Friday, September 21, 2007

Strata Warning

Think twice before buying into a strata, and listen to what others with more experience have to say.

Lots of strata apartment buildings around here are laying whacking huge assessments on the apartment owners. One auntie near Mt. Pleasant just got a $20,000 assessment, and one in Mt. Pleasant just got a $78,000 assessment. In both cases, there was a leaky unit (or units) in the building, and so the cost of repairs on those units is being divided among all the units. But not only that, the strata councils are taking the opportunity to roll other expensive items into the assessment at the same time. In the case of the $78,000, they decided to charge everybody to put in a green roof - lovely, if you can afford it - and to make other adjustments to other apartments. For $78,000, this auntie is only getting new windows that will reduce the amount of direct sun in her 4th floor unit.

When you're hit with an assessment like this, it can wreck you financially.

The auntie with the $20,000 assessment is in her sixties and on a fixed income. She was planning to live in her unit til she got a bit older and then sell it and buy someplace smaller and cheaper. Now she says she can't qualify for a mortgage increase because she doesn't have enough income, but she isn't permitted to sell the unit without first paying off the $20,000 assessment and she hasn't got enough money. Further, if she manages a short-term loan, maybe from friends, so she can pay the assessment and pay back the loan when she sells, she won't realize enough money now for a downpayment on another place. She thought she had her financial endgame figured out, but now she's screwed.

People who recently bought their condos and then got hit with these big assessments are also in real trouble. They haven't realized any paper increases in their property value, and they haven't paid much off, so they don't have enough equity to get a mortgage increase. Even if you can afford to pay more per month, you can't qualify for mortgage debt that is higher than the value of the property.

The auntie with the $78,000 assessment is married and they do qualify to add this onto their mortgage. But it will increase their mortgage payments by $300 a month. They have a disabled child and that increase will work a real hardship on them. They are thinking of renting their strata flat out to somebody who has a higher income than they do, and then renting a cheaper place in another town to live in until they get this paid off. As their apartment has so much sunshine, I suggested she rent it out to someone who could pay the whole rent up front and put in a nice grow-op. But even that won't work, because strata management, unlike management of other properties, are now bound by regulation to do monthly inspections to see if there are things like grow ops or meth labs in the units. With the cost of strata living soaring into the stratosphere, it's no wonder this is becoming a significant problem. People working ordinary jobs can't afford to stay housed.

This type of precarious financial arrangement is going to be on the rise, as owners of older apartment houses are deciding to stratify their buildings to get their capital out. I'm sure this must seem a particularly desirous way to go if you're an owner who thinks that some big repairs will be looming soon.

The way I read this publication from the Canadian Bar Association (BC branch), theoretically each person who buys a condominium owns and is responsible for their own unit, with joint responsibility only for common facilities. However, when you buy a condominium you also become a strata owner - and through that label, obligations are imposed. Stratas are governed by strata councils, and strata councils have been given obligations under the Strata Act. Among these are the obligation to repair a leaky building and to raise this money through owner assessments. So, someone else's leak can and must be made your problem, even if you don't have a leak.

Here are some websites about strata councils and their obligations: This link has contacts for getting a look at the whole Strata Property Act.

Alternatives to strata buying include coop living, in which you can't sell your unit but you also don't have to put up such a huge amount of capital to live there. Cost of living there is also sometimes means-tested, with those who can afford "market rate" helping pay for some units that are at below market rate. Coops can also be leaky, and it's a fact as one auntie graphically showed me, that around Vancouver there are leaky coops that have gone years or even decades without major repairs to leaky units and water-damaged common areas, because they are waiting for government money that was promised but seems interminably slow to come through.

In both coops and strata housing, management is hired by a council. This is often such a difficult job that now there are management companies that rotate their managers between different buildings, so that no one manager has to put up with the bad buildings for very long. What makes a management job painful is that the strata or coop council is often a scene of strife. This is typically because argumentative and highly opinionated people enjoy carving out a niche for themselves in these bodies, and by their behaviour they tend to drive more considerate types out. Then, when a decision is taken by council, it may happen that the easygoing people are at the mercy of snobs, nuts, or shit-disturbers who don't have others' best interests at heart. In a strata situation, people who ignore all these goings-on as just unpleasant politics may be suddenly be forced to paint their apartments a disgusting colour, or be suddenly presented with a staggering bill for repairs or innovations they can't afford.

So, if you are in strata housing, make it a point to be vigilant about what's going on with the building you partially own, even if it's a pain in the butt to put up with your co-owners. People who rent can just move. and if you own a whole home, you can probably quietly let it rot about your ears until you die. But if you own a condominium you're in business with a lot of partners. Not only are there risks, but the richer partners can effectively squeeze the poorer ones out.

Drug activity increasing in sight

One of the aunties reports that drug distributors are giving stuff out to their sales people in Sahalli park now, not long after dark falls - that's earlier as dark comes earlier. She says she saw them there around 9:30 pm this week. Sahalli park is where Fraser Street ends at 8th Avenue. It has a really popular little kids' playground where mums, dads, and nannies tend to congregate with tots in the daylight hours, if the weather be good. Also there is the Broadway Youth Resource Centre just a block away at the corner of Broadway and Fraser. BYC has an addictions counselor, but now young addicts won't have far to go to be in temptation's way when they're trying to quit.

An auntie also reports that the back parking lot of the KFC at Prince Albert and Fraser must have become a late-night shooting gallery, because she sees piles of hypodermic needles lying around there early in the morning. People scoring drugs in this neighbourhood have too far to walk to the Insite safe injection site before injecting (although they could get there really quickly on a #8 bus that stops right in front of the Broadway Youth Centre).

The movement of drug distributors to Sahalli park (and their customers to nearby fast-food property) could well be related to the police sweep of the obvious dealers on the Downtown East Side. There were 63 smalltime dealers charged after being picked up by police there last July. According to a report on that sweep, the spokesman for the drugs squad had no comment to criticism that these sweeps displace dealers to other neighbourhoods.

Of related interest may be this link to a 2006 Vancouver Coastal Health Youth Drug Survey

If you or someone you know is looking to get off addictive drugs, here's a site that lists drug rehab centres in BC: This website also mentions that youth heroin addiction is on the increase. It also reprints an article by John Pifer from the Abbotsford news asking: "who in Ottawa or Victoria was behind the insane decision to end the need for Vancouver Port Police at a time when massive drug shipments were increasing?"

Another auntie says that the main problem in this neighbourhood is that people are coming into the area without adequate housing so they have to do their business out in the parks and the street. If your neighbour is quietly shooting heroin at home and going to work feeling no pain, it isn't scary like your neighbour doing illegal stuff out in plain sight and maybe taking offense that you see them doing it, too.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Residential Inspections - Provincial Law

Received from the Residential Tenancy Office in Victoria, in response to my inquiry, the following information - it seems to say that inspections of rental property can be random or can even be as regular as monthly, but that they cannot be done without cause, nor without notice:

Please refer to the following:
When the legislation was updated in January of 2004, it allowed the
landlord to conduct monthly inspections with proper notice in writing.
This "inspection" is not limited to suspicion of illegal activities, it
is just that - an inspection and as such, is allowable by law. Not all
landlords exercise their right to conduct monthly inspections, but they
are permitted by law to do so. If you wish further confirmation of the
landlord's right to inspect monthly, please refer to the following
section of the RTA.

Landlord's right to enter rental unit restricted
29 (1) A landlord must not enter a rental unit that is subject to a
tenancy agreement for any purpose unless one of the following applies:

(a) the tenant gives permission at the time of the entry or not more
than 30 days before the entry;

(b) at least 24 hours and not more than 30 days before the entry, the
landlord gives the tenant written notice that includes the following

(i) the purpose for entering, which must be reasonable;

(ii) the date and the time of the entry, which must be between 8 a.m.
and 9 p.m. unless the tenant otherwise agrees;

(c) the landlord provides housekeeping or related services under the
terms of a written tenancy agreement and the entry is for that purpose
and in accordance with those terms;

(d) the landlord has an order of the director authorizing the entry;

(e) the tenant has abandoned the rental unit;

(f) an emergency exists and the entry is necessary to protect life or

(2) A landlord may inspect a rental unit monthly in accordance with
subsection (1) (b).

Hope this helps for now.

...Information Officer
RTB Victoria

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

VCC-Clark Sky Train Station Needs Something

The new (last April) VCC-Clark Sky Train station is in Mt. Pleasant, on Great Northern Way across the street from the SPCA dog-adoption facility and the Vancouver Community College parking lot. There are a lot of newspaper boxes (including the Courier now - yay!) and there was temporarily a huuuuge volleyball space out back of it during the summer - but otherwise, its surroundings are pretty bleak. The land behind it is occupied by the railway, and the ground in front of it is covered with nothing but gravel. One of the aunties commented that it needs some food shops or something around it to draw more people in and make it safer to use, especially after dark.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Single Transferable Vote and Mt. Pleasant

Households in Mt. Pleasant recently received a lovely publication by the B.C. Electoral Boundaries Commission showing their draft proposals for new electoral riding boundaries. This included maps for two scenarios - one is a population-weighted adjustment to the current single-member proportional system, and the other is a proposal for how the boundaries would look if the BC Single Transferable Vote becomes the way of choosing members of the Provincial Legislative Assembly.

You may recall that the BCSTV was approved by 57.69% of BC voters in a referendum on May 17, 2005 - but 60% was the supermajority required to change to this system. But the Campbell government has apparently laid plans to submit the BCSTV to another vote in May of 2009 - the same time that the Liberal government has to submit its own government to elections. If the change gets approved, it would first be in effect for the 2013 election.

In the first of the Boundaries Commission's scenarios, Mt. Pleasant's boundaries would be very similar to what they are now - in the BCSTV version, Mt. Pleasant would be part of an overall East Van riding.

From a Mt. Pleasant perspective, I think the change to STV would probably be good. Notwithstanding the fact that every solution has its own problems, here's what I think there is to like:

*get to vote for more choices

*East Van seen as a unified constituency - we really do have a lot in common compared to West Van

*have more options for finding an MLA to bring your issue up to the legislature - hopefully one of your seven will take an interest - and if they all support you, you have a much stronger hand

*novelty and the fact of more choices will bring out more voters - they won't be confused as the mainstream pundits have predicted. They'll be more intrigued, as everybody likes to figure out their choices.

*no more "hold your nose and vote" to keep the party you don't want from getting in. If you vote for the Work Less Party and they don't get enough votes to make it, you can have your voting credits roll over to the NDP or the Greens (or the Liberals if you prefer) instead of being written off and leaving the leading party with a bigger lead. And if your candidate wins by more than enough votes, your "leftover" vote portion will contribute to the success of your second, third ... even your seventh choice.

*Will likely make the parties be more responsive to local issues - right now, Mt. Pleasant is a "safe" seat for NDP, but then you only have one member, who is already assured of your vote, so you haven't much leverage

I also like the fact that there was a Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform made up of one man and one woman from each riding in BC that sat for a year to determine the fairest electoral system for BC. The BC-STV (British Columbia Single Transferable Vote) was their answer. Headed by Jack Blaney, former President of Simon Fraser University, this assembly had a tremendous education on what kinds of electoral systems there are in the world and how they have actually been working. When the year was up, the members of that study commission were unanimous behind their choice and they worked like the dickens to get people to vote for it. It nearly attained the required supermajority of BC voters, and it will apparently be coming up for a vote again - either to succeed, or to fail more decisively (that's up to us).

There is still a lot of information about this Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform and their conclusions online at - even instructional audio and video.

The boundaries on the district maps we received were drawn up by three appointed men who sat as the Electoral Boundaries Commission. There is still time to give feedback on what they have drawn up. You can submit online or go to a hearing or both. The first Vancouver hearing was September 8, but there will be three more hearing dates: September 20, October 19, and November 13. To find times and locations, visit the Electoral Boundaries Commission webpage

Grow Ops and Random Residential Suite Perusals

One of the Mt. Pleasant aunties told me this weekend that the city now requires property owners to inspect for grow ops and is holding the owner responsible for this crime. I'm trying to verify this point - here's what I've found so far (please post a comment if you find out anything I don't have):

1) Due to the strike, it is impossible to talk with anyone at City of Vancouver about residential inspection bylaws. But I found information online that inspections are being required in other parts of the province. For example North Cowichan, has been requiring owners to inspect every two months to control drug crime, but is thinking about scaling back to every six months.

2) The Province for Sunday Sept. 9 had an article by Tony Gioventu, executive director of the Condominium Home Owners Association, about grow-ops in strata housing, so I called him to ask about the Vancouver bylaws. He told me "you can't force somebody to inspect," but that landlords to have the right to inspect properties under the Residential Tenancy Act [and strata managers have special inspection requirements]. Gioventu pointed me to a comprehensive guide to the provincial Residential Tenancy Act on the web page - but it has no obvious information about inspections other than before the tenant is in residence and for purposes of returning a deposit after a tenant leaves. When I tried to phone this government office for more help, there was a message saying we're sorry, all circuits are busy now. I've sent them an email asking:

I'm trying to find information about the right and responsibility of landlords to inspect premises during a tenant's residency, to look for illegal activity. It seems that this responsibility is being laid on landlords now by police, but we would like to see the relevant laws, with respect to notification requirements and so forth. Please advise.

3) In this 2007 web page, the Vancouver Police Department sets out guidelines for owners about Illegal Activities on Rental Properties. They state: "A regular inspection of your property can prevent problems from occurring."
They also say that Responsibilities of Owners include putting an addendum into your rental agreement forbidding illegal activity, on the premises or property, including but not limited to:

any drug-related criminal activity
solicitation (pimps, prostitution activity)
street gang activity
assault or threatened assault, in regard to persons on the premises
unlawful use of a firearm
any criminal activity that threatens the health, safety or welfare of the landlord, other tenants or persons on the residential property or residential premises.

Such violations would be considered cause for ending the lease.

The Vancouver Police Department site also states that property insurance will not cover damage caused by grow-ops. Such damage can include mold from growing plants indoors, and fires or rewiring from use of a lot of extra electricity.

If you have further information about bylaws, leases, or current practices in Mt. Pleasant around Random Residential Suite Perusals (inspections) by landlords, please post in the Comments section.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Best Tai Chi deal in Mt. Pleasant

The Mt. Pleasant Neighbourhood House (at Broadway and Prince Albert) has renewed the contract of Dr. Lyla Yip to teach Tai Chi there weekly. Classes resumed after the summer break today - but you can join the class at any time.

Dr. Yip is a Traditional Chinese Medicine doctor with Western medical background as well, and she's also a longtime student and teacher of Tai Chi. In fact, she's a model for a statue of a group of Tai Chi practitioners that is going to be erected in one of Vancouver's parks.

The class meets each Tuesday from 10:45 to 11:45 am, and I like it so much I changed my work hours so I could attend it. Because of her medical background, Dr. Yip can customize the excercises to anyone's needs. Many of us need work on flexibility, strengthening, posture, and relaxation, which can all be helped by Tai Chi and the related Chi Gong practices.

Today, September 4, we did work on simple exercises for the tendons of the foot and leg, and practiced standing with balance and relaxing the joints. Then we practiced a Chi Gong exercise called Flying Eagle, went through the Yang-style 24 Steps, and then learned about 5 minutes of a beautiful form called Tai Chi Fan.

Because the class is held just before the Senior Lunch the Neighbourhood House holds on Tuesdays, some who attend are seniors. It's very good for seniors, but younger people can enjoy it and benefit just as much. Also, if you are mobility-impaired you can still be part of the class.

Did I mention that it only costs $3 a class and you can attend on a drop-in basis? This a wonderful price deal - the class is worth much more than that.

I've been using Tai Chi as my main form of exercise for a few years now, and I really love it. It's calming and strenthening, it gives you balance and confidence, and it's almost impossible to get hurt doing it, too.

We need a few more regular class members, so please come on down and try it.

Random Residential Suite Perusals - B.S.?

Following up on previous post:

Three of us went to the place and were shown a vacant apartment by a resident who assists the manager. She had never heard of Random Residential Suite Perusals until we told her and showed her the sign. On re-inspection, the sign looked like not such a great photoshop job, and I'm wondering if it is B.S. I did not manage to get a look at one of the current leases, but the longtime resident who showed us the place insisted that management can't go into the suites there without permission in advance, even to make repairs. She told an anecdote that in the recent past a resident left another couple in charge of her apartment and that the other couple ran a grow-operation in there. She said even in that case there was allegedly advance notice, but the people just disappeared and left the grow-op. She also told us that there had been a "party" for the residents recently, with police telling people how to keep themselves safe. This sounds more in line with what else we've seen about crime-free multi-housing activity in the city.