An Ontario woman says a dispute with her condo board and property management company over minor garden infractions has left her emotionally devastated and contemplating moving out.
Jayne Pilot of Brampton was sitting by the pool at her condo complex with friends last July when she was handed an envelope containing a court summons.
"I was shocked," says Pilot. "I didn't understand what they were taking me to court for."
The summons was from her own condo corporation, and outlined various bylaw infractions Pilot had committed, such as having seven patio chairs when only six are allowed, having two flower pots that exceeded dimensions outlined in the 1988 condo rules, and having solar lights in her garden.
"I thought, 'This is totally ridiculous. This is not reasonable,'" says Pilot. "I feel bullied."
"Why would you take somebody to court over flower pots, solar lights, and one chair too many?"
She thinks the answer to that question is because, two years ago, Pilot led a successful fight against a proposed condo fee increase of 22 per cent, arguing that a mass re-roofing project was not necessary.
'Why would you take somebody to court over flower pots, solar lights and one chair too many? - Jayne Pilot, condo owner
"I was able to get everybody together and they [condo board] saw that I could do that," says Pilot. "And I don't think they liked it."
Instead of following Ontario's Condo Act, which requires mediation as a first step, Pilot was taken to civil court. The judge said the condo rules must be "reasonable" and pointed out that the case should have been dealt with in mediation.
The condo corporation then took Pilot to mediation, where both sides reached a settlement, the terms of which cannot be disclosed.
Condo board won't comment
Members of Pilot's condo board did not return emails or calls requesting a comment.
Maple Ridge Community Management, which manages the condo complex, also declined to be interviewed, citing "ongoing litigation." It would not clarify the nature of that litigation.
National condo dysfunction
Disputes like the one between Pilot and her condo board are growing almost as quickly as the number of condo units, according to William Stratas, managing director at Eagle Audit Advantage, a Toronto-based company that investigates grievances from both condo owners and board directors.
"Our files are bulging," says Stratas, whose office gets calls daily from condo residents who feel mistreated by their condo boards and property management companies.
"In some condos, the message that comes from the board is, 'Pay your fees and shut up,'" he says.
"The residents in those buildings really feel like they're in a prison camp," says Stratas, who has lived in a condo himself for 27 years, and formed his company after joining a condo board to help straighten out a financial mess.
"There should be a basic desire for everybody to find a way to make it work," he says. "It's their shared community. And I think what we see [in Pilot's case] is a breakdown of that shared spirit."
'There should be a basic desire for everybody to find a way to make it work.' - William Stratas, condo conflict investigator
The online Condo Information Centre, run by Ontario condo advocate Anne-Marie Ambert, has received over 5,000 letters since its creation five years ago.
Ambert tracks the nature of complaints, and says one-third of condo owners write that they have been intimidated, bullied, discriminated against or threatened by boards/managers when they make justifiable complaints.
More Canadians in condos
Over the past three decades, condo construction has been the fastest growing type of housing in Canada, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
In 2000, condos accounted for 18 per cent of all housing starts, but that number has now almost doubled to 33 per cent.
According to the most recent numbers from Statistics Canada, there were 1.6 million condos in Canada in 2011, accounting for 34 per cent of all housing.
Patchwork of regulation
Across the country, provinces are grappling with battles between condo residents and their boards.
Ontario is about to introduce changes to its Condominium Act, which hasn't been updated since 2001, long before the province's condo boom.
The centrepiece of the new legislation is the creation of a dispute resolution tribunal — a lower cost option to court — to deal with the rising number of disagreements between boards and owners.
Stratas says the changes will protect condo owners from the precarious position Jayne Pilot was put in, when her board took her to court. If it wasn't for a "sensible judge" insisting on the rules being followed, he says, she might have faced steep legal costs.
B.C. at the forefront
Many condo advocates say B.C. is at the forefront of handling condo issues, after creating Canada's first online tribunal, the Civil Resolution Tribunal, six months ago.
Complainants can find free online template letters to send to condo boards or neighbours to try to resolve a dispute, without filing a claim.
If they do file a claim, a mediator is assigned to work with both parties to reach a settlement, at a maximum cost of about $300.
If no agreement can be reached, the mediator can make a ruling, which is enforceable as a court order.
Tony Gioventu, executive director of the Condominium Home Owners Association of BC, says his office receives hundreds of calls a day about struggles between condo boards and owners.
"Targeting individuals ... who oppose what the [condo board] is doing, is probably the most common tactic that people in residential communities use," says Gioventu.
"If they have any kind of opposition whatsoever ... you'll find that the condo board will isolate that individual, demonize that individual, make up all kinds of stories around alleged bylaw violations."
He refers all calls to B.C.'s Civil Resolution Tribunal.
"It creates a level playing field," says Gioventu. "And to have a condo dispute resolution opportunity that is part of a justice system is unique in the world."
Tribunal costs for B.C.'s Ministry of Justice are estimated to be between $4 million and $5 million a year, but keeping cases out of small claims and provincial court is estimated to save 10 times that amount.
Taken a toll
Changes to Ontario's Condo Act come too late for Jayne Pilot, who looks out over her snow-dusted backyard, remembering how a condo board member secretly photographed items to submit as court evidence that she was violating bylaws.
Pilot can no longer picture enjoying the summer weather on her patio, and is contemplating moving out of the complex.
"I am devastated," she says. "Your home is your sanctuary. And that was taken away from me."
With files from James Roberts
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