Singapore condo managing bodies under strain as disputes, 'abuse' on the rise

Oct 05, 2021

CONDOMINIUM management corporations and managing agents (MAs) are grappling with heavier workloads, higher costs, more frequent disputes, and "cabin fever" among residents, as more individuals stay home due to the pandemic, and amid manpower shortages.

Management bodies told The Business Times (BT) they have seen a rise in complaints and "abusive" behaviour from residents lashing out at workers and neighbours, especially when it came to safe-management measures (SMMs) and renovations.

The reduced headcount also made it challenging to keep up with residents' needs, said a spokesperson for the Association of Property and Facility Managers' (APFM). The Association of Strata Managers (ASM) described the situation as "stressful" for MAs.

Most of Singapore's condo management corporations, or MCSTs, appoint MAs for the day-to-day running of the strata-titled residential properties. MAs are professional firms providing administrative, financial, operational and paralegal services.

Anecdotally, they spoke of the intensifying "cabin fever", with more individuals appearing irritable, impatient and restless after having been cooped up indoors.

Voo Kow-Tze, senior director of operations, real estate management services at Colliers, has observed disputes between neighbours being blown out of proportion more often. And increasingly, MAs have had to act as the informal mediator in disputes.

CBRE Singapore's head of premier residential property management, Frank Ng, said: "The higher volume of activity within the estate and the increase in interpersonal interactions have inevitably caused friction."

"Most glaringly, residents gave more noise and nuisance feedback against adjacent neighbours," he added. Examples of the matters cited included neighbours getting up from chairs loudly or doing aerobic exercises at home. Mr Ng also noticed a surge in smoking-related feedback, as more residents take smoke breaks at balconies or windows while working from home.

Renovation noise has been a growing cause for conflict. Works tend to be done within office hours to limit disturbance, but work-from-home arrangements and home-based learning have brought the opposite effect.

Knight Frank Singapore managing director, property asset management (strata), Eleana Teo, said stop-work orders will be issued if necessary, "to accommodate residents' needs and ensure a conducive working environment". "We inform residents in advance of upcoming renovation works so the affected units may make alternative work arrangements," she noted.

Mr Ng said many condominiums resorted to opening the function and meeting rooms temporarily for residents who need quieter workspaces. "There are also attempts to compromise on the renovation time period, especially for noisy works," he added.

However, APFM highlighted that shortening or adjusting hours for noisy works is an administrative measure that may not be in alignment with by-laws. "The subsidiary proprietors (SPs) can challenge this, as the shortage of construction manpower and materials already caused delays, and further restricting the hours may result in the SP facing losses, expenses and damages," APFM said.

The Building and Construction Authority (BCA) suggests MCSTs convey feedback from affected residents to the homeowners, as most will try to minimise the inconvenience to neighbours when alerted to such feedback.

Enduring 'harsh words'

Being in customer-facing roles, the MA staff and vendors - such as cleaners and security guards - are susceptible to "harsh words and abuse" from angry residents, Mr Voo noted. "We've seen more cases whereby the police had to be called to calm residents down and take the necessary actions, as their behaviour towards site staff and vendors sometimes gets very confrontational and abusive."

Tensions would run high particularly when the on-site team enforces estate rules or SMMs.

At times, the staff "scrambled" to update SMM notices, ASM said. This is because some residents expect instant revisions once media outlets report the changes, without realising that the condo management has to also refer to BCA's latest advisory.

The authority, which has been sharing Covid-19 guidelines with MCSTs since March 2020, encourages management bodies to "take a proactive role" in implementing SMMs in their estates, such as by putting up notices and sending reminders to residents, a BCA spokesperson said.

Separately, Savills Property Management managing director Chan Kok Hong said that when full maintenance was not carried out, unhappy residents might lash out at workers. For example, swimming pools turned green during the circuit breaker as non-essential workers were not allowed on-site, which led to a few residents "abusing" staff. Other residents were upset about having to pay contributions to management funds even though the gyms, pools and barbecue pits were closed, Mr Chan added.

ASM estimated that the number of complaints about the cleanliness, operations and security of estates has on average increased by 30-35 per cent from pre-Covid times.

Heavier workloads, leaner headcounts

Many MAs deployed fewer staff on-site due to SMMs, while some vendors faced insufficient manpower. That meant the staff had "to provide a reasonable level of service despite being at 60-80 per cent working strength", ASM's honorary secretary said.

Mr Chan from Savills noted that some MCSTs have let MA staff use the function or reading rooms if the management office is too small for the one-metre spacing requirement.

On the vendors' end, CBRE's Mr Ng said security officers and even cleaners in some cases have had to enforce SMMs, becoming "ambassadors" of the estates, "while they themselves struggle with a leaner headcount and additional workloads".

The overall labour crunch has prompted numerous MCST councils to pivot to technology, which can also improve asset monitoring and reduce in-person interactions, Mr Voo said. At the same time, some councils must now consider outcome-based contracts "to meet higher expectations on-site", instead of the usual headcount-based contracts, he added.

With the higher usage of common property, the need for maintenance and repairs has ballooned. For instance, as rubbish accumulates more quickly, the frequency of collection and disposal must be dialled up, Mr Voo said. APFM told BT that cleaning and waste-collection contractors will need to expand or increase their scope of work when the refuse chutes and pneumatic waste systems are overloaded, and some may ask for an increase in fees.

APFM also flagged that the surge in food and parcel deliveries led to long queues of vehicles, often extending into main roads, which risks traffic obstructions and violations.

Meanwhile, some of Knight Frank's clients have requested additional security personnel to patrol the estates more frequently and ensure compliance with SMMs, Ms Teo said. To prevent Covid-19's spread, common areas, facilities and high-touch points must also be cleaned and disinfected more frequently, which pushed up cleaning expenses.

Ms Teo estimated that on average, operating expenses for condo management went up by 3 per cent from pre-Covid levels. While this may not seem significant, "it does impact overall operating expenses, and not all developments are able to afford the additional costs", she said.

According to Mr Chan, the Jobs Support Scheme helped alleviate the burden of higher maintenance costs, which rose by "the usual 3 to 5 per cent this year" for renewed contracts for security, cleaning and gardening.

Despite the higher costs, unit owners' contributions to the estate management funds remained largely the same, as MCSTs used their surpluses to cushion any increases amid the economic downturn, Mr Chan said.