As more details emerge (here) of the strata dispute that led to the shooting at an executive committee meeting in Lakemba, the arrest of an elderly owner and the fracturing of his skull, for those of us who have been involved in strata for a while, it was a matter of when, not if, strata meetings turned this ugly.
Without referring specifically to this case, you are dealing with some very volatile elements in any given strata scheme. It’s about rights and responsibilities, with the former greatly exaggerated and the latter virtually ignored.
There are people for whom the right to do what they want in the home that they own is almost sacrosanct. In strata, those rights are modified by the needs of the community as a whole. A “king of my castle” attitude is rarely a good fit with a lifestyle that depends on a sense of community.
“When home ownership is at the heart of a dispute, things can get very emotional, and logic and reason can quickly fly out of the window … something that is not unique to strata living, ” says Karen Stiles, Executive Officer of the Owners Corporation Network, the peak body for strata owners in Australia.
“However, anyone who turns up at a strata meeting with a gun in their pocket should be banned from ever living in a strata scheme again.”
Where strata differs most from other lifestyles is that disputes with neighbours are literally “in your face” when you meet in the lifts or in common areas. Feuds can simmer for years over the slightest infractions and the question of right and wrong is often quickly overwhelmed by the issue of winning and losing.
Whether it’s noisy neighbours, parking spot thieves or barking dogs, disputes can get out of hand when the irresistible force meets the immovable object, even over the most trivial issues. When the residents concerned don’t “get” the give and take of strata, trouble is inevitable.
One correspondent to the Flat Chat column in Domain wrote about a tenant who would be invited to strata committee meetings because of an owner who would frequently become hysterical, abusive, disruptive and threatening whenever he didn’t get exactly what he wanted. The tenant was a martial arts expert who was the only person the owner would listen to when told to calm down.
It’s not unknown for security guards to be hired for meetings when the committee knows there are contentious issues and inflamed passions. But it’s very hard to have calm and reasonable discussion when the root of the problem is often a combination of ignorance of the law and a lack of concern for other people.
A strata manager we know has been physically assaulted several times over the years by owners who took exception to the advice he gave the committee. In one notorious case in 2007, a strata manager had his kneecaps smashed with a baseball bat after he refused to allow the developer of a seriously defective building in Bankstown to step aside in favour of a manager who wouldn’t pursue claims.
But while anger and frustration are far from uncommon, even in America, where 40 million people live in their version of strata and about 30 percent of the population is believed to own firearms, gunplay at committee meetings is rare enough to attract media attention.
In 2012, Mahmoud Hindi, a 55-year-old doctor in Louisville, Kentucky, was accused of opening fire at a homeowners meeting, killing two members of the board (executive committee). Hindi was in dispute with the committee over a fence it said was the wrong height.
In Chicago, in 2004 a man was convicted of shooting dead a 75-year-old woman who was a member of the condominium association board that had evicted him after more than a year of feuding over his continual breaches of building by-laws.
In Arizona, in 2000, a man was convicted of murdering two women when he opened fire at a homeowners meeting. Richard Glassel, who was sentenced to death, had run-ins with his committee over an awning and air-conditioning units. Prior to this he had threatened local gardeners, sworn at neighbours, blocked the mailboxes with his car and threatened to kill the owners of dogs that urinated on his lawn.
Physical violence at Australian strata committees is rare although there are plenty of complaints about bullying and disruptive behaviour. For the past week posters to THIS TOPIC on the Flat Chat Forum have been discussing how to deal with owners who harrass the committee.
But the answer isn’t the installation of metal detectors in committee rooms, according to Karen Stiles.
“Education, is the key,” she says. “If more people understood what to expect in strata – and what is expected of them – then everyone might just calm down a bit.”