When the dream of condo living turns into a dictatorial nightmare

"Gag orders" on banning complaints and annoying behaviour are just the tip of the condo craziness iceberg
Yachts and condos along the waterfront in Toronto. (Shutterstock)
Yachts and condos along the waterfront in Toronto. (Shutterstock)
Yachts and condos along the waterfront in Toronto. (Shutterstock)

Earlier this month, a Toronto condo board introduced a new workplace harassment rule to its residents. One of the examples of harassment cited: “Unreasonable and/or repetitive expression of concerns with respect to the administration of the affairs of the condominium corporation.”

The unusually-worded rule has raised the ire of tenants renting in the building. While the board clearly has a duty to protect its employees from legitimately harmful treatment—for instance the rule bars any statements or behaviour that is threatening or violent—the rule also restricts actions it deems “annoying,” and occupants have interpreted the board’s wide-ranging ban on complaints as sending a message to them: don’t bother us, we’re not interested.

It’s just the latest in a string of disputes in recent months involving condo residents, owners, boards and property managers that have highlighted some of the downsides of condo life, even as scores of cranes erect new glass towers in Canada’s largest city. Amid a perfect storm of investor-owned units, powerful condo boards and tenants who have limited powers to fight back, a democratic living ideal is rapidly turning into a dictatorial nightmare for condo-dwellers.

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One tenant renting at The Station Condos at 555/565 Wilson Ave., who requested his name not be published, said the new rule seemed like a “gag order,” and has left many tenants worried they’re being silenced and will be penalized for following up on requests. Having lived in the building for roughly a year, he’s already seen it go through three different property managers. What’s more, his concerns about leaky sinks and broken tiles have regularly taken weeks and repeated emails before even being acknowledged by management, he says. Even his landlord’s agent, who acts as a liaison, has reached out to the property manager but nothing has been repaired yet. Many times his complaints have been ignored completely and he’s had to fix the situation himself—an added frustration since he and his neighbours pay between $300 and $500 each month in maintenance fees.

According to Section 58 of the Ontario Condominium Act, rules created by condo boards need to be “reasonable,” and many are saying that this latest addition is not. “I’ve never seen anything so ridiculous,” said Moti Flaster, of the Ontario Condominium Owners Association. Flaster is calling the rule “dictatorial” and “draconian.”

But Denise Lash, a lawyer specializing in condo law says that these types of clashes between tenants and condo boards usually come down to a lack of communication and possibly overworked, overwhelmed employees. This building has 388 units and just one person—the property manager—to field complaints.

In fact, Lash says this rule might be warranted given a recent court case. In YCC No. 163 v. Robinson, a condo corporation in Toronto successfully received a court order against a tenant who was emailing every day, criticizing management and demonstrating rude behaviour. That sounds much like what The Station Condos and Brookfield Condo Services, the company managing the building, might be trying to prevent. However condo board members deferred requests for comment to Brookfield, which did not respond to interview requests on the matter.

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While the motivations for the regulation in general sound legitimate, Lash is concerned that the definition of harassment is entirely left to the “sole and unfettered discretion” of the condo board.

“They’ve gone a bit too far in drafting it this way,” says Lash, adding that it gives too much power to the board, which can go wrong if a member decides to abuse it. For instance, the board could deem three emails about the same issue as ‘harassment.’

The offending condo owner would then be given either a warning for breaching the rule or a lawyer’s letter for which they’d have to foot the bill of a few hundred dollars. If they refuse that, liens will start to be applied against the owner, which could add up to thousands and then they’d have to go to court.

The only recourse for the owners and occupants, as laid out in the Ontario condominium act,  is to get 15 per cent of owners in the building to sign a petition calling a meeting to discuss the rule. Renters need the owners of their units to sign. This has to happen within 30 days, otherwise the rule sticks. Another option is electing a new condo board.

This small-scale political process seems fine and democratic in theory but doesn’t account for the new reality in condo buildings. In hot markets like Toronto, recent studies suggest that more than half of unit sales go to investors—both foreign and domestic.

As a result, it’s becoming more common for condo boards to do whatever they want, says Rachelle Berube, writer and property manager. “The more investors there are, there is lack of leadership in the building. Condos were never made to be a vehicle for investors. They were made for the people who live there to be a community.”

Supposing all units at 555/565 Wilson Ave. are occupied, those who live there will need 58 signatures from owners to force a meeting by the end of the month. Then, they’d need more than 50 per cent of attendees at the meeting to vote for or against the rule. As of publication, they had 30 signatures in total.

If residents don’t succeed in challenging the rule, they at least can take solace that their situation could be much, much worse. Condo board battles, dramatic showdowns and abuse of power is becoming rampant in Ontario. Non-owners are making headlines for attempting to gain control of condo boards for their own interests. Take for instance one downtown Toronto tower whose owners are on the hook for $100,000 in extra costs after their condo board signed an energy contract that reportedly benefits a board member’s acquaintance. Or the Brampton woman who received a court summons for having too many patio chairs and non-regulation flower pots.

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New legislation that is not yet in effect aims to help condo owners in these situations. The Condo Authority of Ontario (CAO) would be a third-party not-for-profit administrative body that would help in resolving disputes between owners and boards, presumably to avoid expensive court battles. The legislation would also encourage increased communication between boards and owners and also regulate the qualifications required from property managers.

In the meantime, calling a meeting is the obvious next step for owners at The Station Condos to try to repeal the ‘repetitive complaint’ ban. “[The rule] sounds like a bullying tactic,” says Berube.