The coercive world of condo governance
Tanya Chiu, a yoga instructor, bought her condo about a decade ago, when her forty-unit building, located near Toronto’s High Park and designed in a Miami-inflected art deco style, was “just a drawing.” Until she and her husband decided to sell, earlier this year, and move into a house with a backyard, they were mostly satisfied. “There’s a ton of great stuff about living here,” she told me in June as she was preparing to put the apartment on the market.
The location, for one thing: near transit, parks, lively retail strips. And while the building didn’t have all the bells and whistles of newer developments (pool, concierge, and so on), she said it was small enough that residents got to know one another. Yes, there were frustrations: renters who didn’t care for the place and annual maintenance fees that inched up each year. For all that, she allows, “the condo board did the best they can.”
Yet it’s not difficult to find people who’ve had less salutary experiences in Condoland. Not long ago, I met a man who was moving his family out of a condo they’d bought recently, a two-bedroom unit in a midtown Toronto building that looks like a half-hearted knock-off of Moshe Safdie’s Habitat.
The place, it turns out, wasn’t big enough, but he also didn’t care for the vibe, especially the condo board’s controlling modus operandi. The man, who didn’t want his name used, showed me a letter the property manager had sent residents, notifying them that the board had complained to the city about a bike-share rack installed on the sidewalk outside the building. The note itemized various outrages, including a bogus claim that the rack might somehow interfere with patient privacy at the ground-floor dental clinic. The local city councillor, Josh Matlow, took the bait. He promptly asked city staff to look into moving the bikes, presumably to stay on the good side of the condo board, whose policies, it would appear, have opened yet another front in Toronto’s endless NIMBY wars.
The common understanding of the condo is that of an apartment or townhouse that can be owned instead of rented — a means of urban living that reconciles the locational advantages of downtown life with the equity-building features of suburban single-family homes. If you live in vertical cities like Toronto, New York, Vancouver, or even, increasingly, Montreal, the heavily marketed image of the condo is both ubiquitous and alluring. Real estate ads promote projects that range from cool loft spaces in refurbished warehouses to modern flats in soaring point towers featuring amazing views and even more amazing kitchens.
At the same time, and as we’re increasingly aware, the condo market has become a space dominated by investors and the flow of global capital. People buy in order to generate rental income or for speculative purposes. The velocity of the market, which produces a huge volume of 500- to 600-square-foot one-bedroom units, has established the condo as a commodity investment vehicle. (I have a colleague, an architect for a large Toronto firm, who describes them as “pork bellies in the sky.”)
But according to Randy Lippert, a professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Windsor, the essence of condo living doesn’t involve its materiality or its ownership status. Rather, it involves the elaborate yet poorly understood web of legal and regulatory arrangements that constitute “condo governance,” and it yields policies that run the gamut from unexpected maintenance fee hikes to rearguard anti-bike campaigns.
“Condos are like sausages,” Lippert muses on the opening page of Condo Conquest, his exhaustive and dense new book. “They are made, sold, consumed everywhere in cities. . . . But, like sausages, little is known about the condo innards, and the less one knows, the better off one may feel.” The obscure field of condo governance, he continues, is much more than “a minor urban mystery.” In fact, condo oversight represents a form of coercive social order imposed on a rapidly growing segment of urban society. It is a fourth level of government where normal social and community relations are subsumed or even trampled by a profusion of rules, audits, surveillance techniques, and obsessive concerns over resale value.
The condo, Lippert argues, “is a legal, social, and spatial relationship among many assembled constituents and elements rather than only a physical edifice at the apparent end point of condo development.” As that quote suggests, he’s not a huge fan.
Indeed, Condo Conquest is a lengthy compendium of the seemingly boundless ways in which condo living hints at a novel form of urban subjugation. Experientially, this book is not for the faint of heart. Lippert is an academic writing for an academic audience; his prose is unsparingly complicated and laden with jargon. Lippert also leans heavily on Michel Foucault to provide a theoretical framework, especially for his extensive analysis of the policing of common areas. So if you’re not up on your French structuralists (I confess that I’m not), you may scratch your head at times.
In other words, this book is not a handy-dandy buyer’s guide. But, strangely, it probably should be, because, as Lippert notes early on, there’s scant in-depth analysis of the nature and practice of condo governance, meaning that many buyers don’t really understand what they’re getting themselves into when they put down a five-figure deposit on the six-figure suite that’s not yet been built.
Lippert’s argument is based on extensive interviews with owners, condo corporation directors, property managers, realtors, and others in Toronto and New York. He builds his case with a close reading of the documents that delineate condo living: statutes that seem to grow more elaborate with each legislative revision, as well as corporation bylaws, reserve fund studies, house-rules documents, and the shorthand legal opinions that flood into condos from the newsletters of lawyers representing boards, property managers, and builders.
The earliest Canadian condo laws were passed in the 1960s, when provincial governments sought to kick-start housing using an obscure legal structure, the so-called strata title, that allows buyers to acquire an apartment (or townhouse) as well as a portion of the complex’s common areas (open spaces, lobbies, balconies, party rooms, and the like). Early condo builders had to persuade reluctant banks to lend to buyers and faced competition from deep-pocketed rental apartment developers.
Consider the power of this legal construct today. Throughout history, the urban built form has been driven by geography, politics, manufacturing, planning and architectural fads, transportation technologies, and, of course, engineering. But strata title has proven to be an exceptionally potent means of transforming free-flowing capital into skyline. Between 1996 and 2016, a mere blip in city-time, the number of condos in Canada ballooned from 500,000 to 1.9 million, and now they are about one in eight Canadian dwellings, up from nothing five decades ago. There was a similar boom in the U.S., although Toronto, as of 2016, had more condo units (446,000) than any American city other than Miami (585,900). New York, with its abundance of co‑ops and rental buildings, had 270,900 units as of 2013.
Lippert argues that the diffuse ownership structure of a condo building, unlike the conventional rental apartment or even the co-op, seems destined to foster conflict among owners, renters, investors, and property managers. Theoretically, the interests of all these parties should be aligned. But the reality, he shows, is very different. Developers manipulate maintenance fees in order to make the units more financially attractive, and some builders stack condo boards to ensure that the directors hire non-arm’s-length property management firms (even though the boards are ostensibly accountable to unit owners). Directors are also known to engage in self-dealing — voting quietly to hold off on hiking fees to cover large repair projects recommended by structural engineers, for example. One reason that Lippert describes: a director may know he’s selling imminently and wants to get out without being whacked by the increase.
Lippert saves his most trenchant criticisms for the seemingly unstoppable accumulation of rules and bylaws that increasingly regulate condo dwellers’ behaviour. Because the driving logic of condo governance is to protect property values, the policing has grown more and more elaborate and proactive over time, extending, in some instances, to minutiae such as the interior decor on individual unit doors and dress codes for residents heading to the gym.
Beyond municipal property standards, noise bylaws, and planning rules, there is little that is analogous to condo life in the world of street-level living. You may or may not like your neighbours, but individual homeowners are largely responsible for their own spaces, and most non-planning community conflicts are resolved informally, without the intervention of authority figures.
In condos, Lippert points out, the codification of just about everything determines social relations. And, as he shows, those rules tend to be imported by condo lawyers and property managers, instead of being developed organically by individual communities. This type of commoditization of expertise and legal knowledge feeds into the generic quality of condo living. It also produces a strange kind of dysfunction: condo boards and property managers oversee a regulatory environment where the “precautionary principle” dominates, not just out of an institutional concern for property values, but also because boards implement rules designed for problems that may scarcely register within their own walls. The result, unsurprisingly, is over-policing, as well as chronic litigiousness among owners, boards, and property managers.
Some of the problems are ubiquitous in community living. Noise and second-hand smoke, for example, seem to be chronic irritants. They are not unique to condos, of course, but the resolution of such nuisances — everything from sound and ventilation mitigation to fines and late-night visits from security guards — adds cost and therefore the (resentful) involvement of the entire building.
Lippert writes that renters, who cannot be banned from condos despite much trying, tend to be on the receiving end of accusations of neglect, noisiness, and indifference. They are more likely to flick cigarette butts off balconies and let their pets shit in the hallways — or so goes the mythology. (Speculators and house flippers typically avoid such value judgments.) In perhaps only this respect, then, condo buildings represent a microcosm of North American society, which regards renters as transient and disengaged. Yet as the proportion of investor-owned units being leased out for income steadily rises, these renters represent a “major but disenfranchised” class — what Lippert calls an “exploited condo constituency.”
The proliferation of renters and short-term rentals (think Airbnb) has also ushered in an era of much more assertive surveillance: not just CCTVs everywhere, but electronic key fobs that provide access through security doors and leave a trail of digital bread crumbs. As Lippert shows, security personnel and building managers have tracked these phantom footprints to identify and fine individuals who do things like use the garbage chutes incorrectly. The surveillance, he continues, creates a self-perpetuating cycle of institutionalized mistrust in the guise of condo governance: it “exposes more issues, mistakes, petty infractions, and free riding not easily forgotten and that accumulate until they pry open new channels for more legal knowledge to flow into the condo world.”
Against this deadening, corporatist backdrop, Lippert identifies an unexpected “site of resistance”: the elevator. Early on, he offers up a truly original way of thinking about high-rise lifts. They represent the z‑axis in urban transportation networks, systems as prone to traffic jams, construction delays, and congestion as anywhere else in the city’s street and transit grid. While a fair amount of media and regulatory attention has been devoted to the issue of frequently out-of-service condo elevators, Lippert argues that these mechanical boxes are among the few places in high-rise apartments where residents can meet one another casually.
They are, by default, the sidewalks and dog parks of Condoland and, Lippert adds, places where owners or tenants may find themselves informally sharing concerns: board corruption or incompetence, construction deficiencies, the motivations behind some onerous new rule. Given the relative absence of open forums where residents can gather to debate and resolve building-specific issues, the elevators serve as a kind of next-best space — pulley-driven agoras.
Lippert’s broader point is that the inhabitants of a rapidly growing segment of urban society live in environments that are profoundly over-regulated and afford little in the way of participatory democracy. Ground-level neighbourhoods aren’t exactly exemplars of inclusivity and openness, but they do have more public and semi-public spaces where residents can work out issues and casually come to know one another.
For years, Canadian urbanists have boasted that we have avoided ringing our cities with gated communities, where mainly white residents surrender individual freedoms in exchange for security and enforced standards. But condos are only slightly different. Both forms put residents behind cordons and subject them to an astonishing array of rules in lieu of more organic forms of community organization, all in the service of rising resale values and safety.
Lippert implies that Condoland’s growth could ultimately undermine the habits of local democracy, or at least cause those particular social muscles to atrophy from disuse. In 1989, the literary critic Northrop Frye warned of what he saw as an emerging “condominium mentality.” Thirty years later, a viable alternative has yet to come into clear focus: we can’t grow nostalgic for the era of sprawling neighbourhoods dominated by single-family homes, because the environmental costs are simply untenable. Purpose-built rentals? Yes, but the goal of accruing wealth through property ownership remains deeply ingrained. More co‑ops? Another maybe. It’s a great model but one that requires plenty of government spending and new forms of lending in Canada, where co‑op financing remains a niche product.
In the end, Lippert’s study is less about policy prescriptions than about throwing back the condo governance curtains, which he has succeeded in doing. Condo buyers who may be dazzled by the glamour of the showroom or the realtor’s pitch would do well to slog their way through some sections of this book, if only as an eye-opening exercise. Some, like Tanya Chiu, might not be daunted and may, in fact, luck out by buying into a more compact building that has somehow fostered a true sense of community. Others, however, might think twice before handing off so much personal agency to condo boards that feel they’ve gained some kind of right to meddle in domains such as the public spaces outside the walls.
As for our elected officials, planners, and housing policy-makers, they should spend some serious time with these arguments. Strata title has created a global tsunami of investment at the expense of more purpose-built rental apartments. Whether this peculiar form of development is producing healthy cities and harmonious vertical neighbourhoods is another matter entirely.