Saturday, 14 January 2017

Do We Really Have Control?

Based on today’s market values, purchasing the smallest unit in our complex will cost a potential buyer approximately $300.000. For first time home buyers, the home ownership dream is the most expensive investment that will consume somewhere close to 50% of their annual income, though banks extending mortgages prefer to see a percentage closer to 35%.

One major question that many first time condominium owners confront is: “After investing so much money to purchase a condominium, how much freedom do we have in controlling the destiny of our biggest investment?” 

In our building the answer is plain and simple “ZERO CONTROL”. The Board of Directors, with the TOP/DOWN governance style, may precipitate in your mind the illusion of control by asking for your input or ideas about extremely trivial projects, but when the time comes to decide who gets what out of the $2.000.000 collected in maintenance fees, the owners have no say in it. Let me elaborate more with a concrete example. During the 2016 annual meeting The Board announced that approximately $1.2 million dollars was set aside to replace the carpets and the wall papers of the building. The amount is not open to any form of negotiation with unit owners. It was announced without any formal or informal contribution of suggestions and ideas from unit owner. However, The Board intends to form a committee of unit owners with the narrow mandate of helping The Board in the selection process of the most compatible color and carpet pattern with a good visual appeal.

Of course the previous example is not the only arena where unit owners can express their opinions. Back in June 2014, The Joint Management Council (JMC-not the real name of the council), distributed in the complex a survey, supposedly designed to help The Council plan new “Community Activities” and strengthen the “Sense of Community” by bringing together unit owners who share the same hobbies or social activities.
In July 2014, the newsletter of The Council published the results, and the figures were earth shattering. In a survey distributed to more than 570 unit owners, only 52 residents completed and returned their “Community Activities Survey”. Approximately 10% of unit owners showed an interest in the goal pursued by The Council. A very impressive percentage that indicates a clear apathy about the strong sense of community that exists in the complex, and how noble goals are exploited to shape the notion that decision makers are providing a large array of “CHOICES”, but unit owners are too reluctant to take advantage of what is being offered by the JMC.

It is true that the survey had a long list of potential activities (approximately 20) from dancing, to movie nights, to Yoga and Tai Chi classes, etc…The only problem is “there is a fee for an activity” to be paid by the unit owner, if it meets the most crucial condition of “a minimum of 10 participants per activity”. During the last 2 years, many activities were planned and scheduled only to be cancelled by the instructor simply because the number of participants was unacceptable from a “Business Model” point of view. One is forced to wonder why instructors, often unit owners in the same building, are insisting on a minimum of 10 participants, and cancelling classes simply because the criterion is not met, when the purpose of the activity is not to generate an extra income for the instructor (who is using the common elements of the building but not paying to The Board a single penny), but to strengthen through social activities the “Sense of Community”. If the activities are advertised out of the benevolence of a heart willing to serve the common good, why are instructors following a “Business Model”?

To understand the bizarre behavior of unit owners, their apathy in holding accountable decision makers, and surrendering the destiny of their biggest investment to “Experts” who promote the image of infallibility, one has to understand modern marketing techniques designed to manipulate people, influence them to invest mindlessly in products and services, and obey authority figures blindly by buying the argument that all decisions come from the benevolence of the heart to promote “The Common Good”.

A good source to understand the previous phenomenon is a book titled “The Paradox of Choice - Why More Is Less”. Researched and written by American psychologist Barry Schwartz who emphasizes throughout the book the cardinal importance of autonomy and freedom of choice in a modern democracy, and how the 2 factors (autonomy & choice) impact our psychological well being, positively if we can see how we are manipulated by clever techniques, and negatively if we allow others to victimize us by selling us the illusion that we have control over our day-to-day choices and ultimately our destinies. 

One practical example of clever marketing and manipulation techniques is the purchase of a cell phone. The service provider offers you a product that has more than 20 functions and applications, meanwhile on a day-to-day basis all you need is 3 or 4. You can have the product in 12 different colors, even more if you are willing to buy an extra casing that comes decorated with 25 different patterns. To operate the phone you have to study a fifty-page instruction manual. By the time you try to see which color is a close match to your purse and clothing, and which purse is more compatible with the size of the gizmo you plan to buy, you are so exhausted and mentally drained, that you cannot think about the most critical aspect of your purchase-a long-term contract that you have to honor for three years and a monthly payment where you have no say at all.

Of course it would be unfair to talk only in theories and blame The Board for imposing on us a Top/down method of governance, where unit owners can decide which ornament goes where on a Christmas tree, but we cannot participate in any serious endeavor about how the $2 million-dollar budget is spent. We are expected to follow blindly without any criticism and the most concrete evidence is the following letter reproduced in full with minor modification to prevent the identification of the Corporation:
Attn: Board of Directors,
MTCC No 000
Resident Services Office

August 15, 2016

Dear Members of The Board,

Year after year, during the Annual General Meeting of unit owners, The President in her annual report emphasizes the notion that “…Board members are volunteers who spend untold hours serving our condominium community…” It is safe to assume, based on assertions made by The Board in a variety of sources and circumstances, that a significant amount of time is invested by Board members into probing cost cutting measures while maintaining a high standard of living for owners and residents.

I am also convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that no Board member is willing to claim for herself or himself the Divine attribute of being infallible. If The Board is not willing to challenge the previous statement, then one can safely argue that The Board had made mistakes in the past and adopted projects that neither improved the high standard of living in our building, nor made any meaningful contribution to the common good despite the thousands of Dollars invested and all the noble intentions associated with each project.

To avoid such mistakes, a group of unit owners in the building are willing to invest time and effort to help The Board assess the merits of projects $10.000 and up, do a background check (open sources) of contractors to avoid selecting companies such as Plenora Restorations Ltd. (PRL) boycotted by The City of Toronto “…to enhance the reputation of the City for ethical and fair business dealings.”  Plenora was selected by decision makers of the complex based on the strength of a recommendation made by an engineering firm, without any rudimentary check of the reputation of the company. Had any decision maker made a simple background check, substantial complications could have been avoided during the entrance and exit ramps repairs of the underground parking lot.

Please advise in writing if The Board is willing to support and coordinate projects review and analysis with  a committee composed of owners fully dedicated, like The Board, to cost cutting measures while maintaining a high standard of living for owners and residents. Needless to mention that the recommendations of the committee will be non-binding recommendations and The Board is free to adopt or reject the findings or the views expressed by the committee.

Looking forward to hearing from you, I remain

Yours truly

In a letter dated Nov. 01, 2016 for a variety of reasons, ranging from ethical factors to privacy concerns, The Board clearly said NO. Even if within the ranks of unit owners we have architects and engineers who can contribute to the collective good, they cannot share power with The Board. And if mistakes are made and thousands of dollars are wasted on projects that do not contribute anything to the collective good, blame it on the experts who have access to the ears of The Board.

In conclusion your most valuable asset, your condominium’s destiny is well beyond your personal control.

 Admin The 215 Forum © 2017 

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