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What happens when your Vancouver condo gets old and you have to decide whether to pull the plug?

March 5th, 2012 · 39 Comments

It was exciting for me to get to work this year on a story I’ve wanted to do for more than a decade: What is going to happen to Vancouver’s condo buildings at the end of their lives?

I thought that perhaps I might be only imagining there could be problems when 150 people and five retail owners have to decide what to do about a $20-million building. But, when I started making calls, not only did people confirm that there were lots of potential problems, but they told me about unpleasant scenarios that were beyond my wildest speculation.

My story is here and I won’t recapitulate all the points, but I’ll just highlight the fact that we all seemed to have rushed into this new form of ownership on the assumption that everything would just work itself out down the road.

The condo boom changed Vancouver, though it’s not the only city where it happened. As I discovered in Honolulu when I was there in December, condos flourished there starting in the late 1950s. We stole/copied our condo legislation from Australia. And the mainland U.S. was, of course, in on the wave early.

It was a new form of ownership that helped reverse the decline of central cities. When apartment owners could only rent, then the dense inner cities were the dominion only of renters. People who wanted to own, as so many did in the post-war years, HAD to move to the suburbs. The possibility of condo ownership brought some of them back.

(Some might argue it’s also what is destroying affordability in the city, as renters are constantly threatened by the possibility that their building could be stratified or sold and redeveloped. Vancouver’s put a moratorium on that kind of activity for the hundreds of 1970s four-storey walk-ups in the city, but that can’t last forever.)

But to imagine that condo ownership is just like single-family or even duplex home-ownership is to be blind. There are complications that are only beginning to surface. The province moved last year to fix at least one of them. By the end of this year, strata councils will be required to provide statements outlining the condition of the building and future maintenance that will need to be done, along with a clear statement about what reserves are in place to do that.

At least, then, when people buy, they’ll have a better idea of the condition of the whole building. But it’s still not going to solve the problems of many of the people I encountered when I was researching this story. That’s going to take a whole lot more work.

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