The call for safer condos in Ontario

How boards can help manage escalating incidents
Wednesday, November 29, 2023
By Rebecca Melnyk

Conflicts and disputes within Ontario’s condos are fueling a conversation around safety reform and adding pressure to make residential communities better places to live and work.

Over the past year, various members of the industry conveyed how relationships among directors, managers and owners are becoming increasingly heated. Although the crux of the issue is challenging to pinpoint, there’s a flurry of reasons.

The rising population of personalities living in close quarters is one key. “I think it’s fair to say that we are seeing more hostility and aggression within condominium communities over the past couple of years,” says condo lawyer Nancy Houle of Davidson Houle Allen. “Condominiums are a microcosm of society and whatever is happening in society eventually manifests within the condominium community.”

Condos can be a person’s home, investment and place of employment. They are also a workplace for managers, contractors, superintendents and others, she points out. “With people being at home all the time now, in some cases, what used to be a minor annoyance now becomes a perceived major disruption. . . hence more conflict.”

Newer owners and tenants also come with little understanding of how condos intricately operate, the Association of Condominium Managers of Ontario (ACMO) flagged in its recent statement on escalating cases of manager harassment.

A former condo board president like Quintin Johnstone, who owns condo security company Samonshield and risk mitigation firm Riskboss, sees much room for improvement. He says capacity is the number one problem boards face, with too many residential properties and not enough experienced resources to manage every issue that arises. Property managers are often left dealing with incidents that have over-escalated, with little time to analyze root causes and fix real problems.

The latest data from the Condominium Authority of Ontario shows there are over 1.7 million people living in condos and more than 12,000 condo corporations, with a 10.5 per cent increase since 2018. The number of residential units has risen by 12.8 per cent since then.

Johnstone, who is also a retired Toronto cop, points out the growing lack of seasoned condo managers available to handle troublesome situations as firms struggle to retain and attract this talent. “There is an experiential void that continues to grow, which has and will continue to be a huge problem,” he warns.

Legislative tools for boards

Disagreements are inevitable. As Houle and her colleague, condo lawyer Jim Davidson, explain, the Condo Act states that corporations are responsible for controlling the common elements, enforcing the governing documents, and have the duty to maintain reasonable levels of safety.

This framework is vital for the comfort and enjoyment of all residents, they say, but it means that directors and managers are directly exposed and at risk when dealing with violations and inevitable conflicts.

“The situations can often become stressful, emotional, and confrontational, particularly when mental health issues are involved,” they add. “The Vaughan tragedy is a terrible example of where this can lead.”

This December will mark the one-year anniversary of the events at Bellaria Residences, where an owner, with a gun, took the lives of five people, including board members. Although a rare occurrence, it caused many boards across Ontario to feel more vulnerable. Earlier this year, leading condo associations in Ontario committed to reforming legislation and creating better resources for safer buildings.

These stakeholder working groups are reviewing the Condo Act, Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) and other legislation to determine potential revisions. Johnstone, Houle and Davidson are all involved with these groups.

One amendment could involve adding a provision that a security review is a required part of every condominium’s reserve fund study, Houle and Davidson suggest. Compiled by a qualified security expert, it would outline recommended steps the corporation would need to take to maintain reasonable levels of safety on the property.

“The amendment could also state that condominium corporations must specifically consider the need for further consultation with the security expert if there are any circumstances on the property which the board feels may (or may in future) contravene Section 117 (1) of the Condominium Act,” they advise. Condo corporations can also be mandated to include reasonable amounts that cover the costs for these consultations in their annual and/or reserve fund budget.

As it stands, there are a few existing legislative tools. Boards can authorize changes they deem necessary for safety, such as installing security cameras and upgrading security personnel.

Directives under the Occupational Health and Safety Act entitle that workers are free from violence and harassment. When it comes to dangerous individuals, boards have “robust authority” to apply to the court or Condominium Authority Tribunal for necessary orders controlling this conduct. For people suffering from mental illness, in some cases, a public guardian and trustee may be appointed as litigation guardian.

“The Courts have shown, in numerous cases, that they are unquestionably willing to grant the necessary orders when circumstances warrant,” they add. “Even so, these ‘tools’ do not solve all of the problems. As starkly shown by the tragedy in Vaughan, rare cases can erupt into disaster before they can be brought under control through [these] procedures.”

Regulatory changes geared to service providers could further support condo boards. Risk assessments are often a first step when determining security gaps.

Johnstone and his risk identification and mitigation firm have completed well over seventy-five condos over the past decade. “Developers build to building and fire code standards,” he says. “This does not include risk mitigation.”

He says there should be a minimum standard for risk assessment practitioners, many of whom remain unaccredited across Ontario, and increased minimum training standards for security guards who are helping to fill the void from downsized police forces.

Officers no longer flock to minor calls, leaving non-emergencies in the hands of on-site security companies and managers who have long relied on the experience of police. Condo corporations are increasingly expected to be self-reliant in the face of any emergency and buff-up their risk-specific infrastructure.

Back in the 1980s, when Johnstone worked in Toronto’s 52 Division downtown, there were 40 people in a platoon every night. “Now you’ll be lucky to put five people out on the midnight shift,” he says. “Reported crime is going down because when people call the police, they never come except in emergencies, so they never call again. But crime is still happening.”

In the event of major incidents, he finds most condos, even those with hundreds of units, are not prepared for emergencies. They don’t have a site-specific plan and training for emergency preparedness. “Having only a fire safety plan does not meet the minimum threshold expected in emergency situations,” he warns.

Currently, there are no provincially mandated standards that force condos to have emergency preparedness protocols and training. Johnstone says this makes condos more risk resilient, especially in emergencies, as people often wait for responders to arrive. “Delayed emergency responder responses are now the norm. When seconds count, you have to be prepared to mitigate any risk until someone arrives. That is the standard of care that is expected.”

Emergency preparedness should also include all providers that service condos especially during major incidents, which require everyone’s help, he adds. “It is something that boards can act on right away by demanding all service providers be trained in First Aid, CPR, AED and take the Ontario government IMS100 online (free) course,” he advises. “This is an excellent start but by no means enough.”

Education, experts and de-escalation

Creating safe spaces in condos is a delicate balance of security versus privacy. Todd Hofley, president of TSCC 2164, says most modern condominiums are outfitted with multiple layers of security, but dealing with the inherent dangers of fellow residents is tricker and more complex. “We can’t always predict how others will behave, so my default is to always be, as a board member, as professional as possible—even if confronted by an angry resident.”

When it comes to security incidents, from challenging owners to unwelcome visitors, boards may find education a scarce resource. “I do think the entire portfolio of security measures, from physical access, to situational awareness, to crisis mitigation and de-escalation techniques, is a big gap that, hopefully, smart property management companies will begin to address,” Hofley adds.

With respect to governance, Johnstone envisions a time when ACMO rolls out a program for board directors and condo security guards to heighten their level of standard, similar to the Registered Condominium Manager (RCM) designation and not unlike realtors whose profession was regulated decades ago. “Preparation is the key to emergency preparedness,” he says.

Expert knowledge also figures highly into conflict mitigation. whose knowledge funnels highly into conflict mitigation. However, some boards avoid investing in expert advice while under pressure to keep maintenance fees low. Johnstone flags that as a major problem in condos. Mediation, for example, although helpful, lacks resources to serve everyone in need, which often delays outcomes, he says. Boards shy away from spending that money and “residents view compromise as a defeat of their position on issues.”

“People who live in condominiums who abide by rules look for realistic and quick resolutions to neighbour disputes and their problems,” he adds. “They don’t want to become involved in the process. Delays frustrate those who are willing to work within the system. They are looking for stronger measures holding rule breakers more accountable.”

At other times, property managers can be coerced to “wade through the internet” for opinions in place of a 20-minute conversation with a lawyer. Even so, legal counsel is said to be a means of expert advice when a dispute carries a risk of violence. So too are mental health consultants and security experts, advises Houle and Davidson. They say corporations should budget a reasonable amount for this guidance.

Before conflicts escalate, Hofley advises using consistent, clear communication with detail and reasoning. “There is a lot of power a condo corporation has, including forcing the sale of a unit,” he says. “Harassment should never be tolerated and an immediate, clear, definitive response should be the first step.”

After that, discussing issues in a “civil manner” is advised, along with professional mediation services or a neutral space provided by the property management company— if they are not a part of the issue.

Earlier this year, Tony Bui, a condominium lawyer at Gardiner Miller Arnold, spoke on a safety panel at the PM Springfest conference. “Sometimes the solution calls for firm action and sometimes it calls for a softer touch,” he said. “There is no one-size fits-all approach. Every single condo conflict calls for discretion and judgment.”

Offering conflict-related context is helpful for lawyers who, when they see incident reports and write letters that threaten litigation and demand chargebacks, don’t often witness the aftershock of that letter. As he explained, an owner could be navigating personal challenges or family with mental health issues. “Sometimes, maybe going in heavy isn’t the right approach and might escalate things,” he said.

Juliet Atha, president of Best Practices Property Management, suggested that when discussing complaints, it’s prudent to remove personalities from the conversation; refer to challenging owners by unit number rather than name, to avoid “colouring the situation.”

“There will always be a few dissatisfied people in every condo community,” Hofley advises. “While the impulse is to ignore and complain about them, don’t. Continually engage, continually explain and offer them the opportunity to participate. Never belittle.”

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