Condo, Strata and HOA News

Tag Archives: Community

Kudos for Cities That Get It: Ottawa and Condo Footprints

It’s always nice to drop kudos here and there (in between most of my posts which focus on the negative). In this case, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada has updated a tree-protection bylaw that was only two years old.

The by-law itself, in purpose and thought, rocks. Trees would need municipal approval before cutting: 10 centimeters or greater diameter on hectare and larger size land parcels; and 50 centimeter or greater diameter for any property. This should ensure those old and gorgeous trees remain rooted, and allow for younger trees the opportunity to grow into fantastic groves.

Condominiums are unlike either individual houses (protecting those gorgeous granddaddy trees – 50 cm. and greater diameter) or undeveloped green space (1 hectare or larger plots). Condos are kind of both – a group of individual residents on a large shared property.

Given that, Ottawa has updated the by-law to place condominiums under the 50 cm. and greater diameter part of the by-law, and made them not subject to the 1 hectare or larger plots section. It’s a nice, simple, and easily rolled out change to a rule that overlooked the large footprint of condominiums.

Kudos Ottawa for a small, but important law change that recognizes the nature of condominiums and removes inappropriate regulation.

Criminals Treat Condo as Giant Living Piggybank, Owners Attempting To Respond

The Estates at Westbury, Bluffton, South Carolina has a couple of issues. The first is crime, and the second appears to be a failure of the management company to respond.

The 300 unit complex is riddled with crime and negligent owners and tenants. And I get the feeling that criminals are treating the site as a giant piggy bank. Two (news, news) units have recently been home invaded by armed group of men – both times forcing the owners to lay face down while they rifle through the home for valuables.

Less heinous, one resident describes the building on goings as:

the Estate could be a beautiful and serene place to live, there are a number of facts that make this a less than desirable home. With a number of armed robberies, muggings, residents who are permitted to move in and hold drunken parties until the middle of the night, fist fights breaking out at said drunken parties, carloads of people coming in to the community who do not belong here, people driving at undesirable speeds through the community that are a threat to the children playing here, drug dealings going on that are known to both the Association Manager and to the maintenance team, and music so loud that it shakes entire buildings – the lifestyle and feeling of “home” at the Estate is in sharp decline

It is so bad that one elderly couple fear even their walk to collect mail.

Ouch. That means it’s time for the management to step up.

To their credit, it appears the management is improving lighting and putting in brontosaurus in size speed bumps to limit vehicle speed. Where they fall down is communicating with the owners, and supporting their actions.

Most importantly, when it comes to supporting a proven method to reduce crime in an area – creating a neighborhood watch – the management has been resistant to at each step. The residents put up over 500 flyers to communicate with the community, the management tore them all down. Owners and tenants try to engage the Association Manager; she has banned tenants from her office because they are not owners. Tenant Jennie Krogulski has gathered about 30 tenants and owners volunteers to start a watch; and the final message from the manager – the residents are not allowed to set up a Neighbourhood Watch.

I  would counter with the following: if serious injury occurs to any member of the community – which a reasonable person would deem a neighbourhood watch would have helped prevent – I would go after the resident manager. I would hold her responsible.

Neighbourhood Watch programs have existed for a long time and are supported by the police department. Volunteers receive training and support. Issues of liability have all been resolved over the 50 years the program has been in place. USAonWatch even has a copy of the Neighbourhood Watch Manual free for download.

A Neighbourhood Watch program for a complex with these issues is reasonable, accessible, and empowering for the residents. It is a great and awesome program to support, and should be seen as a progressive action to combat the real and tangible threat of harm and danger these residents have.

For up to date information, the active residents have a Facebook page for the complex that can be seen here.

Nice to See: A Very Active US Department of Housing and Urban Affairs

Often referred to as HUD, the US Department of Housing and Urban Affairs has been tearing thought the news lately with an aggressive policy of charges against condominiums and HOAs failing to offer basic accommodation to the disabled.

Hurray! This week HUD charged Philadelphia Parkway Condos with violating the Fair Housing Act for refusing to revise its “no pets” policy for residents requiring assistance animals.

Indeed, the Parkway Condos go out of their way to attempt to circumvent the necessity of allowing assistance animals. From HUD’s charge:

In a new 2011 policy, the POA issued detailed “Instructions for Physicians for Documenting Disability under the Federal Fair Housing Act,” which required exhaustive documentation to support a doctor’s opinion about the necessity of an assistance animal, and stated, “it may be necessary for you [the doctor] to testify under oath in federal court about your opinion.”  The 2011 policy banned persons using assistance animals from accessing the main lobby, shuttle bus, social rooms, fitness rooms, mail room, and laundry room, and required them to use the service elevator.

Says John Trasviña, HUD Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity:

Assistance animals are not pets. They play a vital role in helping people with disabilities conduct everyday activities and fully enjoy their homes … Condominium associations have a responsibility under the Fair Housing Act to grant reasonable accommodations when they are needed.

I can only full-heartedly agree. Condominium and HOA should, by nature, be designed for accommodation. This not only includes the requirement for allowing owners with disabilities pet exemptions, but others – for example, those with Multiple Sclerosis to have air conditioning (for buildings that ban it for “the look it applies to the exterior of the building”).

There is no reason that exceptions cannot be made for those in need. An exception to the bylaws in no way harms neighbours, effects resale value, or lower the community’s standard of living.

People who believe they are victims of housing discrimination in the US can contact HUD at 1-800-669-9777 to get advice and report the incident.

Don’t Fear Volunteering To Be On Your Board

The one piece of advice I have for all condominium owners – spend the time to participate on your board for at least one term. For most people, their house will be the largest part of their financial holdings in their life. Most people will never have more cash and securities than the value of their house. For condo owners, that house equity is directly impacted by how well your condominium, strata, or HOA is managed. Poorly managed condominiums could cost you a lot of extra money.

By being on the board you will get a special look, and insight, on where your fees and contributions go to. It also presents you the “other side of the story” for complaints brought against the corporation, or between condo neighbours. There’s nothing like the experience of dealing with all the different complaints and trying to resolve as many as possible of them gracefully.

Finally, you’ll likely realize that the condominium isn’t evil. It raises money against a budget, and most boards try to make sure each and every penny is used properly. By working with the budget you can see if your fees are well managed (they normally are – the majority of fees go to electric, water, natural gas, and insurance).

You don’t need to spend your life on the board – but you have chosen a living arrangement where you share some building costs and responsibilities with your neighbours. A year or two helping out with the condominium will be beneficial not only to you, but your financial understanding – and hopefully financial health – as well.

Improving the Resale Price of Your Condominium Association’s Units

Earlier this year I consulted with a condominium association that felt their units were selling at well below market value. We did a review of the grounds, the prices, and the resent selling prices and confirmed their feelings with actual numbers. Their units were selling for well less than value.

The problem comes from two main problems – realtors price units in comparison with the local area, and realtors are really lazy. Ok, maybe not intentionally lazy, but their compensation is based on selling as many units with as little time spent selling each unit. As such, realtors are motivated on encouraging the seller to accept the lowest price possible to list. Owners that balk at the suggested price have a huge uphill battle to convince the realtor to spend time on actively selling a unit at a higher price – they still will list it, but if it takes too much effort to sell then they focus on their portfolio of “easier sales.”

The property is truly unique for the area – a community that is still 15 minutes from the downtown core (non-rush hour) and includes two fully sized ponds (and ponds understates the water immensely), they have large residences for the area, and have an excessively proactive grounds and building maintenance program.

We sat down and talked about a few things with their Resale Committee. It included a variety of initiatives including an aggressive marketing campaign to owners encouraging them to seek their condo board before a realtor, the board building a sales profile for the units – effectively doing the realtor’s job for them, and coaching to owners on how to talk to their realtor and convince them that a higher price for these condos will be as easy to sell as a lower priced unit somewhere else.

One really important factor is to build a large photo and video repository of the water works – with the numerous bunnies, squirrels, and baby ducks that sit amongst the reeds (seriously, it’s a water habitat oasis in Calgary) – and build a portfolio of all the seasons.

The suggestion that the board or other residents be accessible for potential purchasers to meet was also highly encouraged. While in person is best, I noticed a residence in New Jersey has interviews with four of their owners posted positive experiences to YouTube. This is a phenomenal way to show the pride owners have and convey to new purchasers. It will also help make the case to a realtor that these properties will sell at higher costs.

In total, through the consultation, we developed several activities that should add over 8.5 million dollars to the value of all the units in the corporation (adding over 100k/unit) over the next 2 to 3 years. This will bring the units in line with their true value.

Patriotism Is an Invalid Reason to Break Bylaws

The bylaws of condominiums, HOAs, and stratas exist to manage the common property related to the development – the hallways, walls, grounds, parkades and amenities. It’s a document that builds a simple and usable framework of rules that allows for multiple owners to make collective decisions on how to fund, manage, and maintain the infrastructures that isn’t exclusive to their use (like their unit).

In managing and maintaining the common property, bylaws also include some limitations on the activities and rights of the owners on how they can use these common elements. In particular – they limit owner expression on common property, and prevent owners from monopolizing any amenities.  You could imagine in a building of 200 that all the owners may not share the same political outlook, and instead of creating complex rules for displaying political messages on common property the bylaws simply restrict any political expression.

That’s why I always chaff at the use of patriotism as grounds to violate the bylaws. Patriotism, by nature, is a political expression. Even people who are equally patriotic can disagree on what is a fair or true expression of loving one’s country. As such, though patriotism is an emotion well worth holding, it is not grounds for violating bylaws.

Auburn Meadows Property Owners Association is currently facing media heat for requiring a sign reading “My Son is Army Strong” (with a link advertising a military website) to be taken down, as it is in violation of their signage bylaws.

More telling is Crystal Chilcote’s (the infringing owner, along with her husband Glen) reasoning for the sign:

[the war in Afghanistan] has just been going on for so long that people are totally disconnected unless they’re directly involved with their family members being gone.

a statement that clarifies the political call to action Crystal and Glen are making with the sign.

I would encourage the Auburn Meadows Property Owners Association to be “Community Strong” and support all their owners’ divergent political views by enforcing their bylaws, and ignore one owner from bullying them by claiming patriotism.

Owners Throw Hissy Fit Regarding Tenants with Mental Illness

There is an awesome line I once heard – “if you have to spend time explaining what you aren’t, you likely are”. Hence the snicker I had when I read the statement from Michael McMahon of the Admiral Dewey House condominium, in Framingham Massachusetts:

None of us want to come across as ignorant, or superstitious, or prejudiced, but…

Ah, then of course you’re not coming across that way.

The residents of the Admiral Dewey House are upset that two of the units in the building (of 20) have been bought by Cascap Inc – a non-profit that owns and manages properties for state contracts they have. The issue arises that Cascap bought the properties to meet a contract from the Department of Mental Health – to house people with mental illness.

The situation seems pretty clear cut – the units were bought by a corporation, and as such Cascap Inc are not live in owners. The people there will be classified as tenants. Cascap Inc. tenants will have all the same rights, responsibilities and requirements of any other tenant renting a unit from another owner. The corporation and the owners have no extended rights to violate the privacy of these or any other tenants. Neither can they deny the rights to rent, or to inhabit, based on those silly things like race, gender, disability or sexual orientation.

As to the specific issue of these two units being rented by Cascap Inc under contract with the Department of Mental Health – well Mr. McMahon has this to say:

If you think that somebody who is purchasing a unit doesn’t take that into [Cascap Inc’s] acquisition decision, their purchase of a property, then you’re crazy.

Nicely chosen words there Mr. McMahon. Of course you aren’t ignorant, or superstitious, or prejudiced.

Strata Fines Resident $25 for Smoking Creating “activities causing nuisance or hazard to others”

The only organization that should be fined for “causing nuisance … to others” should be the board of the Chelsea Gardens Strata Corporation for such a cowardly use of the by-laws.

The Chelsea Gardens Strata Corporation has been dealing with a series of complaints from a unit owner against their neighbour for smoking. It’s implied that the complaints arise mostly when the smoker is on their own patio, and the second-hand smoke drifts into the complainant’s unit. The complaints have been expressed to the corporation in 2009 and 2010, and recently they have been filed with the BC Human Rights Tribunal. It is scheduled for mediation in November 2011.

What I find interesting is the board’s response, at one point, to attempt to address the situation by fining the smoker $25 for breaking the by-laws though “activities causing nuisance or hazard to others.” The role of the board is in part to help the community live together in harmony and mediate the interaction of residents.

I can see how the board may have felt constrained – smoking is not an illegal activity, but they have a serious of complaints from an owner indicating that their health is being impaired by another resident. A $25 fine though seems ineffectual, token, and something that would cause more harm. It’s an action that seems to say to the complainant that the board is sympathetic to the complaint, but the amount of the fine indicates the response is toothless and meaningless. $25 will not pose a fiscal threat that encourages change in behaviour.

I would think that the board actually puts themselves in a more vulnerable role, especially given that smoking isn’t illegal, and they are regulating that activity. It’s a similar situation to those fatty carcinogenic plumes of bbq beef carcass smoke that fill my unit, issuing from several neighbours balconies and patios this summer.

When I buy into a condominium that allows pets, I assume that at least some of my neighbours will have pets and I will bump into them, sometimes on a daily basis. If I buy into a condominium that doesn’t outline in the by-laws a non-smoking policy on exclusive use common property (including balconies and patios), then I assume that some of my neighbours have the right to smoke there – and will take that right up.

For those that think that this comes from a smoker, I am a dedicated non-smoker. Euuugh – smoker breath.

The Problem with Conversion Neighbourhoods and New Residents

When we bought our first condo, the building came with an unofficial escort service on one of the corners of the building. If I’m being a little vague, what I mean to say, the building was at the corner of a popular hooker stroll.

We bought knowing what the situation is. The exiting companionship business (ok, less colloquialisms) was there before we bought into the condominium. The neighbourhood was on the cusp of redevelopment with 5 new high-rise condominiums going in within 2 blocks of our new home. We also benefited from the prostitutes – it was a very affordable unit near the downtown core and multiple public transit stops. It was a great buy for our first condo.

In Montreal, a similar neighbourhood is drawing attention. Known as the Gay Village, an onset of condominium buyers and young families is bringing forward a clash with the local homelessness and beggars established in the community.

I’m bugged by people who move into an existing neighbourhood and then demand changes for their lifestyle. They moved into an area with a known homeless situation, and now want them all deported from their new home. Relax. Take it easy for a couple years. There are two stories I want to tell you.

First off – there was a burglary in one of the commercial units in our condominium. The entered through the residence, made their way though the service hallway and raided a store. While making their escape they passed by several of the working ladies and departed. When the police showed up to investigate, the ladies provided details and descriptions of the culprits and their manner of escape. They proved to be a reliable set of witnesses to the crime.

Second – give the city a few years. With new development, especially higher density, new tax revenue will come through to the city. After giving the pre-existing inhabitants of the community time to realize that the community is changing (and they will, street revitalization with new shops and other revitalization events always follow high density redevelopment), you can approach city hall with a strong tax case for enhanced community initiative (including police) that will push out the pre-existing community. You just have to give it a few years, and don’t come into an existing community just to push your weight around.

Our first condo is now hooker free (not by far, they popular streets only migrated a few blocks), but they have moved. It happened relatively naturally and without the need for new residents to build conflict with the old.

Condominium Can Not Limit Access to Pool Based On Age

I find some condominium boards draft by-laws that are pointlessly restrictive. These, to name a few, include (quoting from one of my own bylaws):

“No snake, spider, reptile, fowl or livestock will be approved [for residence]”

“use his balcony … flower pots planted with living plants (no silk, artificial or plastic plants except artificial cedars are allowed) … are permitted”

Regarding BBQs: “which if covered, must be covered with a suitable barbeque cover that is in good condition”

“All dogs and cats must be carried on Common Property”

I often wonder how these would be, or have been enforced – if ever. On both boards I’ve served on, we’ve never enforced or even attempted to determine if these, or similar, rules are contravened.  Some seem petty – blocking the ownership of a pet iguana – and more so, I don’t think even enforceable if a board tries to act upon it.

The rule for nothing artificial on balconies except “artificial cedars” seems suspect – it seems to be an attempt to allow Christians to have Christmas trees on their balconies and patios. Either that or the original drafter had a fetish for specifically shaped and coloured plastic flora.

The kicker to all this is the statement in the bylaws that the above and all the other (and there are a lot – just the “owner cannot” section appears to be more than 100 items including subsections) of bylaws have the following purpose (iii) to develop a sense of community.

Forcing neighbours to say hello to each other, hold the elevator doors, offer assistance with carrying groceries, and forcing them to volunteer on committees – that develops a sense of community. Creating arbitrary rules does not create community; it creates norms of behaviour which are completely different. As well, norms fail to allow change and growth in a community. Norms are awesome at attempting to create an environment that is only welcome to a single homogenous group.

Earlier this year, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario found two condominium corporations (who jointly manage a shared outdoor pool) had gone too far in their rules. At issue was (1) the blocking of children under 2, and those in diapers, from entering the pool, and (2) limited subset of the pool hours that those 16 and under were able to use the pool.

The tribunal found the rules were immediately unenforceable and to be stricken from the bylaws -the rules provided no bona fide safety improvements, nor were they reasonable. There was an additional $10,000 judgement against the corporations as well.

And that brings me back to creating a sense of community. Condominiums need to look at community as a two way street. Creating a long shopping list of rules can establish a framework of reasonable limitations – but that’s all. When the framework allows the owners to express, live, and share a common housing connection in non-harmful, non-evasive ways, the condominium is a much better place to live.

And had the corporations with the pool looked at their rules as a mechanism to build community, they would have long ago removed the age limitations and kept themselves out of trouble. And indeed, it is not just the board at fault for having those rules, but they are at fault for establishing and condoning an atmosphere that didn’t build community. The ruling mentions that the owners took a vote on changing the rules to make them more inclusive, and when they voted the changes down “the audience cheered.” It’s also noted the boards had a Summer BBQ, which specified “Adult Residents Only!”

That’s a failure of the boards to look at building community, inclusiveness, and positive common experience. They should start working on that. Pronto.

PS. Is my Hello-Kitty BBQ Cover “suitable”?