British Columbia

Small strata, big trouble: Tribunal rulings show how duplex disagreements can get messy

A house divided against itself cannot stand — so what happens when owners of a divided house cannot stand each other? A strata expert says when duplex owners beef, things can become personal and legal proceedings are sometimes the only answer, despite the cost and trouble.

Disputes started over repair issues but have included allegations of threats and harassment

Neighbours who live at this Kelowna duplex have been to B.C.'s Civil Resolution Tribunal three times over disagreements about how to run their shared property. (Winston Szeto/CBC)

A house divided against itself cannot stand and sometimes owners of a divided house cannot stand together, either.

Last week, the Civil Resolution Tribunal — a small claims court that also mediates strata disputes — issued its third ruling in as many years to quarrelling Kelowna neighbours, each owning one half of a duplex: Dana Peters and Malcolm Rolfsen on one side and Sharon Whiting on the other.

Their claims, outlined in tribunal decisions, are generally about repairs and maintenance of their shared building but have included allegations of threats and harassment and a request for a restraining order.

Duplexes may look more like single family houses than apartment buildings, but like any other strata, have shared property and shared responsibilities.

But with only two units, every strata decision must be unanimous and disagreements can escalate.

"Things become very personal if a conflict arises," said Tony Gioventu, executive director of the Condominium Home Owners Association of B.C. "There isn't a way to separate, to deal with them informally."

Gioventu said many duplex owners handle their shared responsibilities outside the rules of the Strata Property Act, which can lead to disagreements.

3 rulings in 3 years

The households have been neighbours since 2011 but until 2018 handled repairs and maintenance on an ad hoc basis.

Whiting and Rolfsen, reached individually by phone, both said they were unaware they were living in a strata until they spent several years as neighbours.

Their first tribunal case was decided in 2019. Peters and Rolfsen demanded Whiting pay $18,149 to repair exterior doors, windows, deck, railings and stairs. 

The claim was dismissed because Strata Property Act protocols for repairs were not followed. Rolfsen said the bigger issue was he did not submit enough evidence.

Duplexes are a popular choice for builders in urban areas, but with only two units, strata decisions must be unanimous and disagreements can escalate. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

In 2020, a claim from Whiting was dismissed. She claimed Peters and Rolfsen wrongly delayed repairs to leaking water pipes. She demanded they pay $2,738.74 in legal fees and stop harassing her.

Peters and Rolfsen denied harassing Whiting. The tribunal said it had no authority in alleged harassment matters.

Most recently, Whiting claimed Peters and Rolfsen were not co-operating when it came to joint responsibilities, such as preparing financial statements and scheduling an insurance appraisal. She alleged Rolfsen yelled at her and sent threatening emails and she sought a restraining order.

Peters and Rolfsen denied this and filed a counterclaim saying Whiting was the one not complying. They claimed she owed fees and deck repair costs.

Last week, the tribunal ordered the strata corporation — which the neighbours jointly fund — to pay Whiting $91.06, Peters and Rolfsen $900.24 and to pay for an engineer and deck repair. It also ordered Whiting to pay $67.50 to Peters and Rolfsen for tribunal fees.

The tribunal also found Whiting owed the strata $295 in fees and owed strata fees dating back to February 2020, when the monthly rate was increased to $575 from $280. 

Other claims, including Whiting's request for a restraining order, were dismissed or declared outside the tribunal's jurisdiction.

'It becomes more of a personal issue'

Gioventu estimates across B.C., there are as many as 5,000 duplex, triplex or four-plex strata buildings. More are under construction.

Most function well but some have no management structure, don't hold regular meetings and don't have written bylaws.  When disagreements arise, that might lead owners to court or the tribunal. 

Burnaby, shown in the foreground, and Vancouver, in the background, are home to many of the thousands of duplex, triplex or four-plex strata buildings estimated to be in the province. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Gioventu knows of a few duplexes in B.C. where owners have been before the courts or tribunal upwards of five times. Some have court-appointed administrators to make decisions.

"That can really create a lot of problems," Gioventu said, and are costly and time-consuming options.

Whiting, for her part, doesn't believe living in a duplex necessarily led to their disputes. 

"Two owners could agree. It's a matter of being reasonable," Whiting said, adding she advises anyone moving into any strata to look for meeting minutes.

Rolfsen is more blunt in his advice for anyone considering buying a duplex. "Don't do it."

Rolfsen said the tribunal process is not a fair venue for strata issues because it allows for petty disputes.

He added it does not make sense for duplexes to be governed by the Strata Property Act because there's no way to easily resolve disagreements when it's one neighbour versus another and they might have very different circumstances.

He argues there should be a way for duplexes to dissolve their strata arrangements and go it alone.

CBC Vancouver's Impact Team investigates and reports on stories that impact people in their local community and strives to hold individuals, institutions and organizations to account. If you have a story for us, email impact@cbc.ca.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Liam Britten

Digital journalist

Liam Britten is an award-winning journalist for CBC Vancouver. You can contact him at liam.britten@cbc.ca or follow him on Twitter: @liam_britten. Liam contributes to CBC Vancouver's Impact Team, where he investigates and reports on stories that impact people in their local community.

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