The Nightmare Next Door

Strata struggles are nothing new. But as condo costs rise and maintenance budgets shrink, the heat is on. Now councils are cracking, tempers are flaring and the lawsuits are piling up.

When Courtney Tuckwood and his wife first bought their three-bedroom Surrey condo in 1999, they loved the location, the spacious layout and the reasonable price. Sure, they wouldn’t have their own detached property, but they wouldn’t have to shovel snow or mow the lawn, either.

Then the building was deemed a leaky condo. But it wasn’t the pricey remediation that turned their lives upside down: it was a mother and son who lived down the hall. Triggered by a dispute with the strata council over minor bylaw infractions, Rose and Jordy Jordison launched an all-out war on their neighbours—stomping on the floors at all hours of the day and night, jumping out and screaming at people as they passed by their door or hiding in the parkade, berating residents as they followed them into the elevator.

Tuckwood and his wife became prime targets because he was on the strata council.

“There were times where they’d open the door and throw things at people,” says Tuckwood, who adds that people on the street below their apartment were repeatedly spat on. “My wife had water thrown on her a couple times. Finally, she started walking around with a little video recorder. You had to be careful walking by the door. It was just so unbearable.”

The strata council’s demands and fines—which eventually amounted to more than $29,000—went ignored; visits from the police had little effect. Eventually, the case went to court, and the mother and son were forced to sell, but the fight took eight years and the legal bill skyrocketed to more than $300,000.

“It took forever,” remembers Tuckwood. “There needed to be mechanisms in place sooner to deal with people like that. We weren’t the only ones who had this problem. We were just the ones who said, ‘You know what? Enough’s enough.’”

While the Jordison case may be extreme, hellish strata experiences are far from unusual, with battles erupting over everything from budgets to barking dogs. And with management companies overworked, underfunded and unresponsive, it’s easy to see how issues can fester and tempers can spiral out of control.

Problem Areas

As executive director of the Condominium Homeowners Association of BC (CHOA), Tony Gioventu has seen it all. He’s seen situations where owners have thrown chairs and got into fisticuffs, scratched each other’s cars and slashed tires, and even smeared dog feces on entrance doors. He’s seen bullies take over strata councils, then favour their allies and crack down on those who cross them. In at least one case, a strata president was skimming funds to pay for his own renovations. He’s seen countless strata meetings where the police had to be called—and even some where police were called in advance, just in case.

In a well-publicized recent case in Coquitlam, an elderly man was dragged down a flight of stairs after reportedly refusing to leave an annual general meeting where a fight had erupted; in another, a strata president was shot at with a flare gun; in yet another, a man launched a BC Human Rights Tribunal case over strata meetings being conducted in Mandarin.

According to CHOA, British Columbia is home to more than 32,000 strata corporations, and together they represent a staggering one million units—with 25,000 to 30,000 more being added each year.

With so many Vancouverites priced out of the detached market, or deciding to cash in and downsize, that growth will likely accelerate—and skyrocketing condo values make the  financial stakes higher than ever.

The problems, says Gioventu, almost always come down to what those in the business call “the five Ps.” “People, pets, pools, parking and prostitution,” he says with a laugh. “It’s either noise, or it’s smoking, or it’s pets not behaving, or it’s security issues relating to illegal activities, or people parking where they shouldn’t be.”

But the biggest battles are almost always over money—more specifically, a lack of it. Because housing costs are at record highs, strata councils are under constant pressure to keep monthly fees low, but that can mean essential maintenance gets skipped or owners get broadsided by unexpected levies. Combine that with inexperience, messy financial reporting or a lack of communication, and it’s a powder keg waiting to ignite.

“There may have been some unkind words between two neighbours, but they’ve managed to live in reasonable harmony for 10 years. But suddenly everybody’s got to pay a $50,000 levy, and all bets are off,” says Gioventu. “When people are hard-pressed economically, the barriers come down very quickly. That’s a real challenge.”

Management Woes

At the same time, professional property managers are massively overloaded as strata corporations struggle to keep costs down, and management companies jockey for position in a competitive market. In B.C., as little as $25 a month per unit goes to management on average—and that has to cover financial administration, record-keeping, meetings, correspondence, maintenance plans, inspections, contractor bids and more.

“To put it in perspective, if you’re a manager in Coal Harbour and you have six high-rise buildings, and those buildings have a net asset value of $500 million, how could one person possibly manage them?” says Gioventu, who believes that B.C. could use 300 to 400 more managers. “The management contracts aren’t sufficient to support the necessary work.”

By the time Access Law Group strata lawyer Phil Dougan hears from a management company, strata council or resident, things have usually gone completely off the rails. Currently, his firm has three to four lawyers who work on strata law, and they have 1,000 clients on the go—so many that they can barely keep up.

“We joke that strata law is family law for groups,” he says. “It gets to a divorce-like intensity.”—Phil Dougan, Strata Lawyer

Dougan says that, of the 32,000 strata corporations in the province, thousands have ongoing substantial problems; others are “ticking time bombs” because of a lack of management or incompetent management, or they’re just one sale away from huge headaches. “It’s a community ownership business. So it might be lovely while old Mrs. Smith lives in No. 4; then she sells and some biker from the Hells Angels moves in, and all of a sudden you’ve got a disrupted community.”

Because the disputes hit people where they live and can involve large sums of money, they’re especially upsetting; Dougan’s had clients with nervous breakdowns. “We joke that strata law is family law for groups,” he says. “It gets to a divorce-like intensity.”

The common denominator in most cases, he says, is that people don’t understand what they’re buying, or they don’t believe they need to play by the rules. In one of Dougan’s most infamous cases, Port Coquitlam owner Cheng-Fu Bea reportedly refused to park only in his designated spot and sued the strata. The judge dismissed the case, so Bea went ahead and filed another. And another. And another.

“We ended up in court 55 times, and I was in front of 48 different judges. The strata spent over $300,000 to defend a perfectly valid bylaw,” says Dougan, who represented the strata corporation in the Bea case and also fought the Jordison case involving the combative mother and son. “The judges either burst out laughing or they looked at me incredulously, saying ‘I can’t quite believe what you’re telling me.’”

After eight years, Bea was finally found in contempt of court and his condo ordered sold; after court costs, they received just $12,000 for a $167,000 condo.

Dispute Resolution

But now a new dispute resolution process aims to keep costs down and keep claims out of the courts. In the past, strata-related battles were fought through a Supreme Court application or through arbitration, which was prohibitively expensive for residents and councils alike—roughly $25,000 to $100,000 or more—and took years to wind their way through the court system.

In contrast, the Civil Resolution Tribunal, which was first launched last year, offers dispute resolution—and, when necessary, binding decisions that are enforceable by the courts—for roughly $200, and decisions are usually rendered within 90 days. It’s open to owners, renters and strata councils, and is entirely online; and unlike the court route, strata councils don’t need owners to vote in order to launch an action.

“They describe it as a sort of TurboTax process, where you put in details about your concerns, and then it tells you whether or not you have a problem,” says Dougan, whose experience of the process so far has been positive.

“If you can’t get along with others, then maybe a condo is not for you.”

Most cases are resolved through mediation, but so far the written tribunal decisions include a woman whose strata council wrongly assigned a disabled parking stall to an individual owner, a man concerned about his strata’s lack of action on a failing foundation and a council frustrated with an owner whose heavy tobacco and marijuana smoking was disrupting the neighbours. (In each case, the complainant won.)

“It’s early days, but I’m cautiously optimistic, because so much of this is misunderstanding and misplaced expectations—‘I thought you were my landlord’ or ‘I thought I could do whatever I liked in my strata.’”

Dougan would also like to see mandatory courses for strata council members—they’re required in Ontario—as well as courses for prospective buyers so everyone knows their rights and obligations. Mandatory individual insurance and meeting attendance, he adds, would also help prevent hellish strata experiences.

“Those are some of the fundamental reasons we have these problems,” says Dougan, who also emphasizes that some level of disagreement is inevitable. “I have a hard enough time getting along with my wife, never mind 100 complete strangers.”

Courtney Tuckwood agrees. He and his wife still live in the same condo, and he’s still on the strata council. For the most part, life has returned to normal; still, there will always be owners who come in and make waves. “Just like when you drive down the road, there’s always going to be one or two who think they know better,” he sighs.

What owners need to understand, he says, is that they aren’t the kings of their own castles; rather, they co-own those castles with everyone else.

“What you do inside your own suite, to a point, is your business; but you share the roof, you share hallways. It’s community living,” says Tuckwood. “And if you can’t get along with others, then maybe a condo is not for you.”

Pick up the April issue of VanMag to spy more from our How We Live Now package, where we dive into the who, the where and the how of Vancouver’s renting scene.