x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Unfair practices on maintenance fees

Property maintenance fee charges are still victimising homeowners despite improvements to the law.

As the Strata Law was introduced in Dubai over the last year, it was widely welcomed by homeowners and tenants. At last, they would be in charge of the service fees that had fluctuated for no rhyme or reason over the last few years. From now on, it was hoped, they would be able to tell exactly how their dirhams were being spent.

For so many residents, however, the reality could not have turned out more differently.

As The National reported on Thursday, residents at Jumeirah Lakes Towers last week had their air conditioning cut off by the provider, Palm Utilities, after flat owners failed to pay an unusually high bill. The "capacity charge" introduced in October requires residents to pay at the start of each quarter rather than at the end. Residents, many of whom  were unaware of the new billing policy, are now being told that they must cough up Dh800,000 before the aircon is switched back on.

The problem is obvious. Some homeowners pay their service fees on time; others don't. The punishment, however, is collective.

Collecting the fees has proven as difficult for the new howeowner associations as it had been for the property developers earlier. But some sympathy is due. For example, contracts that were signed off-plan had service fees set at Dh8 per square foot - by the time of handover, which was often delayed, those fees had doubled in some cases. And the rates kept on fluctuating, in many cases costing owners sums large enough to rent a small apartment in a more affordable area.

Exacerbating the situation is the difficult financial climate. "There's obviously not that kind of money to make that kind of advance payment, hence we've been disconnected," said a member of the association board that was asked to put up the Dh800,000. At present, the associations do not have the authority to legally enforce rules on members.

Property developers have to find ways of working with owners, for the sake of the property market at large. In the future, introducing smart meters that allow residents to pay for what they use is one way. For now, providing details of how service fees are spent would be a start. And of course, so would consistent, reasonable rates.

Above all, let's have a degree of patience; the Strata Law must be given time to develop. Collective punishment is not the answer.