These days, if you live in a major city and want to own a home – especially one you can actually afford to pay off – chances are pretty good you might consider buying a condo instead of a house, and for one simple reason: Economics. When moving to Victoria a few years back, we discovered it was the 3rd most expensive city in Canada, just behind Vancouver and Toronto; however, after living our entire lives as nomads, Paula and I finally wanted to put down some roots and knew this was the place for us to do it. However, nothing could have prepared us for the cost of homeownership in this beautiful city… to say we were “gob-smacked” is a major understatement! It seemed that an average “fixer-upper” two-bedroom house sold for around $485K +, while a two-bedroom condo in a decent neighbourhood cost around $240K+. Not wanting to sell either our organs or souls, the decision was an easy one, and so we began researching different condominium properties. After a few months of looking, we found the little beauty above, put in an offer and ~voila~ Before you could say “35 Year Amortization”, we became homeowners! Looking back at the whole thing now, I think we made a pretty good choice.
Our building is located on the cusp of downtown, close enough to walk anywhere within 20 minutes, yet far enough away from the parking meters, neon lights and barrage of city noises. Our street is quintessentially Victorian, filled with Cherry Blossoms in the spring, hummingbirds in the summer and a multitude of bright autumn colours in the fall; it’s a great spot, and despite being over 30 years old, the building looks great and is in good nick, even after the “leaky condo” remediation it endured 15 years back. I believe it’s good conditions is mostly thanks to the little extra T.L.C. shown to it by a select few unit owners, and it’s easily the nicest and best looking building on the block, which is really my point; it’s because of the proactive nature/actions of a concerned few that make this building a great place to live – but it wasn’t always like this. What’s changed is that in the past few years, certain folks understood that getting involved in the daily upkeep of the building was not only the best way to keep their homes looking nice, but also to keep the value up in their real estate investments.
Now before I go on, let me say right up front that I know that condo living isn’t for everyone; the spaces are small, the walls are shared with several neighbors, and worst of all you are at often the mercy of other people’s (often rude and selfish) behavior – I know, I get all that; but if you want to own a home and not just a mortgage, buying a condo is a route to making if far more fiscally viable, and in a whole lot shorter time. (Besides, if you are travellers like we are, there’s nothing better than locking one door and taking off for a month, trust me! But I digress…)
In every condominium there is a mechanism in place to deal with the petty problems and annoyances of such community living, and it’s called a “Strata Council”; this is a small group of unpaid residents whose primary function is to oversee the small day-to-day aspects of the building (bylaw infractions, pubic area cleaning, lawn maintenance, etc.) and report any concerns they have to the (paid) building management company, who in turn is meant to take the action to solve those problems. In a nutshell, this is all that’s requested of these volunteers; and from a time point of view, they are only asked to contribute an hour or two per month, including meetings; how much or how little time they choose to put in is entirely up to individual councils. Sounds pretty simple, eh?
But despite such meager expectations, getting residents to participate in a council is near impossible, which to me, is the irony of it all. Residents all WANT the strata council to handle the problems in buildings, but very few of them are WILLING TO VOLUNTEER to be on the council to actually do the work to get those same problems solved! They’ll bitch and moan about “X”, but won’t join the council so as to be in a position to solve “X”, instead (often angrily) identifying “X” as the council’s problems to “deal with”- and it’s this attitude of entitlement and expectancy for someone else to handle their problems is WHY condo living and strata councils get a bad rap; because if no one gets involved, who takes care of these things? From what I’ve seen, the problem people associate in this style of living is rarely the condo or the councils as a whole, but more the unwillingness of unit owners to get involved in the betterment of their communities. Case in point:
At our AGM a couple years back, of the 56 people who own units, a mere 18 (or 31%) bothered to show up. Wait, it gets worse: When the time came to elect a council for the upcoming year, – you know, to help keep all of our investments in good shape – not one single new person offered to join. When the incumbent council (Being 3 people out of a possible 7 allowed) requested volunteers, they were met with a sea of blank faces (okay, more like a puddle) of people looking in every possible direction so as not to achieve eye contact… Frankly, it was pretty embarrassing to watch them.
To put this in perspective: Of all the people who bought in our building, (at an average unit cost of $240K) less than 6% of them were willing to contribute a little time or energy in the upkeep and direction of those investments; the general attitude was “I already pay strata fees for someone else to do the work around the building, so why should I volunteer my time as well?” (Note: Council members pay the exact same fees) More Irony: These non-contributors tend to be the same folks who squawk the loudest when THEIR “problems” don’t get solved, THEIR maintenance fees go up, or THEIR annual condo assessment goes down; such things are always “somebody else’s fault! What these folks fail to understand is they have the power to make the difference, simply by getting involved. These people are like those misguided souls who bellow angrily at unlit fireplaces “Give me heat, and THEN I’ll give you wood, dammit!” I just don’t get it…
So, Why Don’t More People Volunteer To Be On Strata Councils?
Having lived in condos before I believe I can shed some light on this, so here’s the skinny – from my experiences, at least. Traditionally, (but not always) since few people want to join, most strata councils are usually dominated by one or two people, often small minded and power-hungry folks who often use their positions (El Presidente!) for individual gain; and as a result of their “leadership”, council decisions tend to be based on personal agendas rather than what’s good for the whole community. Even worse is that under such regimes, councils usually digress into “secret societies” that breed gossip, nasty comments and dissension about and amongst the residents, focusing more on other people’s personal business than anything for the good of the building, or those who live in it.
And while these situations are unfortunate, they are not uncommon; in fact, we had this very scenario in our own building just a few years back. Fortunately the problematic people eventually resigned, leaving in their wake the current council members, a few hard working and dedicated souls who were desperately trying to hold things together… these being the same council members at the AGM asking for volunteers for the upcoming year. These folks were clearly stressed out by it all, and were doing the very best they could with very little support, certainly deserving of the help they were asking for… however, as mentioned already their requests were being ignored by the other owners. I appreciated the commitment they’d shown and wanted to help, but was hesitant myself, since my schedule is a blur of work, family duties, work, and looking after Tristan’s needs; but seeing how their desperate cries for help were going unanswered, I decided I had no choice, and raised my hand until seconds later when I was ushered in as the 4th (and only new) member of the strata council. I’d quietly made a commitment to myself that if I was going to do this, I’d have to bring my experience of managing people and running successful businesses to the table in order to make it work the very best way possible. During the quick meeting that followed the AGM, I asked for (and got permission) to discuss the ways felt we could get back on track; and with that, I laid out the following 3 point plan to the council.
Moving Forward: A Better Way To Run The Council
1) We needed to run the council like a business, and use the bylaws as a guide for EVERYONE, (council members included) gently enforcing them when they weren’t followed, and when that didnt work, agree to take stronger actions (including fining the unit owner) until bylaws were adhered to. We also agreed that whenever problems were identified we were to make quick, informed decisions on a resolution, then take swift action to solve the issue. And of course we agreed (again!) that the “gossip factor”, rule bending and personal agendas had no place in council, which, while it wasn’t really an issue with this group, was stated out lout to make it more of a tangible guideline to be followed. We all felt that following this format would be the most professional way to run the council
2) Next we needed to create systems for each task council was in charge of, and then set up a schedule to execute those systems. For Example: Our meetings would have a set schedule (6:30 p.m. on the first Thursday every second month) so we could all plan for it in advance; also, we’d assign one council member per week to do a complete “Walk Around” of both inside and outside the building and grounds to (A) pick up random bits of rubbish, (B) check for major infractions of bylaws, and (C) identify any maintenance concerns. Any information of importance would be emailed to the group, and the council President would forward that to the property management company. These kinds of systems would eliminate all the “willy-nilly” lack of planning and flimsy excuses for “not getting things done” that had plagued past councils, and keep us on top of any problems or issues
3) Finally, we had to create an effective two-way communication system that eliminated all “face to face” contact with residents, so as to (A) put up boundaries between council members personal and private lives, and to (B) stop the verbal abuse from residents who felt it was their “right” to contact council members at anytime, to yell at them when a neighbor was noisy, they didn’t like the way their windows had been washed, or someone parked too close to them in the parking lot… The bottom line was: This verbal abuse, anger and bullshit directed towards volunteer council members would no longer be tolerated… period.
So, How’d We Make Out?
The first was a year not without it’s challenges, especially those times we let previous “council abusers” know of our “There’s a new Sherriff in town” approach, and called them out on their bad behavior; however, it only ever took one time per person, since (like most bullies) they backed down and were rarely heard from again. If we did hear from them, it was on our terms, not theirs – and this alone dramatically changed the tone of the conversations from aggression to one of “If you want an answer from us, then you must ask courteously and respectfully”. Also interesting was that one of the original 3 council members fell away fairly quickly, which actually turned out to be a benefit as their old school attitude of “Discuss, gossip, discuss, then do nothing to help” held us back from making progress. It seems the last of the “Old Guard” had retired! Our systems took a bit of time to create and implement, but once they were in and honed a bit, they became fairly effortless to execute.
Of all the changes we implemented, I believe the most important was setting up boundaries of communication and respect between unit owners and council members. This allowed the two incumbent members (a hard working married couple who’d previously put up with a lot of abuse from residents) to get their lives back, which meant no more confrontations in the elevators, being stopped in the parking lot “just for a second”, or knocks on their door during dinner because somebody had locked themselves out or was angry about someone leaving rubbish in a parking spot! Yay!
A year later, our systems were working, and it showed; the building was tighter, cleaner and more organized, and most importantly, it was safer and more secure from parking lot break ins, a sad reality of downtown living. Oh sure, we still had some challenges and growing pains as we adapted the system, but in the long run I’d say that 95% of the bullshit that had kept this building stuck in the past was now gone and, as a result, at the next AGM we were able to attract new members. All in all, our building is now a nice place that residents are proud to call “home”; but just as important, it’s made our individual units more valuable pieces of real estate… all because a handful of us understand that putting in a few volunteer hours around here is “time well spent” on our investments.
We are about to enter year 3 of this system and it gets less and less demanding every time, with less and less work to do. The plan works, and we work the plan… however, the same question still boggles my mind: Why don’t more people get a bit more involved to manage their investment? I don’t know why, but I’ll tell you what I do know… I know every nook and cranny of this building, including it’s fire plan, security codes, contingency funds, bylaws, gardening contracts, etc… Oh and one more thing; I know it’s a great place to call home, thanks to a few select, good people. Residents often stop by when we are out and about performing our tasks and say how grateful they are for council’s hard work, and how terrific the building is to live in. We all agree, and this recognition is payment enough for our time and efforts.
So if you or anyone you know lives in a condo (or apartment, or townhouse, or community) and aren’t happy with how it’s being operated, I’d strongly suggest getting involved in one way or another so you too, can make the changes you think need to be made. If you’re interested in the “Nuts and Bolts” of HOW we achieved this harmony and structure in our own untamed environment, I’ve outlined the basic details below; and as you’ve probably figured out, many of these strategies can work outside of strata councils just as well. Personally I’ve applied these tactics and strategies to help eliminate problems and stress from many life situations, be they workplace related, volunteer organization problems or even challenges being had within a family unit. Take a look and see what you think of them, and I hope they help you achieve your own goals.~ Cheers!
Tips on Running a Successful Strata Council (plus…?)
Treat The Running of The Council Like a Business
– Make all decisions about the good of the group, not about individual agendas
– Follow the bylaws, (rules) and enforce them when needed (by property management if possible) to get the point across that they are there for a reason
– Don’t allow gossip, bad mouthing or personal agendas to dominate discussions or cloud the important issues at hand
– Make decisions quickly, and take action on them, assigning timelines for task completion. Offer each other assistance, but hold one another accountable.
Put an Effective Communication System in Place
Communication between council and residents is critical; however as I’ve outlined above, because of poor communication (often being confrontational and abusive to volunteer members) nobody wins. We realized that we had to do the following 3 things:
– Ensure residents knew (or at least had access to) the bylaws
– Residents had an effective information porthole to answer their questions
– Council Members broke the habit of entertaining peoples questions on a whim, instead insisting all residents use the formal methods of communication provided for them.
Our solutions were also 3 fold:
– Every building has a set of bylaws; unfortunately ours were on an old, barely legible photocopy. I typed them into a Word Document, (painstaking, but worth it) so we could use them in e-format whenever we needed to, for letters, information, copies for owners, etc.
– We wanted to have a porthole to answer resident’s F.A.Q.’s post bylaws, (we could because they were now on a word doc.) outline building rules, etc. so Paula and I built a Word Press website. It also had the “24 -Hour Hot Line” number of the property manager on it, so if residents have a concern, they can call. (Remember, strata councils don’t manage the building) Total cost for this was about $125.00 total – pretty cheap for peace and quiet. (Check it out here)
– On that website we also put an email section so that moving forward all correspondence would be electronic; and for those who don’t have a computer (AYFKM?) we maintained the traditional mailbox for written correspondence in the lobby. The bottom line was if someone wanted to complain, it HAD to be in writing. This act alone eliminated 80% of the previous complaints.
– Finally we put professional looking bulletin boards up in our two lobbies with the website addresses (on professionally made stickers) visible at the bottom of both; these allowed residents to see we had a website, and directed them to it.
Have you ever had any strata council horror stories that scared you away from joining a council or other organized group? Do you think any of these ideas could help eliminate those problems? We’d love to hear about it in the comments!