Housing
Investigative
In-depth examination of a single subject requiring extensive research and resources.

'Your home is not your castle': buyers face the unforeseen consequences of condo living

If you’re buying a condo or townhouse in BC, it’s probably a strata. But, from fistfights and fines to a fence that divided a community, stratas have been marked by stories of disappointment and rage

By Tori Marlan
June 14, 2022
Housing
Investigative
In-depth examination of a single subject requiring extensive research and resources.

'Your home is not your castle': buyers face the unforeseen consequences of condo living

If you’re buying a condo or townhouse in BC, it’s probably a strata. But, from fistfights and fines to a fence that divided a community, stratas have been marked by stories of disappointment and rage

By Tori Marlan
Jun 14, 2022
Illustration: Nora Kelly / Capital Daily
Illustration: Nora Kelly / Capital Daily
Housing
Investigative
In-depth examination of a single subject requiring extensive research and resources.

'Your home is not your castle': buyers face the unforeseen consequences of condo living

If you’re buying a condo or townhouse in BC, it’s probably a strata. But, from fistfights and fines to a fence that divided a community, stratas have been marked by stories of disappointment and rage

By Tori Marlan
June 14, 2022
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'Your home is not your castle': buyers face the unforeseen consequences of condo living
Illustration: Nora Kelly / Capital Daily

After two and a half years of searching, Dave and Karol Pickering found their dream retirement home—a 2,866-square-foot modern log house on 3.2 acres of land. The house was tucked away in a rural gated community not far from Qualicum Beach. Realtors liked to pitch the community—the Little Qualicum River Village strata—as a small quiet village with breathtaking ocean views, one that encompassed a range of housing options, from small “easy care” homes to “estate sized properties.”

The property owners in Little Qualicum River Village, as in all stratas, had exclusive rights to their lots but shared common property and assets. The Pickerings’ lot skipped over a steep, commonly owned gravel road and included enough land on the other side for Dave, who’d spent his career in construction, to build a workshop. He planned to fill his days making decorative objects with wood, metal, concrete, and Styrofoam.

In April 2020, the couple packed up their lives in Alberta, where they’d grown tired of hard winters and where Karol had worked for 29 years on the finance team of a company in the oil and gas industry.

At first, they couldn’t believe their luck. Dave planted a garden for the first time in 40 years, growing peas, potatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, and garlic. He topped more than 100 backyard trees that were obstructing a spectacular view, and then took to sitting every morning in a hot tub on his giant deck, drinking coffee while looking out over the Georgia Strait. On a clear day, he could see Whistler and Hornby Island. 

But soon after they bought the property, they started having problems with their strata council. Over time, the problems only escalated—to the point where at a gathering of strata owners, Dave was punched in the teeth.

Dave Pickering and the fence that caused him and his wife, Karol, years of trouble. Photo: Tori Marlan / Capital Daily

Less than two years after settling into their new home, the Pickerings had had it. “Look at the place,” Dave said one morning last summer, not long after putting it on the market. “It’s beautiful, and now we hate it.” 

“I just can't wait to get out here,” Karol added. 

Buying their dream retirement home had been a huge mistake—the biggest they’d ever made, Dave told me —“because of the strata.” 

***

Strata corporations, known elsewhere as condo associations, have been part of the mosaic of housing options in the province since the mid-60s. About 30 percent of British Columbians—1.5 million people—now live in homes governed by the nearly 34,000 stratas scattered across the province. They range from duplexes to large communities of 1,100 units. 

Seen by developers and municipal governments as a way to densify cities and by prospective homeowners as a less costly, less burdensome form of property ownership than buying a detached single-family home, stratas often attract first-time buyers or seniors looking to downsize.

But strata living is far from a carefree form of property ownership, and buyers are often unaware of the responsibilities and limitations that come with their purchase. Many learn the hard way. 

For prospective homeowners in Victoria who aren’t in the market for a single-family home—the average price for one in May was $1.4 million—a condo (whose benchmark price in May was $633,800) is likely to be their only option. Provincial government data shows that residential strata sales in Victoria significantly outpace sales of single-family homes. Between 2014 and the end of March, 12,595 residential strata lots were sold in the city compared to 3,661 single-family homes. 

With Victoria’s Missing Middle and Villages and Corridors plans making their way through council, and similar conversations happening elsewhere, there are probably more stratas on their way, too: with the exception of purpose-built rentals, every one of the building forms in those plans, from duplexes to low-rises, would probably be stratas.

With housing prices going stratospheric, condos are already far outstripping single-family homes in Victoria by sales, and likely to do so even more in the future. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

That’s because multifamily dwellings unattached to stratas are “exceptionally rare” in the Capital Regional District, according to Luke Mari, of Aryze Developments. Without strata fees and contingency/reserve funds, owners of these “fee-simple” condos must work out complex legal agreements regarding access to and maintenance of shared property, such as driveways or party walls. Unlike Montreal with its row houses or Toronto with its brownstones, there’s not much of a history of those kinds of arrangements in Victoria. Mari estimates that there are only about 10 townhouses that aren’t strata corporations in the CRD and says new ones just aren’t being built because of their legal complexity.

That’s bad news for people like Kevin Taylor and Allyssa Lanctot, former strata owners who say they’d be hesitant to ever live in one again. 

As first time homeowners, the young couple moved into a large, modern strata in Vic West in May 2019. One day that December, Taylor was watching TV when he noticed water dripping from the concrete ceiling. The couple showed the damage to two council members and reported the problem to the strata’s management company. A mechanical engineer Lanctot hired later identified the sources of the problem as a concrete slab and a dryer exhaust duct that both sloped toward a low point in the living room area, causing condensation to accumulate over the drippy spot in the ceiling. “These two factors are from the original building construction and are not issues that can be remedied by the occupant/owner,” the report said.

Taylor and Lanctot say that since the duct was common property, it was up to the strata to fix it. From the beginning, though, the strata council had seemed fixated on their dryer. It claimed the problem was the dryer’s booster fan. It pointed to an  excessive build-up of lint. And after the couple got a new dryer, the strata blamed its steam option, which had never been connected. The council also said the new dryer hadn’t been properly installed. The report from the mechanical engineer did nothing to change their minds. The council had their own experts telling them otherwise.

Taylor and Lanctot say that they eventually learned of similar problems with leaks in other units but that the strata never owned up to its responsibility. The strata claimed  that the problems in three other units had been solved by repairing or replacing booster fans and relay switches. “The proof is in the fix,” the strata’s lawyer wrote to the couple’s lawyer.

For two years, the couple lived with peeling paint, a leaky ceiling, and a towel on their living room floor. They say they often felt stressed and even paranoid from being gaslit and retaliated against by the strata council, which at one point demanded the couple pay more than $17,000 for building envelope testing that was done at their request, because the results of that testing ruled out the building envelope as the source of the problem. Their relationship with the strata council deteriorated beyond what they could have imagined, and, living under such stress, so did their own. Finally, it was too much. They split up and sold their unit and are now both renting for the foreseeable future. “With housing prices becoming more expensive,” Lanctot wrote in an email to Capital Daily, “I will likely have to move out of province to even enter the market.”

***

Wherever there are stratas, there are likely to be disputes. Sometimes the issues are small and easily resolved. Other times, as Taylor, Lanctot, and the Pickerings can attest, they upend lives.

Under BC law, stratas are self-governed corporations. Buying into one means you become part of the corporation and assume liability for it, regardless of how involved you choose to be in its day-to-day operations.

All owners have voting rights, but the owners who sit on the council manage the—sometimes complicated—business affairs of the strata. 

These elected unpaid volunteers also have the statutory authority to make and enforce the rules in their territory. In a sense, stratas are not only corporations; they’re private, democratically run mini-governments that have power over how owners live their lives and what they can do to their homes.

New owners may be surprised to find their personal freedoms diminished, or that others wield an uncomfortable power over their property and how they use it. “In my single-family home I can decide when I want to replace my roof,” says Shawn Smith, a lawyer who specializes in strata issues. “When you move into strata, you’re giving up a degree of control to your neighbours.”

That’s not an arrangement that works for everyone, according to Wendy Wall, president of Vancouver Island Strata Owners Association (VISOA). “When people ask me what should they be looking for in a strata, I always start with saying, ‘Stop looking at the custom cabinets and the fancy marble countertops. Stop looking at the view out the window,’” she says. “Look at yourself, and the very first thing to ask yourself is, ‘Are you the type of person who can live with decisions that are made by a majority of owners that you don't agree with?’ Because if you can't accept that, you shouldn't live in a strata.’”

But prospective property owners who can’t afford a detached single-family home have little choice but to set their sights on a strata, regardless of whether they consider themselves a good fit for one.  

With the passage of the Strata Titles Act in 1966, the province “decided that the multifamily housing market was best served through strata titles,” says Tony Gioventu, executive director of the Condominium Home Owners Association of BC (CHOA). And it’s been that way ever since. While it’s not impossible to build other types of multifamily housing, he says, “you have to convince the municipalities and regional districts who give permits, and most say no.”

The city is now actively looking for ways to encourage more development of multifamily housing, recognizing that the housing crisis is pushing young families and people entering their 30s out of Victoria and understanding that more density can create walkable neighbourhoods and foster community.

The Missing Middle and Village and Corridor Planning initiatives aim to increase the supply of multi-unit housing and to create a greater diversity of housing options. Through regulatory and policy changes that include changes to zoning bylaws, the initiatives would make it easier to build duplexes, triplexes, townhouses, and fourplexes by allowing developers to bypass council for rezoning—a process that can take a couple of years—and go directly to city staff for design approval. Victoria City Council will hold a public hearing on the Missing Middle proposal on August 4.  

According to a report on strata property law by the British Columbia Law Institute, the   main purpose of the Strata Titles Act was to “provide certainty and security to purchasers and lenders in dealing with a novel type of development.” The STA underwent significant changes in 1974 and was replaced by the Strata Property Act (SPA) in 1998, in part to enhance consumer protections. It went into effect in 2000.

Today, all stratas must operate in accordance with that Act, its regulations, and a set of bylaws. But since each strata can either adopt or amend the province’s Standard Bylaws or create their own, life in a strata can feel wildly different from one strata to the next.  

Stories of dissatisfied owners abound. The Facebook group Strata Council: Theft, Bullying & Unauthorized Decisions has more than a thousand members and is rife both with tales of disputes between owners and their councils and of rogue councils ignoring their obligations under the SPA and their strata’s own bylaws. (Several people who’d had bad experiences with their strata council told Capital Daily they were afraid to speak up publicly.) 

Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

An owner in a complex with more than 125 units expressed frustration to the Facebook group about a lack of transparency. “We are set to vote on some painting maintenance for our complex…and the quote strata went with is over 250,000$. In the letter our strata says the[y] received quotes and chose this one but when I asked if I could see the other quotes the response was ‘this is the quote we chose’ and no response to my question.”  

Another post reads: “I mentioned that [a] resolution to amend bylaw contradicts existing bylaw...was told "well we aren't lawyers!!!" I mentioned that acts by council violate SPA and our existing bylaws...Council just said no they don't, and the rest of the owners ate it up.” 

But even well-governed stratas aren’t immune from conflict; at its core, strata living is communal living. And when people’s havens—and, increasingly, their investments—are at stake, tensions can run high. Power struggles and disagreements between owners, and between owners and strata councils, are par for the course. “You're dealing with people and their expectations, people and their differences, and people and their eccentricities, and you're taking people and you're putting them together in very close proximity and giving them a say over each other's lives,” says Smith.

CHOA’s Gioventu put it this way in a webinar in February: “In a strata, your home is not your castle.” 

***

That’s not to say strata owners have no control. If owners want to take an active role in their strata apart from sitting on council, they can show up to council meetings or read the minutes to stay informed. They can also vote on special resolutions at annual or special general meetings, and they have the power to change strata bylaws. If they’re unsatisfied, owners can band together to remove particular members or, even, the whole council.  

In the summer of 2021, a group of owners in the Pickerings’ strata tried to do just that. With the strata’s Annual General Meeting coming up, they collected 83 signatures on a petition to disband the council. But when they brought the petition to the meeting, the council was able to ignore it since it hadn’t been put on the agenda in advance of the meeting. 

Among those who’d signed the petition was Thomas Ivanore, a semi-retired structural engineer who, looking closely at the paperwork, found an existential problem for the community. 

Little Qualicum River Village’s 286 strata lots sit on 575 acres of land that fall within the Regional District of Nanaimo (RDN). When developer and realtor Tim Pelegrin registered the strata with the Land Title Office in 1998, the land was in an un-zoned region of the RDN, and the strata was developed without the need for any permits or building inspections. 

What sets it apart from most stratas is that ownership in the community—each owner’s Parcel Identifier Number—appears to be tied neither to land nor to a civic address, but to a storage shed. The sheds sit on two sites in the community, in rows of attached 26-square metre wood-frame units. Each corresponds to a private-use side yard of up to several hectares, and it’s there, in these yards, that owners have either built their own houses, parked RVs, or, like the Pickerings, moved into houses built by previous owners. 

The developer wasn’t always forthcoming about this bizarre arrangement of ownership. After receiving complaints from strata owners in 2007, the Superintendent of Real Estate ordered the developer to stop marketing the strata. Wording in the ads and promotional materials touted “each unit as having a storage shed,” and the superintendent determined such marketing was a “clear and deliberate attempt to mislead and misrepresent the nature of what is being tendered to the public for sale.”  

Ivanore says the unusual set-up still leads to confusion among some owners about what exactly it is that they own and what type of strata they’ve bought into. Some consider it a bare-land strata rather than a building strata and assume they own the land their houses have been built on. But those who understand that they own only the storage sheds, or the space inside them, worry about their durability. 

The sheds are in disrepair. The doors are in violation of RDN’s current building permit requirements, and many of the storage sheds have gravel floors and appear to be unfinished. Not all are fully enclosed. If the units collapse, or burn down, or otherwise cease to exist—”There could be a bad windstorm tomorrow,” Ivanore says—the owners would lose the legal definition of what they own. Without the storage units, they wouldn’t be eligible for a mortgage or be able to sell their homes.

Ivanore thought the strata council should be working to bring the sheds into compliance with building codes and to work with the RDN to link the parcel identifier numbers to the civic addresses. He also realized the strata had other major problems—like a collapsing road and arsenic in a drinking water well amid a looming water shortage—that he thought weren’t being adequately addressed. 

The strata fees in Little Qualicum River Village were low, amounting to less than $1,800 per year, and the community didn’t have enough money to fix its many problems. Nor, according to one long-time owner, did it have the know-how to start working toward fixes. “Governments hire people who have specific engineering and structural training in order to deal with infrastructure,” she told Capital Daily, “which is where all the problems here lie: in deteriorating infrastructure.” 

She added that the strata council members “realize that these are problems they can't solve, so they don't solve them.”

The council president, Trish Curtin, was a business management consultant who specialized in worker compensation issues. She’d been on the council from November 2008 to May 2013 and had started her latest tenure in February 2019. She told Capital Daily that the council was indeed hard at work on the strata’s big problems. “We were a humming machine,” she said. “Even despite covid, we had all of the assessments done for the roads, and everything that we received funding for, we checked every one of our to-do boxes right off the list.” 

In large stratas like Little Qualicum River Village, the work of council members can be akin to running a small municipality or managing public works projects, with the members responsible for everything from maintenance to water distribution. It’s hardly a casual volunteer position. They’re running a major business operation, with real risks and liabilities. 

The work of strata council members can be akin to running a small municipality or managing public works projects. Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

Council members also have significant fiscal responsibility: They hire contractors, oversee operational budgets, collect fees, prepare financial statements, and levy fines against their fellow owners who violate strata bylaws. They can be responsible for large sums of money—in large stratas, even millions of dollars. The financial well-being of owners could hinge on their actions.

Recognizing that condo councils both play a critical role in a condo’s operations and bear the heavy responsibility of maintaining a condo’s assets, Ontario requires that condo board members complete a training program provided by the Condominium Authority of Ontario.  

BC requires no such specialized training or education for strata councils, though VISOA does offer training to those who want it.

“The whole premise for this property system was supposed to be consumer protection,  where owners sort of mutually and collaboratively looked out for each other,” one strata critic told Capital Daily, adding that the lack of a mandatory criminal background check for council members and a lack of competency and training requirements flies in the face of the legislative intentions.

“[N]one of us are knowledgeable about anything,” a person charged with helping to run a small strata posted on a Facebook group for strata owners. “[W]e aren’t even sure how to run meetings appropriately.”

Whether untrained amateurs should be at the helm of non-profit corporations is a “perennial issue” in strata property law, according to Kevin Zakreski, of the BC Law Institute. “On the one hand there’s the thinking that the owners actually live there, they're invested in this property, they should be the ones to govern it,” he says. “But then, you get into a system where you then get volunteers filling significant roles, and the only reason they're in there is because they own units in the strata.”

Strata councils can hire property managers to do the heavy lifting, but they can’t farm out the duties of governing and decision-making.   

Council members who are in over their heads can find help through the nonprofit CHOA, which offers orientation sessions for new council members and ongoing educational seminars and webinars. 

CHOA’s Gioventu sits on councils in both Ontario and BC and calls the required training in Ontario—an online tutorial—“totally useless.” He says that people running condos there are “just as bewildered” as they are in BC. 

A real vulnerability for stratas, he says, is that “none of them are saving enough money for future repairs.” 

When the cost of building or infrastructure maintenance or repairs surpasses the amount in the strata’s Contingency Reserve Fund, the owners can vote at an annual or special general meeting to pass a special levy, which comes directly out of the owners’ pockets. Special assessments can run in the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, and it’s not uncommon for strata owners to have differing opinions (and comfort levels) regarding whether work needs to be done immediately or whether it can wait. This can cause friction among owners, pitting those who might be financially harmed by a special assessment against those who see deferring work as a potential problem either for safety reasons or the health of their investments. After a Vancouver strata repeatedly defeated resolutions to spend money to fix long-standing problems with its building envelope, a group of owners took the strata to the BC Supreme Court—which resulted in a $16 million levy on the owners.

(Similarly, and to their detriment, the owners of the Champlain Towers condominium in Surfside, Florida, deferred spending millions of dollars on necessary structural repairs. They’d only recently authorized the work to begin when the south building partially collapsed last June, killing 98 people.)  

For basic construction jobs, the Little Qualicum River Village strata repeatedly hired Mara Industries, a company owned by the council treasurer and run by her husband. That struck some in the strata as a conflict of interest. In 2020, the strata paid Mara Industries $112,926. 

Curtin says that the treasurer, as required by the SPA and the strata’s bylaws, recused herself from potential conflicts of interest:. “We would make our decision ourselves. And she would have no influence in it whatsoever. And that's what we're supposed to do. And that's what we did.”  

"Are you the type of person who can live with decisions that are made by a majority of owners that you don't agree with?" asks Wendy Wall, president of Vancouver Island Strata Owners Association. "Because if you can't accept that, you shouldn't live in a strata." Photo: James MacDonald / Capital Daily

Owner David Spinks, who signed the petition demanding that the council by disbanded immediately, told Capital Daily that he was frustrated with the lack of accountability.  “I'd like to see some kind of official body overseeing the stratas to keep them on track,” he said. Another Little Qualicum River Village owner who signed the petition wrote a couple of letters to Attorney General David Eby, whose ministry is responsible for strata legislation, in the hope that he would intervene in their strata affairs. She found the response, from John Thomson of the Housing Policy Branch, disappointing: “[T]he Ministry of Attorney General and Minister responsible for Housing has no authority to investigate your strata council or enforce compliance and will not be responding to further communication from you on this topic.” 

Like Spinks, she finds the lack of oversight troubling: “If you have a corrupt council or president, they have to be accountable to someone. Right now they're not. So they can get away with just about anything, so long as they have enough of a core group supporting them.” 

Curtin too would like to see more accountability. “I think every strata should have a lawyer overseeing its operations to make sure they're in compliance with the Strata Property Act,” she says. “Every time a property is sold in BC, 1% goes to the government [for properties worth $200,000 and less], so I think on strata properties, 1% should go into a pot out of which those lawyers are paid to enforce compliance on a day-to-day regular day-in-day-out basis to avoid huge problems.”

But Shawn Smith, the lawyer who specializes in strata disputes, disagrees that stratas lack accountability or that there’s a need for an oversight body. ”That oversight body is the Civil Resolution Tribunal,” he says.  

That’s not enough, according to Curtin. “All they're ever dealing with is the mess of the carnage after the fact,” she says. 

***

The BC Civil Resolution Tribunal (CRT) is Canada’s first online public justice system. Intended as a user-friendly, low-cost option for resolving disputes that might otherwise go unresolved, it began hearing strata disputes in 2016 and then expanded its jurisdiction to small claims up to $5,000, vehicle accidents claims, and claims involving BC societies and housing and community service cooperatives. 

Previously, if a strata owner wanted to settle a small dispute or contest a fine, no reasonable venue for doing so existed. “My only remedy would be going to the BC Supreme Court,” says Smith. “So I could either be brave enough to do that myself, or hire a lawyer and spend $10,000 to challenge my $200 fine.”

One of the promises of online dispute resolution was that it would “increase access to justice by removing barriers like cost, time, and information asymmetry,” according to a 2017 article by Shannon Salter, who served as the CRT chair until she was appointed BC’s deputy attorney general at the end of January.

Yet the CRT operates by a set of rules unlike those in BC law courts. The people deciding cases are not members of an independent judiciary; they work for the government. There’s no automatic right to a lawyer; special permission for legal representation has to be granted and is usually reserved for cases that  involve complex legal issues. Parties must submit their evidence and arguments online and most likely will not be afforded an opportunity to speak with the adjudicator deciding the case. There are no oral hearings, except in extraordinary circumstances. Hearsay is admissible; you can’t cross examine witnesses who submit evidence against you; and if the evidence is false, you might not have the opportunity to rebut it. 

The CRT Act was amended in late 2018, eliminating the appeal process and changing the standard for judicial review. The Canadian Bar Association spoke out against the proposed changes in a position paper in 2018, warning they would make the “prospect of realistic judicial oversight of the CRT…mostly illusory.” 

Today, people who are unhappy with a decision can seek relief in the BC Supreme Court. But unless the CRT decision has met the court’s high standard of being patently unreasonable, a review is unlikely to change the outcome. “The court will only overturn the decision if it is so immediately and obviously defective on the face of the issued reasons that it requires no probing to see that it is wrong,” Smith wrote in the November 2019 VISOA Bulletin. “The practical effect of this change is that the vast majority of CRT decisions (good, bad or ugly) will truly be final decisions.” 

Others take issue with the tribunal’s rules.

“The CRT is a fucking nightmare,” a lawyer who asked not to be named told Capital Daily. “You should always be able to have legal representation, and you cannot in the CRT. I think it’s a ridiculous forum.”

But to CHOA’s Gioventu, who says he was one of the “original architects” of the CRT, a system without lawyers levels the playing field. And he doesn’t see the lack of oral hearings as a problem. He suspects people are more likely to tell the truth if they have to do it in writing. A “real frustration” of the system, he says, is that the CRT has become a platform for disgruntled owners who file claims “purely to harass strata councils” or because they didn’t get what they wanted on the first go-around.

In its last published annual report, from 2021, the CRT touts a participant survey showing that 82 percent of respondents said they were treated fairly during the CRT process. 

But for some users, the CRT isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Just over half of the survey respondents found the CRT’s online services easy to use. Fourteen percent found them  difficult. 

Modji Hayat was so frustrated with the process that nine months into it he abruptly withdrew his claim. In an open letter to the CRT and his strata council, he wrote of his disillusionment: “What I have experienced is nothing but gross chaos, tremendous errors and quite the opposite of neutrality.”

One Victoria resident who has used the CRT twice told Capital Daily that the system isn’t easy for a lay person to navigate. “The CRT approach is, ‘This is our procedure and regardless of what your situation is, this is what we're doing,’” she said. “And that probably works when you've got a very open-and-shut straightforward claim. But once it strays from the most basic clear evidence, undisputed facts, and very straightforward decision, then you are in a terrible situation.“

“The whole CRT thing is kind of a joke to me,” says restaurateur Jiaxin Fan, whose strata filed a claim against him after he refused to pay what he thought were unfair strata fines. 

English is Fan’s third language, and although he speaks it fluently he says he struggles with writing. If the CRT hadn’t given special permission for a lawyer to represent him, he says, he would have had trouble submitting cogent written arguments.

Fan’s problems began not long after he bought into Jukebox, a mixed-use strata with 15 commercial lots and 215 residential lots on View Street in Harris-Green, the hub for new highrise condos in Victoria. The space that now houses his Chinese restaurant, Ox King Noodles, was a “concrete box” before he began renovating it in early 2019, he says. The renovations weren’t yet complete when residents started moving into the building. The owner of the unit directly above his complained about the construction noise, and then, when the restaurant was up and running, he complained about the cooking smells. It turned out that his unit’s air intake vent was positioned on the exterior of the building just ten feet above Ox King’s exhaust vent. 

Jiaxin Fan, owner of Ox King Noodles, has faced repeated complaints from a strata resident over cooking smells from his restaurant. Photo: Jimmy Thomson / Capital Daily

Throughout the fall of 2019, the owner upstairs continued complaining about the smells—both to Fan and the strata—saying they permeated his apartment, saturated his clothing and furniture, and were so unpleasant that they sometimes forced him to flee his home.  

A strata bylaw prohibited owners from using their property in a way that caused “a nuisance or hazard to another person,” and the council demanded that Fan stop causing a nuisance. 

Fan didn’t understand what he’d done wrong or what he could be doing differently: he’d bought units that were zoned for commercial use; the renovations had been up to code; and his ventilation system was operating properly and had been inspected and approved by the city and the developer. He couldn’t just close his restaurant, so without specific suggestions or instructions from the strata, he carried on his business as usual.  

The strata, however, began levying fines for the ongoing nuisance, which Fan ignored. After he accumulated $400 worth of fines, the strata filed a complaint against him at the CRT. 

But the CRT did nothing to resolve the core issue at the centre of the case. It found that Fan was in violation of the strata bylaw but did not impose an injunction ordering him to reduce or stop the nuisance. And it let him off the hook for the fines, after Fan’s lawyer was able to establish that the strata hadn’t properly issued them in accordance with the Strata Property Act or the strata’s own bylaws. 

That left the strata free to start fining Fan all over again, as long as the council did it properly. 

In response to the CRT’s decision—and the tribunal member’s urging the parties to work together to find a solution to the problem—Fan installed a new ventless air filtration system, which didn’t hook into an exhaust system. He says it cost him around $20,000.

Yet the problem persisted. In July 2021, Fan received a letter from the strata’s property manager, notifying him of another complaint about the cooking smells. Over the course of the next few months, more complaints from the same neighbour followed: “I do not have fresh air to breathe;” “I returned home 5 minutes ago and the exhaust odours are nauseating;” “I have returned home and my place smells like pungent meat and weird chemicals.” 

The property manager solicited Fan’s response and said he was entitled to a hearing: “If you do not respond and/or are found to be in violation of the Bylaws of the Strata Corporation, a fine of up to $200 for EACH complaint, may be assessed against your unit.” 

The strata council never followed through with the threat to issue new fines for the cooking smells. It did, however, move on to another issue, telling Fan that Ox King’s exterior sign had never been approved by the strata, so it would have to come off the building. “The developer mounted it for me,” Fan says of the sign, adding that it had gone up before the strata council was formed. 

“My lawyer said they’re not going to stop until they finally harass me enough and I just say, ‘That’s it, I’m closing and moving,’” Fan says.

But the prospect of closing shop is devastating to Fan and his wife. They sold their home so they could afford to buy and renovate the two strata lots that are now Ox King Noodles. They moved in with family and both work at the restaurant. They estimate they’ve spent between $600,000 and $700,000 on renovations. 

In February, Fan started receiving monthly fines of $200 for failing to remove the sign to his restaurant. “I’m just ignoring them for now,” he says, adding that he fully expects the strata to drag him back to the CRT.

***

It’s not uncommon for strata owners to feel harassed and targeted by their councils when disputes arise. Taylor and Lanctot say that not long after they notified their council of their leaky ceiling, the council began to bully them, and that after they didn’t accept the dryer as the source of their leaky ceiling problem, the bullying escalated. “There was a point where they took away some of my privileges with my fob so I wasn't able to access the gym,” says Lanctot. “I wasn't able to access the hot tub.”

Perceived retaliations have also escalated far beyond pettiness.

Not long after the Pickerings bought into the Little Qualicum River Village strata, they had a dispute with the council over a bill for road work. Then came a demand that the Pickerings remove their front fence. The fence encroached about five metres onto common property, council told them. Everything behind the fence, right up to their front door, it turned out, was on common property too. The septic field on the side of their house, their porch, and their landscaped Koi pond and waterfall—it would all have to go. 

The fence predated the Pickerings arrival in Little Qualicum River Village, and a group of owners came to see council’s demand for its removal as a vendetta against Dave. Thomas Ivanore, the owner with experience as a structural engineer, worked with Dave to come up with solutions that stopped short of removing the fence and landscaping. One fix was an easement that would have required adjusting the route of a common road and moving a hydro pole—work the Pickerings agreed to pay for. The council refused to hear them out, ignoring both their request for a hearing and their written communications, according to Ivanore. 

The Pickerings filed an unsuccessful CRT claim against the strata, seeking an order to prevent it from removing their fence and landscaping. The strata claimed that in addition to being on common property, the fence obstructed the road and posed a safety hazard.  

“It divided the whole community because this fence has been here for years,” says Alex Bridges, an owner in the strata.  

The strata council secretary had even lived in the house while the fence was being built, according to one long-time owner.  

“It didn’t become an issue until they decided to make it an issue,” Ivanore says, adding that the council was selectively enforcing property boundaries. “There are three other houses in this subdivision that have the same problem. Fences and parking and some encroachments, and they’re not issues.” 

Curtin says the council learned the fence was on common property only after the road in front of the Pickerings’ house flooded in early 2020.  

Frustration with the Little Qualicum River Village council came to a head last June. At the Annual General Meeting, Alex Bridges and her husband, Blake, along with Spinks, the Pickerings, and Ivanore were part of a group that quashed 20 of the 22 resolutions put forward by the council. One concerned a special levy to cover the cost of removing the Pickerings’ fence and landscaping from common property. It was shot down in a 76-28 vote; to pass, it would have needed support from three quarters of the owners in attendance.

The strata council acknowledged that the resolution had failed but later explained that it had the authority to remove the fence anyway. It didn’t need approval to make “reasonable repairs” to common property if the repair estimate was below $5,000, according to the draft minutes of the meeting—and since the vote, the council had determined that “the work could be done for $5,000.00 or less, if local operators do the work, instead of hiring a crew from Parksville.” 

In other words, the fence was coming down. 

Those who’d organized to defeat the resolutions saw the council as undemocratically overruling the vote. They considered it a clear statement that the community wanted the fence to stay in place. So when Dave was jolted out of bed one morning by the disconcerting noises of men and machinery, he had no trouble finding neighbours to rally behind him. 

Outside, a handful of men had gathered in front of the Pickerings’ house. There was an excavator operator. And men with chainsaws. A generator was hooked up to a car. Their purpose was clear. 

Dave called Ivanore and Blake and Alex Bridges. Alex posted a call to action on Facebook, and soon, about eight owners arrived ready to put their bodies between the equipment and the fence.

Meanwhile Dave was exploding in rage. ”I jumped in my excavator,” he says. “I went up to the windshield of the other excavator with the bucket of my excavator: ‘You want to play excavator wars—let’s go!”  

"I freaked out,” he admits. 

The excavator operator didn’t want to stick around for a game of chicken. “He had the good sense to say ‘I'm not going to get involved in this,’” says Ivanore. “So then it was four labourers, which are paid for by strata, with chainsaws. Now, they wouldn't listen to us. They would only listen to the president.”

When Curtin arrived, she remained adamant that the fence had to come down. Still enraged, Dave manoeuvred his excavator up to her car and positioned its bucket over her sunroof in what looked like a not-so-veiled threat.

Called to the scene, the RCMP determined that the dispute was a civil matter and encouraged Curtin to call off the workers to avoid an escalation of the conflict. She eventually sent the crew home. 

The standoff had lasted five hours, and the fallout was swift.  

The next day, at a council meeting that was held in a community park, the entire 10-member council resigned. One council member said in his resignation letter that a “small group of owners were determined to disrupt this community.” He accused the group of slander, defamation, and levying unfounded accusations of criminal wrongdoing against the council. Another council member referred to the defeat of the resolutions at the AGM, saying it’d left “no clear path forward for the year to come, and many important issues remain unaddressed.”   

Curtin wrote the group that voted down the resolutions had been empowered by all of the owners who failed to show up to the meeting, according to Curtin, who wrote, “Owner apathy is the kiss of death for strata corporations,” she wrote, “because it enables small groups of ignorant and/or ill-willed owners to get traction.” 

In the council meeting’s minutes, the council said that those who’d signed the petition to disband the council had demonstrated “a lack of respect for the time of the Volunteer Council Members.”  

But a lack of respect flew both ways. At the meeting, Curtin’s husband approached Pickering and punched him in the face. Ivanore got caught up in the scuffle, as did David Spinks. “All three of us got punched and kicked over,” Pickering says. 

Though he was 68 and recovering from knee surgery, Pickering struck back hard. “I'm old but I used to do martial arts so I gave him one good one,” he says.  

Curtin says Pickering struck first; a video of the incident shows otherwise. 

Not long after that, the Pickerings put their house up for sale.

In August, the Little Qualicum River Village owners voted in a new nine-member council. Three resigned within the first two months. 

With a sense of the overwhelming task ahead of them, the new council, which included David Spinks, hired a property management company to handle the strata’s administrative and financial functions. Still, Spinks says the work he’s been doing to help run the strata is “more than a full time job.” 

He feels he has no choice. “I'm forced into this situation because of what's happened in the past,” he says. “To me everything is at stake. If this goes sour, I'm going to lose my home. It's not like I've got a working career in front of me and I can go off and recuperate. This will be the end of the line for me and other retirees here. It's a case of survival.” 

He’s hopeful that progress is being made on one of the strata’s biggest concerns: what exactly it is that the owners own. A lawyer the strata hired to study the original strata registration doesn’t believe the PINs are in fact exclusively tied to the storage sheds. Spinks says there are signs that the RDN may be willing to accept the lawyer’s interpretation.   

Others have decided to cut their losses and move on. Ivanore and his wife sold their strata lot and bought a single-family home in another province. The strata’s Contingency Reserve Fund can’t cover all the work that needs to be done, and so much needs to be done that doing any of it would almost seem like moving the deck chairs around on the Titanic, he says. What does it matter? You’re sinking.  

The strata’s insurer has given notice that unless the storage sheds are demolished or repaired by the end of June, it will no longer continue insuring the strata. But to demolish the sheds, a lawyer has told the council, the strata needs to have 100 percent buy-in from the owners. And the old council members are refusing to give their permission.  

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Curtin now finds herself part of a small group that’s butting up against the strata council. She says they have already brought five issues to the CRT; one claim intends to stop the council from demolishing the storage units.  

Losing the insurance for the strata would put the personal insurance policies of the owners in jeopardy. It would also create another problem. The strata would be in breach of the Strata Property Act. If that happens, Spinks says, “we're in bigger trouble than you can imagine, because we'll get an administrator appointed by the court and they will hand us a massive bill that most of us can't afford.”

Under the Strata Property Act, when a strata goes off the rails, the BC Supreme Court can step in and appoint an administrator if someone in the strata has requested it and it’s deemed to be in the strata’s best interest. When administrators are appointed, they call all the shots and the owners pay out of pocket for their services, which, depending on the size of the strata, could cost tens of thousands of dollars.

It’s not surprising, then, that some owners have decided to simply check out. Early this year, the Pickerings settled into their new home. They now live in Courtenay, not in a strata. Dave has a workshop and is building a “man cave,” and while he laments the loss of his “million-dollar view,” he says, “at least we have no headaches from anybody telling us what to do.” 

But severing their ties to the Little Qualicum River Village strata came at a price. Dave says after he disclosed the fence issue, several potential buyers backed away. The couple ended up agreeing to knock $42,500 off the price of the house to compensate the eventual buyer for the strata problems he was inheriting. “Then he wanted, cause he was going through a divorce, our furniture,” Dave says. “That cost us another $60,000.” 

Though getting out of the strata wasn’t cheap, he says, “it was worth every penny.” 

As for the fence, it remains in place. The new council has agreed to let the owners vote on the easement that Dave and Ivanore long ago proposed.

Update on June 15 at 11:40am: This article has been updated to clarify strata governance structures. It has been further updated to reflect that there are nearly 34,000 stratas in BC, not 32,000.

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Tori Marlan
Investigative Reporter
contact@capitaldaily.ca

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