So I fired off a knee-jerk tweet after reading a column on a local news website, and I figured I should expand a little. The column was about strata properties (I think in the USA they call them “homeowner’s associations?”) and, to be fair, was somewhat honest about how to know whether or not they are a right fit for you. Of course, since the person writing the column is quite involved with their own little political setup, the net message there was still overly positive.
When I bought a strata property, I didn’t think much of the politics. The reason is that my dad owns one and has never bothered with the process at all, and hasn’t needed to. It’s like the strata was a separate hobby for the old people who had nothing else to do. That is why I didn’t see a problem with the system, despite the ubiquity of strata horror stories. As for my situation, it doesn’t start in some dingy hall during general meetings. No, it’s far more sinister.
The Swimming Pool Interrogation
The retired ladies love our 70s kidney pool, and not necessarily for the sheer joy of lying on a concrete slab in the sun. As a young person who has just moved in, this is probably your most vulnerable position. You’re half naked, don’t know anyone, and just want to test out this pool to see if it really is worth the extra you pay on your monthly fees. The demographic here is stacked against you—as I said, they are mostly retirees. Nevertheless, they waste no time in flattering you and pretending to be interested in who you are. Once they warm you up, they’ll mention council-related matters. Oh yes, I totally agree, we need to fix the fences. Oh, I didn’t know that X problem was made worse by the previous council’s attempt to fix it. Wow. How interesting.
Then they start shit-talking the guy down the hall who was on last year’s council. And I mean they tore into him with some of the most vile language I’ve heard from “nice” old ladies.
Then comes the request for proxies. The proxy vote is at the root of the strata oligarchy. More on that later.
I play my cards pretty safe. That is, I don’t extend myself into any of this nonsense until I know what’s actually going on. What these people don’t know is that I know the guy they’re talking about and have heard the other side.
Later on, my fiancée goes to the pool while I’m at work. She’s the most charismatic girl in the world, so obviously she got on their good side right away. And once that happens—once these bitter, nasty people feel comfortable with you—they show their true colours readily. This time, they’re whispering to my fiancée about the two lesbians who had moved in. The things they are whispering are homophobic and wrong, and basically amount to that they shouldn’t be allowed to show affection in public. I guess people are free to have their own opinions, but strata law relies on sophomoric interpretations of the word “democracy,” more often simplified to the elementary-school phrase “majority rules.” If the majority are wrong, does the fact that it’s a majority make it right?
My first attempt to vote in a general meeting began with 10 minutes of waiting in an Eagles hall before I realized that I had to go to the property manager and register. Once I did that, I was told that I could not vote because my account had been in “arrears.” Since my strata fees are automatically withdrawn from my bank account, this is absurd. But there was an inexplicable statement showing a charge of ten f-ing dollars, the description of which simply read “Levy.” I had no idea what it was for, and still don’t, but it was ten dollars and I wasn’t that concerned about the actual money. I even had cash to pay it right there—but no. The property manager denied me the right to vote because some bogus charge foisted upon my account for sudden and inexplicable reasons, which he then refused to allow me to even pay!
I left without saying anything mean or disgruntled, stopped by the gas station and bought a pack of cigarettes (I don’t actually smoke, except in times of extreme duress), and went home.
Later, I find out how voting actually works. Voter apathy isn’t seen as a public problem here—it’s actually the core of the oligarchy and encouraged. The one or two people actually in charge are pretty good at going around to collect proxy votes from people. When I first moved in and they did that to me, I thought it was nice—I had no time to deal with their meetings, and the person was giving me a chance to still (kind of) participate in a vote. Then I started to notice things and put it all together. The pool. The parking garage. The mailbox. The oligarchs—who are of course unemployed and have the time to do this—haunt those hubs and interrupt your day to get your proxy. When it’s time to vote, the oligarch has more proxies than there are actual voters, and there’s no hope of ever being in “the majority” that’s ruling.
The root of voter disenfranchisement seems to be how much of a life they have. Busy, young professionals seem to lose out the most, and incur most of the wrath of bad strata. I know very successful business owners—well-known, popular citizens who contribute a lot—who end up being badgered and harassed on a weekly basis by their strata, which is run by unemployed, retired, or underemployed people. And unlike myself, these guys often do get involved and try to change the strata, but end up having to give up because of the abject awfulness of The Majority.
The Philosophical Deadlock
To me, here’s where it gets interesting. The problems with common property are also general philosophical sticking points, and for some reason, I find those incredibly fascinating. It brings to light the issue of justice vs fairness, which in the philosophy world aren’t at all the same. As a side note, the engineering world hates philosophy, and so for the past two semesters I’ve had to pretend I’m not interested in it. However, when faced with this question, I can’t help but out myself as the well-rounded thinker I am.
Speaking of which, the justice vs fairness problem is also present in college, and in a big way. To me, “fairness” is a less-loaded way to say “equality.” We all know what that means, right? The specifics don’t matter—you’re a person (or student, or strata lot owner, or union member) who is fundamentally indistinguishable from the one next to you. You are equivalent. There is no you, but a metaphysical stand-in created by the notion of equality. Justice is not the same thing—what is right is not always what is “fair.” Justice is a reference to a set of societal norms and expectations, most of which aren’t always conducive to “equality” 100 percent of the time. These are far more realistic and important—and more in-line with our collective morals. This is how the law (usually) works. Judgment is key—without judgment, justice is not possible.
Good judgment is not easy to find. Fortunately, in the absence of good judgment, we have the blunt instrument of equality. No thought is required. This is a life saver for college instructors who hate philosophy and having to exercise their own judgment—when faced with a possible dilemma arising from a student’s grade and legitimate reasons to adjust it, they can easily whip out that machete and say “Nope. Can’t help you. It wouldn’t be fair, you see.” And all you can do is shrug and say to yourself, “yeah, I guess the guy is right. It wouldn’t be fair,” and deal with it.
Here’s an interesting one: where does my example of the lesbians at the pool fit in? Can there be overlap between justice and equality?
In some ways, I want to say that it still isn’t a case of equality because the offence of discrimination to our cultural norms is fairly precise and rooted in ideals of personal freedom. Outlawing discrimination in a wholesale manner based on ideas of need or equality doesn’t have the same flavour as the former description. The kind of just society we take for granted—private property, freedom, protection from discrimination–doesn’t come from a robotic, thoughtless process stemming from logic that amounts to A=B=C=D.
Did you ever screw up an algebra question and end up with something silly like 1/3=0?
It doesn’t make sense, does it? At the risk of sounding like a Randroid, that’s the logic of equality. The reason previously marginalized people have rights is not because someone said “we are all exactly the same.” It came from the fact that discriminating or harming someone on the basis that they’re not the same as you deeply offended our ideas of a just society.
This brings me to the problem with common property. We have a terrible attempt at collectivism here—it is outlined in poor language that cannot be supplemented with real-world judgment. The genetic origin of this is unclear to me—I don’t know from which tradition or social norm they base the laws. These orphan-laws give absolute power to a strata on the shaky basis of equality—they demand community at gunpoint. There are literally no limits placed on what these groups can do if they play-act “democracy.” But the truth is, strata corporations get away with things that any other democratically-elected component of society would never be able to.
The TL;DR On Strata Property
Strata properties are a good way to get that first home under your belt. For sure, it’s better than paying somebody rent in most cases. Now, the experts with their newspaper columns will spout off boring tips and caveats that we all know. I won’t get into those. But the problem with those boilerplate caveats is that even if you followed them all, you could still end up with a nightmare. Personally, my big mistake was simply assuming that I would be dealing with rational, intelligent people and that there was always a way to work out solutions that made sense. This is not possible. With strata property, you will be subject only to what is written down, and any attempt to change or interpret those written commandments will be futile.
The biggest factor that I can see though, is the life-stage of those in the development. If the place you’re looking at has a majority of people in your demographic, chances are it’ll be fine. If not, you’re screwed.
Make sure you know who is actually living there and don’t assume that you get the vibe of the place just by reading some minutes and walking around. There will always be more under the surface, and unless you do your homework on the other owners, it’ll be too late by the time you stumble upon the real dynamic.