The Globe and Mail's B.C. bureau is spending the summer examining how Vancouver's increasing density is shaping the city and its residents
It was a routine dispute: A Vancouver strata council fined a tenant $400 for smoking on strata property.
The tenant, however, said he didn't smoke. Even so, the tenant's landlord paid the fines and the tenant paid him back. The fines were subsequently reversed, leaving the tenant to argue that he – not his landlord – should be reimbursed, as it was the tenant who ultimately paid the fines.
In an Aug. 3 decision, Clark v. The Owners, B.C.'s Civil Resolution Tribunal (CRT) agreed and ordered the strata to pay $400 to the tenant, along with 94 cents in interest and $150 in tribunal fees.
In the strata-housing system, which is widely used in B.C., owners own their individual strata lots and together own common property and common assets as a strata corporations. In B.C., strata owners and residents – some 1.5 million people, according to the province – are subject to the Strata Property Act and strata corporations' rules and bylaws.
The CRT ruling illustrates the type of strata case it was designed to handle. With cities eyeing more density, such disputes – over smoking, parking spots, pets, noise and, increasingly, short-term rentals – can be expected to be part of urban life. The tribunal provides a venue for owners, tenants and strata councils to tackle disagreements as they come up and is intended to make the resolution process open to everyone, regardless of their income.
"One of the biggest stakeholder groups that was pushing for the formation of the CRT was the strata community," says CRT chair Shannon Salter, adding that strata disputes were previously handled in B.C. Supreme Court.
"It cost too much money, it took too long, it was too complicated – and it wasn't a viable way to resolve these disputes given their frequency and often, the low monetary value involved," Ms. Salter says.
The CRT started handling strata disputes in July, 2016. As of early August, the CRT had taken on 553 cases. Of those, 187 are resolved, 222 are in mediation and the rest are at earlier stages.
The CRT also runs the "Solution Explorer": an online advice system designed to help people work through disputes with mediation; to date, it's been accessed more than 5,000 times.
Tony Gioventu, executive director of the Condominium Home Owners Association (CHOA) of BC, was involved in setting up the CRT and says it allows stratas to address bylaw concerns more promptly.
"It [the tribunal] allows disputes that seem trivial to us – but are quite important for the people involved – access to an independent body to negotiate a solution that the parties agree to, or impose an adjudicated decision which is timely and inexpensive," Mr. Gioventu said.
Previously, stratas could spend up to $25,000 and a year in court to try to enforce their bylaws, he adds.
Asked about common disputes, Mr. Gioventu said issues such as pets, parking and repairs are chronic concerns and short-term rentals are increasingly on the radar.
Currently, CHOA is looking into reports of one operator who rents units from landlords, ostensibly for personal use, and then rents them out as short-term basis – without permission from owners or strata councils. That scenario has resulted in complaints about wear-and-tear, decreased security, noise and parking violations, Mr. Gioventu said.
There are also worries that short-term rentals eat into available stock of long-term rentals, worsening a continuing housing crunch. Strata councils are increasingly looking at bylaws to restrict short-term rentals such as Airbnb, Mr. Gioventu said.
The City of Vancouver has proposed new rules for short-term rentals, including a ban on commercial operators – people who rent out whole units that are used only for vacation rentals.
The issue is also simmering in Victoria, where a Citizen Coalition Against Short-Term Vacation Rentals is pressing council to take action on the issue.
The tribunal has a target of resolving strata disputes within 90 days. Currently, the average is running at between four to five months, the CRT's Ms. Salter says.
Claimants pay $125 for mediation; if the case goes to adjudication, that costs an additional $100. There is a fee-waiver program in place for low-income people. Some disputes will still wind up in court if they are complex, involve large amounts of money, or if measures such as fines and warnings have proved ineffective.
This past May, a B.C. Supreme Court judged ordered a Burnaby couple to put their condo unit up for sale, after concluding the couple had breached a March, 2016, court order to, among other things, stop "uttering any abusive, obscene, or threatening comments or making obscene gestures" to their neighbours. That court order followed years of complaints about behaviour that breached the strata's bylaws, including excessive noise and abusive behaviour.
Mr. Gioventu gives standard advice to strata residents and would-be residents: read strata minutes and bylaws and and stay informed.
"The No. 1 thing they need to remember is, when you live in a strata, your home is not your castle," Mr. Gioventu says.
"You happen to be the exclusive user of the suite you purchased, but you have to live within the confines of the community."