costs to go to court, condo lawyer Armand Conant wrote recently. Governments are only now trying to come to grips with the monster that land-use restrictions and density targets have created. Ontario and Alberta are investigating proposals to license condo-property managers and create tribunals in the model of landlord-tenant boards to settle condo disputes. Nova Scotia created a condo dispute service in 2011. Campbell thinks there should be a government agency that can help owners tame or remove a rogue board member. As it stands, most provincial laws allow courts to appoint an administrator to take control if an entire condo board has become dysfunctional, but leave it up to boards to write their own rules when it comes to removing a board member.

Other long-term consequences of Canada’s condo boom are just now starting to surface. The growing number of seniors living alone in condos, often without any family or friends nearby, are creating serious problems for condo boards, says Loeb. She’s working with a board trying to deal with an elderly resident who set fire to her condo. “She stood in the unit while it was burning and she didn’t have a clue. We can’t let her back in the building; she’s a serious threat to safety. How does a condo corporation become responsible for dealing with somebody with dementia?” Hoarders, and people who buy condos and then turn them into rooming houses—stuffing 12 people inside a two-bedroom unit—are another major concern, she says.

In Ontario, many older buildings, constructed before laws requiring boards to create reserve funds were enacted in 2001, are now facing massive budget shortfalls and costly repairs after decades of neglect. Many of those buildings were condos aimed at low-income homebuyers who have struggled with the huge costs associated with maintaining a large highrise. Municipal governments in the Greater Toronto Area have even condemned portions of some older condo developments, such as underground parking garages, because of serious structural problems. Some older buildings now have trouble getting condo insurance, while banks have refused to finance mortgages in buildings known to have problems. “Some of these buildings have budgets of $3- to $4 million a year, and some people can’t read a balance sheet or a financial statement,” she says. “You’ve got people who think they’re serving their community by keeping the costs down, and they don’t do the proper long-term repair and the buildings just continue to deteriorate.” Loeb estimates that as many as 20 per cent of condos in the Toronto area are facing problems so severe that, in some cases, the province will be forced to step in and help residents dissolve the condominium corporation and sell the buildings. Courts have yet to face legal battles between owners who want to sell the building and those who don’t, but Loeb believes those cases are coming. “This is a terribly politically incorrect position to take,” she says, “but the truth is that people who don’t have extra money shouldn’t be living in condominiums.”

Don Campbell spends much of his time now worrying about what will happen to today’s shiny new buildings, many of them stuffed with 500-sq.-foot units, if Millennials decide they no longer want to live in cramped one-bedroom condos when they start families. “We have to be very cautious we’re not building future one-bedroom ghettos,” he says.

Whether our condos can eventually evolve to become true neighbourhoods, or communities like the suburbs of the past, is an unanswered question. Unlike the old Welcome Wagon of the 1950s, people today are less interested in spending time with their neighbours, says Dalhousie University urban planner Jill Grant. “The rhetoric about condo-as-community seems to suggest that community is formed by virtue of close proximity,” says Leslie Kern, a geography professor at Mount Allison University. “But we know that it’s just as likely to cause conflict.”

Conflict is inevitable when so many people live so close together. As governments continue to limit the land available for development and Canadians continue to reject the suburbs in favour of urban living, things are likely to get worse before they get better—if they get better at all. A decade into Canada’s condo boom, we’re only now coming to terms with the fundamental ways the condo is changing how we live.

At 69, June Donaldson bears the scars of fighting in the trenches of the condo wars. She’s still a fan of the condo lifestyle and loves the condo townhouse community where she now lives, but worries that we need to start addressing the downside of shared living. “If we don’t get busy and start talking about what the issues are and what are some of the reasonable fixes, then everybody loses,” she says. “We want to live the joys of condominium life, not the nightmare of it.”




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Condo hell

  1. “Walking distance from shops, restaurants and yoga studio!!!”

    • “Why rent when you can own???!!!”

      • See that top pic of Vancouver? -and notice how you can see right-through all those empty glass-condo-buildings, full of empty condo units?
        -well there you go, “why own if you can’t even sell, without a loss”
        :D

  2. They need to eliminate all these stupid boards and have cross province or cross country standards.

    • Ottawa has failed to be efficient and organized in anything they do. And where they do, RIV, CRTC, milk boards, been associations…no lemon laws on autos….it just costs us more to be Canadian. Half the cost of a home is in taxes, hidden taxes in materials costs, stuff costs 2-5 times as much as the wages, corporate hidden taxes….

      No need to add dysfunctional Ottawa to make it worse.

  3. When someone who “buys a second unit and turns it into an office” – AKA a business in a residential building, then complains about another neighbors actions, all I can say is ‘stupid, meet stupid.’

    • Condo buyer, meet condo buyer.

  4. REally amusing! thanks

  5. Today’s so-called “CONd’uoh” Owner immediately rents out their condo to gawd-knows-who?, while they stay living cheaply, and quietly with mommy and daddy.
    The Building/complex owner, and their Condo corp are the only ones laughing to the bank.
    Meanwhile, the “real” Owners, who actually live in what they own, suffer, from lack-of-services, …, but get stuck paying for it all, including the ever-increasing codo-rates, caused by all the other tenants from He_L.
    I remeber, back in the day, when you bought a Condo, YOU lived in it -NO renting allowed. This insured that ALL people would care where they live.
    Blame falls squarely on the greedy Condo Corp’s, with their vulturous real-estate double-agents.
    But then again, how can people in a country with terrible jobs, afford it nowadays ? a lot of them have no choice.

    • You appear to be contradicting yourself, blaming at one point renters of condos and then, the “greedy Condo Corp’s”. You said this:

      “I remeber, back in the day, when you bought a Condo, YOU lived in it -NO renting allowed. This insured that ALL people would care where they live” (Rickster),

      It’s amazing how even a piece on Condo living turns into an attack on tenants.

      I thought at first this piece was amusing because it showed how difficult it is, for people living in places which are overseen by a person or group higher up, to get things done that need to be, just as tenants often have such difficulties in the places they rent. Also, just living in such close quarters can be problematic, nothing to do with whether one owns the place one lives in or rents it.

    • I have to agree with you. Lobby driven politicians have done very little to make condos a good choice. Its only a good choice for many as a single bed or studio condo is cheaper, and being squeezed by stagnated wages, higher taxes, higher food costs, hidden taxes inflating our prices, having a family is out of question for more and more people as statism devours our standard of living.

      I was a condo chairman for 6 years, I know the BS….the shoddy building practices, lack of government effective rules and no support when it goes wrong. If buying a condo, you need to do extra work and pray your not going to get burned.

  6. “…The growing number of seniors living alone in condos, often without any family or friends nearby, are creating serious problems for condo boards, says Loeb. …”

    Where would you like them to go?, they don’t have 3k -> 5k per month to pay for those Retirement-homes,, (and that blame falls squarely on our gov’t),
    and they can no longer maintain their previously owned detached House/Property.
    I would rather have older people like that, in the building than a neighbour -comprised of 12-drunken-student’s in one unit ?!

  7. Except for one comment, below, this piece seemed to offer enlightenment on how it could be to own a condo. When anything is written about rental properties, the emphasis usually seems to be to blame the tenant for everything – for not caring about the place they live in, a one-sided approach, to be sure.

    But this piece shows how difficult it can be to live in a property where someone else has control over what gets done or what doesn’t. And when things get broken or don’t get maintained or fixed it isn’t always the fault of the one lower down on the ladder of decisionmaking, as has been assumed by those who write about landlords and tenants.

    So, this was refreshing, for the most part. Now all we need is a similar piece written about people who have to rent where they live because they can’t afford to buy. And for a change, to present the article from the perspective of the tenant instead of the landlord; in other words, to be fair, for a change, and to commit an act of social justice by evening out the playing fiel.

    • As the writer of this article I can say that, at least among the people I talked to and the court records I explored, tenants are not the major problem in condos, but rather owners. I’ve come across court cases where owners simply lied to tenants about the rules and restrictions (i.e. telling prospective tenants they can have a dog when the condo rules/bylaws forbid pets) and then the owners were fined when their tenants inadvertently broke the rules. In some cases tenants assume they are covered by landlord tenant laws, when condo bylaws supersede these in many cases (pets again being a big one.)

      Interestingly, some of the most bitter disputes involved neither tenants, nor younger owners, but older and wealthier owners who seemed to be more personally invested in how their building is run. The younger owners and tenants seemed less likely to care about what was going on in the building and weren’t interested in attending condo board meetings or engaging with boards about their issues. That’s a generalization, but it seemed to play out broadly.

      Some buildings do restrict the number of rental units or ban them altogether. Ontario hasn’t been so good about this, largely because so many of the downtown Toronto condos are intended to boost the supply of rental housing in the city (the lawyer quoted in my story told me some buildings in the core are 80% investor-owned.) However, I read a study that said that three-quarters of strata buildings in Vancouver have some sort of rental restrictions, either banning rentals completely or restricting the number of total units that could be rented at any one time. Those that don’t were mainly concentrated in the downtown core, again because they were aimed more at the rental market. But at least there seemed to be a fair bit of choice for buyers in Vancouver when it comes to buildings that allow rentals and those that don’t.

      That said, buying into a rental-restricted building seems to be no guarantee that the building will be problem-free. Human nature suggests otherwise, which is what this piece is about.

      • I’ve owned 2 condos, and have seen most of the issues you relate in this article. First, there’s always a fight over condo fees between people who want the best of everything and those who want to minimize any costs. This is a huge problem in a lot of condo developments when they start dipping into contingency funds to pay for routine maintenance like painting, let alone the major re-roofing projects lurking a decade in the future. Condos are more like buying a car than buying a house – there’s a demand for new product, and value drops sharply as the product ages and maintenance costs pile up.

        Second, there’s always trouble getting along with other people. People have wildly different expectations of what’s acceptable behaviour, and then some people are just jerks. In a rental building, you’ve got the benefit of a landlord to set the rules, and it’s cheaper to take the ultimate step of simply moving out. I decided to leave my first condo because of a dispute with the downstairs neighbour over my wife playing her harp – this after years of listening to the neighbour scream at his wife and kids, and loud television noises. It just wasn’t worth dealing with the hassle. Not everybody has the wherewithal to handle the expense of breaking a mortgage, real estate commissions, legal fees, and property transfer tax. That makes people inclined to battle it out, and people do tend to get emotional about their homes.

  8. This is an excellent article that captures most of the problems facing condo residents. However stating that the average condo court cases costs $212,000 has to be an wild exaggeration.

    Turning downtown condos into rental buildings will turn out badly as are the older condos that have far too many low income people living in them to pay for expensive repairs.

    What was left out? Corruption and nasty condo politics.

  9. I don’t know why the print is so large on Macleans articles now. I also don’t know how to change it. It’s been like this for a few weeks since, I think, Macleans made changes in their format.

    I’m off-topic but the articles can be so difficult to read that I don’t get to the end.

    • … don’t bother complaining, we ALL know how “different” Macleans format is around here lately, and they really don’t care.
      no edit abilities ?,…, no changing anything?,.., no lively true blog/discourses?, half of your posts/replies magically never appear ?….they actually limit the amount of times you can post/reply withing the same article comments, and I think it’s donwn to 3 :( ? isn’t this wonderful. ;)
      Actually, it’s more like the macleans’ “Format from He_ ”

      But my favourite, is the way they word it: “Please slow down,you are posting too fast!”
      huh ?

    • A lot of sites are defaulting to bigger print. If you use IE; go to View, Zoom OR Text Size.

  10. Most everything mentioned in this (great) article applies equally to housing co-ops. The difference is that in most co-ops, most of the residents live in subsidized units. Those people are even less likely to want to get involved in the political battles that occur. Co-op boards are more likely also to have even more incompetent and “what’s in it for me?” directors. The corruption, breaking the by-laws and the relevant legislation in Ontario, shady contracts, incompetent and grossly overpaid property managers would be all too familiar to condo residents. There is no avenue of assistance for co-op residents. They are at the mercy of high-paid lawyers working for co-ops in cases of eviction. The regulatory body (FSCO) won’t involve themselves in a “democratic” housing co-op. Courts similarly regularly defer to the boards. Worse is the oversight of CHF the national socialist-style co-op housing movement whose main job is to serve as political lobbyists and to protect co-ops, and preserve the myth of the greatness of co-op communities. They don’t care about co-op residents esp when they “cause trouble.”

  11. This article is a glaring example of sensationalism. Pick all of the things that have gone wrong in the condo world and make it seem like the norm. The real norm is that condos give people who choose not to live in a single family home, either for cost reasons, or lifestyle reasons, a true alternative. The freedom from the lifestyle is undeniably attractive. The cost savings in building costs is also very attractive. That is why condos are outpacing all other forms of housing in new builds.

    The problems described in this article are society problems. People will always be people. That is why every other sector of our lives is governed by laws at every level. Federal, Provincial, Municipal, and then Condo. It is necessary to create balance.

    Get used to it. A more complex society needs more complex rules.

  12. Tamsin:

    I’m pleased to see this article on the state of condominium living in Canada. I’m surprised that you failed even to mention the Condo Renewal Process in Ontario. This process was launched by the Ministry of Consumer Services in September 2011 and led by the Public Policy Forum. It involved stakeholders and owners from all sides of the Condo community in an ambitious, 18-month dialogue process to respond to many of the issues you raise in the article.

    The process resulted in a report with over 200 recommendations that were endorsed by a panel of 38 owners, randomly selected from across the province, as well as major stakeholder organizations, such as the Association of Condominium Mangers of Ontario, builders, lawyers, consumer protection organizations, and so on. The recommendations are now being drafted into a bill by the Ministry and will be used to renew the Condo Act. The new Act will result in major changes in the management of reserve funds and other financial issues, condo governance, dispute resolution and consumer protection. It will also require the licensing of condo managers, with standards set by a new provincially regulated condo office. These measures are targeted at most of the issues you raise in your article, all of which were widely discussed in this process.

    Don Lenihan
    Senior Associate
    Public Policy Forum
    Ottawa

    • Hi Don,

      The story does mention that the Ontario government is looking to licence property manager and create a new condo office to mediate some of these disputes. But we’re still waiting to see which of the recommendations ends up included in the legislation and when such a bill will be introduced. We’ll also have to see what happens after the provincial budget and whether the opposition parties decide to support the government or trigger an election.

  13. High rise, high density heaven: lets not overlook the fact that this is the paradigm of excellence advocated by urban planning boffins under the heading of ‘smart cities’. The issues with this type of residential space didn’t just happen: it was planned to happen by cohorts who keep crowing about the wonderful job they’re doing. Noise complaints and high maintenance are just symptoms of construction deficiencies, which of course were approved by the same bunch who keep saying how great it all is. There are some high rise developments in Toronto where there is always one or more police cruisers in the front drive during evening hours and yet the planners made no provisions for a semi-permanent police presence including parking and enclosed space. Likewise in most buildings catering to seniors, there is no dedicated parking for ambulances easily accessible to the freight elevator, even though we know that minutes count. I have even seen the service entrance obstructed by a large dumpster. In general, the lack of adequate design considerations is a good part of the problem – this is not accidental or incidental but planned by self appointed ‘smart’ planners. One must wonder where these guilty parties are in this discussion and why they can ignore blatantly obvious facts:
    - owning a pet extends life expectancy
    - seniors have a high frequency of ambulance calls
    - green space reduces the incidence of social conflict and crime
    - children need a place to dissipate energy
    - a significant portion of seniors need to be able to use walking aids and wheelchairs
    - bicycles are a ‘smart’ form of transportation
    - corridor air return, though cheap, increases problems with noise and odor (duuuh).

    - elevators should at least be able to accommodate an entire family at one time

  14. What a great article. Thanks, Ms. McMahon, for this.

  15. When one purchases a property, there is a contract in effect. Changes to rules of usage and/or common fees after the fact should be considered a breach of contract. In any instance where changes to the terms of residency result in a loss or hardship to an owner, those individuals creating the loss or hardship should be liable for damages. The same should apply to issues of quality of construction; sadly, in this area little can be done as the current laws allow individuals and enterprises to employ a number of ruses such as continuously rotating shell corporations to escape liability. Also legally defined warranties apply to an impractically short time frame relative to the life expectancy of a residential construction and only apply to issues of workmanship not design or even choice of materials. Worse, some of the issues of design go back to government employees and politicians who are essentially immune to any liability for their faux pas. Unfortunately, many of the most critical details of construction are hidden beneath the lipstick. As far as the buyer is concerned, no one is on their side, yet the responsible parties will all claim in their defense that they’re doing a wonderful job.
    One of the issues with high density structures is that all of the problems are compounded – problems in one unit can easily affect many units. This generally results in adversarial relationships. It also produces a level of discrimination such as when little old ladies are moved to distant outdoor parking so that the luxury units can have more indoor parking. As the article hints at, money talks. Worst case, some cadre of self-interested individuals can screw an individual out of some or all of their investment.

  16. I stayed over at a friends brand new condo helping her with some mods before she moved in. Three months in all.

    The condo had warm body guards – can breath, can’t think – and one guard, who liked to discretely view the elevator cameras to see what couples did, objected to my presence in the entrance lobby.

    He told me to ‘move’. I responded this is a Common Element waiting area which is why there are chairs, etc., here.

    He called the police, Toronto’s hairiest arrive, and demand my name. Told them I don’t have to provide it as I am not breaking the law and that I am on private property. Guy calls for back-up and five police cars arrive.

    I’m thrown into police car, carted off to the police station where I continue to exercise my rights.

    Then a detective gets smart – he goes back to the condominium and finds out where I live. The unit owner explains I am her guest.

    Whoops! Get out of jail free card.

    We are now discussing a $5-million dollar claim that involves the police, the condominium, condominium manager personally, developer and security company.

    Life in a condo … keep it!

    • That sounds more like fantasy than fact.

  17. I purchased a Wood Frame Pre Construction Condo. Also a first time home buyer. I watched the building go up with excitement. Like most that picture changed when everyone started moving in. What upsets me is the Selling Features used. The Builder/Developer did not deliver the product I bought. No one seems to be held accountable. (i.e. 60 STC – if sound proofing is missing; what else is missing.) Buildings are not designed for various lifestyles. I believe it is your First Year Council that will make or break the building atmosphere. There Builder didn’t deliver a 60 STC; there has to be Living Rules. There is something wrong when you can be fined for walking around, but your neighbour can bang on the Ceiling and Walls. The Bike bylaw, I believe, is a grandfather bylaw. Why are Scooters and Tandem Strollers allowed but bikes aren’t. — When looking at any building or neighbourhood know who your neighbours are. (i.e. if the unit is quiet, you probably shouldn’t expect to have a Surround Sound system OR have children running around. If your neighbours don’t own barbeques, you probably shouldn’t either. etc etc)

    • My last examples can also go in reverse. — view Units more than once at all times of day. You can not expect to change Living Sounds. As an Original Owner, strata Council has done nothing to ensure us they understand. In addition to human sounds; we are also facing pipe and structure repairs. Who is responsible for what?

  18. I read a great deal of JG Ballard in my youth. If you haven’t, there are many, all too real, possibilities.

    “Drowned World”, “Concrete Island” and to the point of this article; “Highrise”. It chronicles the barbarism following the breakdown of social order within a highrise ‘community’. The next stage……..?

    http://www.jgballard.ca/criticism/highrise.html

  19. Condo living is complex and purchasers need to educate themselves and be educated about what they are buying into- whether new construction or re-sale. Each of these types of condos has pros/cons associated and with these types of purchases, now more than ever, buyers should seek professional advice before buying and at the same time, learn about the building, community, issues, etc. before waiving the conditions or letting the 10 day rescission period pass. Having been involved with the Ontario government’s Condo Act review process, I have seen how hard they are working very hard to initiate changes to the condo landscape by balancing the “condo playing field” by recommending improvements to such areas as dispute resolution, licensing management, improved board governance, and others. With these improvements, all will not be solved, but it will be a far better landscape to live, play, and grow in.

  20. Very good article.

  21. First time buyers need to be alerted to the possibility that too often condos aren’t a good investment. Neglect of maintenance in the interests of minimizing condo fees drives down the value of buildings and units.

    Property managers should be licensed. In my building one board member routinely accepted 5% off the top of maintenance and repair contracts he awarded. It took several years before owners realized what was happening and voted him off the board.

  22. Rather than complaining about your neighbors, maybe you should just learn to embrace diversity.

    • And listen to them grunt through the walls, sure.

  23. The problems in my building stem from getting started on the wrong foot. Most of us were first time home owners along with Owner’s who downsized. We bought pre-construction with outstanding selling features. One feature was Sound Proofing. When everyone started moving in we could hear our neighbours very clearly. We complained. Instead of addressing the lack of Sound Proofing as a deficiency and calling a Special Meeting; notices were sent to neighbours as noise complaints. Now five years later we are having other problems. Some that others commented on. (i.e. maintenance – as a first time home owner the low strata fees were attractive. the low strata fees has caught up to us with maintenance like painting, cleaning carpets not getting done. Overall appearance of the building is lowering the value of our homes.) Our strata has made the decision to let individual Owner’s deal with problems.

  24. My grandparents live in a condo in Chilliwack, BC, they just got a bill for 33,000 to repair it, while their condo is worth less than 100,000. They have no money to pay. The board squandered the money and hired shoddy contractors that left the already dilapidated building in ruin. This is a 55+ condo so everybody else is in the same situation too. A small dental office in the main floor apparently got a bill for 200,000 which is not much less than what it is worth… So basically my almost 80 year old grandparents are going to just live there and not pay up like most of the others, they figure they will die before the building is condemned or before they get evicted. They couldn’t sell that place either, and it’s mortgaged too for way more than it is worth. I have no idea what will happen, but the article is correctly predicting a huge problem that is coming, a problem that is already here.

    • I would suggest they meet with a good Lawyer. If they don’t pay and money goes on their Account, interest could be added. If they can sell (at a loss), the next owner could end up having to owe it. If what you said is true about squandering money, other Owners could ban together and sue Council Members for bad decision making.

  25. Good article. Thanks Tamsin. Can you provide some statistics on the numbers of problems vs the number of condos? I appreciate your anecdotes because they give an idea of the wide variety of problems that can occur. I would also like to know if these problems are happening in less than 1% or more than 20% of the condo developments.

    • I’m not Tamsin, but my feeling is every building could have problems. When looking at a building know there is a Bylaw for anything and everything. Read the Minutes to know which Bylaws are enforced and to know what the problems are for that building. My experience has been related to the lack of sound proofing. Reading through comments everybody has their different problems. I think, what should be asked is the percentage of Unit problems in a building. (I live in a Low Rise, Wood Frame Building — 6 of 75 are problem units. (ie neighbouring disputes between Singles, Retirees and Families — “What’s noise to one, is living to the other”) While the number is low, it is also 8 percent.

  26. This article seems to be written about the condo where I recently owned a unit!
    The major problem was the condo board and their conflict of interests. As well, the property management company was a nightmare of which the condo board hired in a most unethical fashion.

    It took three years to vote out the undesirables on the board but in their tenure, they managed to blow a huge deficit in our building and fund. Further, the new board took steps to get rid of the property management and upon looking closer at their book-keeping, it was apparent that the property manager was fraudulently cooking the books!

    The old board who we ‘fired’ comprised two lawyers and one Medical Doctor: these folks were complete idiots and allowed the condo to sink! So, buyer’s be very careful about who is running the condo and who the management company is…professionals don’t always have your interests primed.

    I now live in BC and If I were to ever buy again in this legal ether zone, I would knock on doors in the potential condo and ask the owner’s and tenant’s their experiences with the board and management company.

    The condo that I speak of with regard to the nightmares is in Edmonton, Alberta and the Act and Regulations which govern these condos gives totalatarian control to the board and owners are hooped if they happen to disagree with the board’s decisions.

    I believe the statutes that govern condominiums really need to be overhauled and more balance given to the parties.

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