Sometimes living in strata is like a soap opera …occasionally it feels like something much more sinister.
A friend lives in a small block of about 50 units that trundles along reasonably happily, under the iron rule of a matriarch who has made herself indispensable – or, at least, has convinced enough owners that she is.
She is very energetically active in the building but, he says, nothing gets done unless she wants it. Even worse, arguments to the contrary are immediately personalised, and merely trying to establish the facts is seen as a direct personal attack.
My friend has put up with this for years, apart from the occasional spat at AGMs, feeling that a quiet life was worth turning a blind eye to some of the minor idiocies.
The rest of the residents, and most of the committee, were prepared to tolerate this, so why couldn’t he?
But then, he says, he was “named and shamed” in strata committee minutes over a complaint he made regarding a minor issue, which he didn’t even expect to be noted, let alone publicly dismissed in disparaging terms.
Now on full alert for unfair treatment, he reckoned it was part of a disturbing trend. Residents in the Chair’s inner circle, whether they were complaining or complained about, were rarely named, while anyone with whom she’d ever disagreed was likely to be identified and ridiculed.
OK, it’s “small war, not many dead”, he admits, and this building is not unique; it’s all part of the soap opera of strata.
However, considering that a Sydney apartment resident was recently slugged $120,000 for defaming her building’s chairman, he’d have thought office-bearers would be less keen to make small strata issues so personal.
And if the Chair picks on someone who sues for defamation, he doesn’t want his levies to be used to defend a bully in court – most strata insurances won’t cover defamation cases, regardless of who’s at fault.
But he may not have any option. The committee is operating on behalf of the owners, so everyone cops a share of the costs if a court case goes pear-shaped.
And there’s a bigger issue. Any way you look at it, naming and shaming is a form of bullying.
It is not required by law in strata committee minutes, which don’t have to be that detailed, anyway. You rarely need to identify a resident or an apartment and if you do, there are more discreet ways to do it.
Given that it’s an active choice, rather than a necessity, it puts the whole strata scheme at risk from legal retribution, especially if malice can be proved. So why do residents put up with it?
“It’s partly about not wanting to start a war to resolve personal disputes,” says my friend. “It’s probably going to take a disproportionately bitter and nasty battle just to make your point.
“And your neighbours are just as likely to be angry at you for disturbing their illusion that everything is fine.”
It’s like a mild form of Stockholm Syndrome, he jokes, where hostages become emotionally dependent on their captors.
“You have people saying ‘ok, she’s a bully, but she does so much for the building’, he says. “It’s the same victim psychology that’s given the world Trump, Putin and Boris Johnson.”
Our advice? Like those three, your chair will have to face election – in her case, every year at your AGM – and that’s also when you can get owners to instruct the committee to stop the bullying.
This column first appeared in the Australian Financial Review