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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Living in apartments - compromising lifestyle for convenience?

In the early eighties, Bangaloreans were aghast when the apartment culture made an entry into Namma Bengaluru. They wondered how people could live in such clusters giving up their freedom and lead a zombie life dominated by the Owners’ Associations! Original Bangaloreans had their nice independent houses with good open spaces all around. The city was not yet so over-crowded and travelling to and from offices/workplaces was still a pleasure. Traffic snarls were unknown, although the (then BTS) public transport system left much to be satisfied with. New layouts were being formed by BDA as well as private housing societies and sites were available at much cheaper prices. People did not have so much loose money in their pockets and loans were difficult to obtain for real estate investments. The interest rates too were high. The few who bought their sites kept them vacant waiting for “development” and happily lived in rented houses closer to city center. The influx of IT yuppies was yet to begin. Money was still precious! Maruti cars were competing with Ambassadors and Premier Padminis. Bangalore enjoyed the envious sobriquets - “pensioners’ paradise” and air-conditioned city” and “city of gardens”. There were many lakes still filled with water. Heavy rains never submerged Bangalore! Life in Bangalore was uncomplicated, quite free and to an extent conservative.
The first non-congress government of Ramakrishna Hegde brought in good administration. Peace and calm prevailed in Karnataka. The nationalist image of Hegde made others open their eyes to the existence of Bangalore and renewed their interest in the ‘garden city’. The SAARC summit in 1996 firmly put Bangalore on the international map. Investments started pouring in. Industrialization was put on fast track. Computers were surprising people. ISRO and BEL were making headlines. The first-of-it’s-kind “electronics city” on Hosur Road was fast becoming a dream destination for entrepreneurs. The influx of outsiders commenced. Locals blamed RK Hegde for making Bangalore “outsider friendly”. Bangalore’s so-called salubrious climate was an added attraction. Thus began the onerous journey of Bangalore towards what some termed as ‘cosmopolitanism’ but in real terms was ‘degradation’ and crass commercialization. The genie had come out of the bottle!
Tenanted houses were in great demand. Rents soared. People started commuting in their own vehicles which meant they could stay on outskirts. The hitherto wide roads started appearing narrower.  Unable to meet the rapidly increasing demand, power and water supply infrastructure started crumbling. The massive housing society scams dashed many hopes. Lakes were filled up to make residential layouts. Independent sites became costly. To overcome the housing shortage, the government also provided sops for “group housing” and “multi-storeyed residential clusters”. Builders diversified into ‘Apartments’. The ‘yuppies’ were at ease living in apartments. Privacy and secure environment provided by apartment complexes was a solace, especially when one had to work late hours. They had good, well-paying jobs. Housing loans became easier to obtain. Property prices were appreciating. Real estate was seen as a safe investment. The apartment boom just happened!
What it means to live in an apartment complex?
    “Compromise” on lifestyle would well describe the life in an apartment and has it’s own benefits and disadvantages. Community living means living by the common rules and bye-laws framed by the Owners’ Association. “Independence” in terms of a totally free life is curtailed to some extent. But the advantages score over the perceived “oppressive” life. The social networking that is possible in an apartment complex and the variety of people one can meet and become friends with is amazing. The spirit of co-operation for cohabitation is of paramount importance.
One cannot play loud music or dance since that would disturb the adjoining flat resident. Late night rave parties cannot be held. Arranging family functions becomes difficult due to lack of common space. Visitors may have to park their vehicles outside the complex. Having domestic pets is disallowed by some Associations and some others impose strict curbs on walking pets and littering. Many builders include a clause in the agreement of sale prohibiting pet-keeping! Some apartments may be so cramped that one balcony opens onto another window! Privacy could be a casualty. Nowadays, apartments with just one common wall are becoming popular. But then, there is also a feeling that neighbors in apartments rarely know each other and care little about what happens outside their cozy nest. Social life is thought to be uninteresting and colorless. Then again social life is a function of how gregarious the residents are how much they wish to take on the responsibility of organizing social events and meetings. The Association on it’s part takes a lead in organizing social gatherings and entertainment events to bring all members together. Occasions like Independence Day, Republic Day, Ganesha Chaturthi, Navaratri, Holi, Onam, Karnataka Rajyothsava, New Year’s Eve etc., are celebrated with fun and gaiety in most of the apartment complexes in Bangalore.
An apartment owner has less of a say in many issues outside of his/her own unit. No structural modifications or alterations are permitted once the building is handed over by the builder. In fact, no construction materials or workmen are allowed into the apartment complex. Owners may need to obtain special permission from the Association to replace floor tiles or wall tiles or such other minor works. There again workmen will be allowed to work for limited hours so as not to inconvenience other flat owners. The building exteriors are painted and maintained by the Association. The choice of colorful painting is limited to interiors only. Any internal repairs of plumbing lines may involve requests to close the common water supply line much to the chagrin of other residents. Some Associations may insist that only the authorized service personnel may attend even to internal repair works. The owner may have no choice in employing outside workmen even if he is dissatisfied with the cost factor and workmanship of authorized service personnel.
Water leakage problems are the bane of apartment complexes. They cause much agony and acrimony. Roof is treated as common area and has to be taken care of by the Association. If there is roof leakage the resident immediately below the exposed roof suffers worst. It is natural for that owner to demand immediate relief by way of roof water proofing without delay. Until a corpus is built up by the Association, executing costly works like roof water proofing becomes impossible. Sometimes, the residents may themselves get such roof water proofing works done at their cost and thereafter claim a right to restrict the movement of other residents over the terrace which is indeed a tricky situation. Similarly, if a toilet leaks, the resident below such leaky toilet is the sufferer (For example, the leakage through the roof of a toilet in II Floor will be visible in the I Floor toilet below). The repair work has to be undertaken in the toilet above the one where the leakage is noticed. The cost of repair is to be borne by the owner of that toilet above and for the period of repair, the toilet remains unusable. Many such problems remain unresolved. The building condition deteriorates.
The Owners’ Association or the Residents Welfare Association or Society is a formal legal entity formed by majority of the flat owners and all the flat owners have to become members of such Association. They have their own bye laws and rules of occupation and are vested with powers to enforce such rules and bye laws as long as they are not against the law of the land. Some frame rigid bye-laws and rules of occupation while many just copy the standard format given in the Karnataka Apartment Owners Act. The system is akin to a local self-government at a micro level. Most of the Associations assume responsibility for the external common area facilities and infrastructure. The maintenance expenses are equitably distributed based on the super built-up area of individual flat. Maintenance charges are collected in advance annually or quarterly. Non-payment of the maintenance charges may lead to withdrawal of the services provided by the Association. Where the bye-laws permit, the Association may also be empowered to disconnect the power supply to the concerned defaulting flat even though such occupant may have made the payments to the service provider (electricity company). Collection of maintenance charges is by far the biggest and most cumbersome burden for the Association. More so in cases where the flat remains unoccupied. Until the defaulter clears the dues pertaining to a flat, the other flat owners will be cross-subsidizing the activities of the Association. In several apartment complexes, such maintenance charges may lead to ugly fights among members. The office bearers need lots of patience, maturity and wisdom to maneuver through all the tribulations they come to face in the course of managing the affairs of the Association. Running the Association successfully in terms of financial management, estate maintenance management and interactions with external agencies (both private and governmental) is a Herculean task. More arduous will be the jobs of operation and maintenance of swimming pool, gymnasium, club, reading rooms etc., where such facilities are under the charge of the Association.
The office bearers of the Association are usually owners themselves elected by the general body of the Association. They will be working in an honorary capacity. This is a thankless job. The time and effort contributed by these volunteers is rarely appreciated. The different functions of the Association may be delegated to Sub-committees (Security, Gardening, Electrical Maintenance, Civil Maintenance, STP, Lifts, Social Activities etc.) constituted for the purpose. Most of the services (cleaning, garbage clearance, security, gardening, lift maintenance, electrical, plumbing and sanitary services, STP etc.) are outsourced. Sometimes office staff may be hired to assist the office bearers to discharge their duties and responsibilities more effectively and efficiently.
Security is the most important aspect which is taken care of by the Association. Private security guards, CCTV cameras, intercoms and restricted access all add to the safety of people within residential the complex. Visitors are allowed inside only after the owner confirms their visit over the intercom. Some high-end apartments have video access to the entry gate wherein they can view their guests before permitting them to be let in. The credentials of domestic servants are screened and entry is upon production of a identity card issued by the Association. Even vehicles will be given identification stickers. In these days of rising crime and criminals, such precautions by the Association seem necessary. Many Associations insist that an owner who wishes to let out his flat provide the details of a tenant before allowing such tenant to occupy the flat. The flat culture provides an easy way for criminals to go into hiding and remain faceless by renting an apartment and remaining indoors. They can escape from the long arm of the law by staying indoors in an apartment.
Street lights and other common area lighting are maintained by the Association. Payments in this regard to the service providers are also made by the Association on behalf of all members from the maintenance charges collected by the Association. Water supply (if borewell-dependent) may be restricted and water deficiency is a common problem (which is also the case in the whole of Bengaluru). In case of tanker water supply, the costs are exorbitant and an added burden on the occupants. No individual dwelling unit has metered water supply and therefore the expenditure is equitably distributed irrespective of the consumption of water. This leads to heartburn and bitterness when a two member family has to pay the same amount as a ten member family for water consumption.
Gardening in common areas is also taken care of by the Association. Private gardens are limited to some potted plants in the balcony. Even here watering the plants leads to hostility as the muddy water spills over to the lower balconies. High rise apartments have escalators which add to convenience. Most of the apartment complexes have back-up power supply in common areas. Some have also provided limited back-up power supply inside individual tenements. The Association is also responsible for Operation and maintenance of common installations (lighting, water pumps, lifts, CCTV, water lines, UG sewerage system, STP etc.). Interactions with outside agencies (milk vendor, gas suppliers, vegetable vendor, newspaper agent, grocery trader, etc.) are controlled and monitored by the Association only for purposes of ensuring safety and security.
    Managing an apartment complex is equivalent to administering a small township. The infrastructure consists of roads, borewells, water tanks, UG sewerage lines, plumbing installations, pumps, generators, elevators, sewage treatment plant etc. Some newer apartments have bulk (cooking) gas storage and supply facilities with metered supply to individual apartments eliminating the risky need of having gas cylinders. Operating and maintaining all these diverse utilities requires engineering knowledge and skilled manpower. Although the operation and maintenance of these services are outsourced, the Association needs technical support and guidance if the plant and machinery are to run without hitches in a cost effective manner. In fact, any development that the Association plans or implements has to have technical inputs at various stages. Usually, there will be some in-house expertise among members (presuming that such members are willing to spare their time for such voluntary activities) of the Association in managing such issues. Otherwise, the Association has to depend on outside ‘consultants’ which involves consultancy charges. All these add up to a substantial expenditure which again is borne by members.
Most of the Apartments have rain water harvesting facilities. Many have adopted recycling wherein treated water is used for gardening, toilet flushing etc. Children’s Play Area is available in majority of the colonies. Members’ Club, gymnasium, swimming pool, shuttle courts, reading rooms, jogging tracks, skating rinks, cycling tracks and some such relaxing facilities are also provided in some apartment complexes. Some apartment complexes have an auditorium or conference hall for organizing any functions.
The functioning of an Association will be vibrant and satisfactory only if there is active participation and involvement by all members in the affairs of the Association. Members hesitate to come out of their apartments and would rather leave the burden to some ‘volunteers’. But, they also crib about the mismanagement and deficiencies or lacunae in the services provided by the Association. Sometimes, the General Body Meetings have to be adjourned for lack of quorum. In most of the apartment complexes vacant flats bear testimony to the speculative tendencies of flat owners. Many a times, it is difficult to get in touch with such owners who may default on their maintenance charges. There are websites available for instant communication between apartment owners on the internet. Notices and circulars can be shared through e-mails. Even electronic money transfer is possible which helps owners pay their maintenance charges through e-banking facility.
It is the primary responsibility of all members to take part in the activities of the Association and express their concerns, criticism or appreciation in appropriate fora in a civilized manner. All members should strive to maintain cordiality, co-operative spirit and unity among all residents. Personal preferences & priorities will take a second position while the interests of the whole apartment complex shall prevail and be safeguarded. Members should not do or cause to be done what he / she would require other residents to do or not to do in the overall interest & for the benefit of all residents. All members must follow & encourage / inspire others also to follow the Bye-laws and Rules of Occupation framed by the Association. Transparency is the key. All is not as hunky-dory as it appears. Many conflicts may be solved through discussions and negotiations.  Inflated egos and fight-hungry members may disrupt the functioning of an Association leading to the collapse of the system. It is natural for differences of opinion, varied inputs and arguments within any group, especially when everyone has a vested interest in the development and improvement of the estate. Some members may have genuine interests while some may have hidden motives and alternative agenda. But such diversities should be viewed as availability of larger matrix of choices for refined decision making. But then, even a small group of like-minded visionaries can make a huge difference. They can be the backbone of a well knit society.
Ultimately, life is what one makes out of it whether in an independent house or in an apartment complex. It is all a matter of give and take. A little flexibility and respect for others’ sensitivities can work wonders. The community is more than the sum total of individuals. Absolute freedom to do what one wants must give way to harmonious co-existence. On the whole, life in an apartment complex is interesting there can never be a dull moment.