‘We love our homes, but we need someone to listen to us’

Dubai’s freehold residents wish for greater contactbetween them and their property management foreveryday concerns.

by Paul Crompton, Staff Reporter
21:00 April 22, 2017

Dubai: Life in Motor City, a suburban development on Dubai’s outskirts, has many advantages.

Along a long promenade of restaurants and cafes, residents shop and drink coffee, and drive over European-style brickwork roads to sand-coloured villas and four storey apartment blocks.

And they pay a premium for the lifestyle. Two-bed apartments in Motor City run from Dh95,000-Dh120,000 per year.

Next door in Sports City, where tarmac roads ring around gleaming high-rises, rents are around 15 per cent less.

Motor City commands higher rents partly due to its status as a ‘master-planned community’ – property-speak that means just one developer planned and built the whole project.

That developer, Union Properties, also continues to manage the area and provide community services – such as maintenance staff, security, landscaping, and pool lifeguards - through its subsidiary, ServeU.

The high-level of lifestyle quality that residents enjoy in freehold communities is one of the main draws and as Dubai expands, more and more expatriates are opting to move to such locations. However, along with the many advantages are some concerns, that range from maintenance and hygiene issues to access to facilities which leave residents perpelexed because they are not sure how to go about addressing them.

Take the example of Sandeep Araujo. For the past seven years, Araujo, an Indian expat who owns a two-bedroom apartment in Motor City, has happily paid his annual service charges to the management. He doesn’t know where his money goes, but that doesn’t seem to bother him too much. “As an owner, I’m not asking for a role to play,” he says. “But in terms of visibility, and transparency, I have no clue where the dirhams get spent.”

However, if he wants to call in an outside contractor – to paint his walls or fix a dripping tap, for example – he has to pay a ServeU for the privilege.

The Dh200 fee buys residents a gate access card for third-party contractors to enter the buildings. Araujo has so far refused to pay.

He defends his stance: “Because there is so much of complexity and difficulty being built around any outside provider coming in, the owner then has no other option than to resign to his fate,” he says.

That fate, handily, is to call one of ServeU’s own maintenance staff.

Supposedly, there is a Motor Cityhome owner’s association to bring concerns to, but residents in the development – including Araujo - speak of it in almost mythical tones.

“I’ve asked many times about the [home owner’s association representative] who’s in my building, but I’ve never got a response.”

“Formation of housing associations is [difficult],” says another Motor City resident, who wishes to remain anonymous. “It has been attempted many times by the owners, yet it goes ignored.”

In response to the issue of the costly access pass in Motor City, ServeU’s parent firm, Union Properties, said that the fees were justified.

“The reason of gate pass fees is to recover and compensate the additional administration tasks,” Union Properties told Gulf News in a statement . These tasks and resources included “office consumables in attending , verifying the contractor documents and processing the outside contractors requirements.”

The fee was also needed for “monitoring and controlling the contractor inside the community to ensure high level of safety at the community.”

Moreover, third-party contractors are using the community maintained facilities and services that adding to administration task,” Union Properties added. The developer listed these facilities as roads, lifts, toilets, access barriers, and parking.

Gulf News speaks to residents of freehold communities about their concerns and how they can be better resolved with the developers or the management bodies of the properties.

Meeting the challenges

In some cases, when a developer or property management firm neglects a property, the Dubai Real Estate Regulatory Authority steps in. In Sports City, in a 14-storey block called Royal Residence One, many owners complained of safety and hygiene issues caused by shoddy upkeep.

Less than two months ago, a new facilities management firm was appointed to help out. And there’s plenty of work left to do.

One tenant, who wished to remain anonymous, complained of garbage around the common areas and a lingering sewage smell in the corridors.

According to the new management firm, Universal Owner’s Association Management, the building’s maintenance and clean-up is in a “corrective mode.”

“It requires a lot of work to be carried out and it requires funds for the rectification,” said the spokesman. “If the owners do not pay the funds, it becomes difficult to carry out the work.”

Despite funding challenges, work is underway, the spokesman said.

“We try to prioritise the works and concentrate… [first] when it comes to health and safety, then when it comes to the building operations and then we come to the beautification and aesthetics. We are now currently in the second stage,” he said.

“The cleaning process is not overnight.”

Access to the beach

Over on the Palm Jumeirah, for a resident, most frustrations come from owning an apartment in a row of blocks called ‘Shoreline’ – and being unable to use the beach.

The resident, who is the member of an interim home owner’s association for his apartment, claims to have been in constant engagement with the building’s management firm over beach access.

Originally, far back when the 20-block Shoreline towers were conceived by master developer Nakheel, residents were promised pools, gyms and shopping, and five beach clubs.

However, due to a change in laws before the Shoreline apartments were handed over a decade ago, the common property shared between owners has never been disclosed and formalised.

In order to get to the beach, residents have to present their passes to the security guards.

“Once you are actually allowed on the beach, their facilities are exceedingly poor – ten sun loungers per beach club,” said the owner. However, for an handy additional fee, more can be rented.

“The toilets are in poor condition, the showers, steam room and saunas have never worked.”

Asteco, which manages the Oceanic building on the Palm, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Going to the beach on the other side of the Palm’s trunk is also an unresolved issue due to “territorial battles going on between the hotels” and the master developer, Nakheel.

Nakheel told Gulf News in a December statement that is “has tried for more than seven years to amicably resolve this matter” with IFA, a sub-developer for two of the Palm’s buildings.

“Until now, IFA has failed to pay its outstanding fees for beach access. Access will be re-granted once the arrears are settled,” said a spokesperson at the time.

However, the Palm’s home owners association said that they were up to date with all payments, and that the denied access was due to commercial dispute beyond their control.

As for now, the ongoing dispute goes on between the Nakheel, Nakheel Strata – its home owner’s association management sister firm – and the home owners’ association.

While some Palm owner’s associations are happy to have their name on the record, others do not want to take the risk.

“There is no protection for OA board members, and there has been no history of cases tried for revealing details of OA Boards’ information to the public,” said the Palm resident, explaining his reluctance to go on the record.

Nearly all of the residents of the communities in this story requested not to be identified, as they often do during regular community reports.

When a part of the Oceanic building on the Palm caught fire in mid-December, all the residents contacted by Gulf News – including owners – agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity.

Asteco, the firm in charge of managing the Oceanic, did not yet respond to a request for comment by Gulf News.

Cooling charges too high

Over on the other side of town, in Ghoroob Mirdif, a mid-rise complex that contains close to 3,000 apartments, residents have complained of very high cooling charges. Since residents moved into the complex in 2010, the developer, Dubai Properties, had initially advertised free cooling.

Then, earlier last year, the developer, which also manages the buildings, started charging annual fixed air-conditioning charges along with the rental contract.

Residents soon saw broke into a collective sweat. Some said the meters which measured their air condition usage in their flats were faulty and their resulting bills were far too high.

In December, a group gathered at the complex’s management office to complain.

“They kept promising us that they will find a solution,” said a Ghoroob resident, who asked not be identified.

A Dubai Properties spokesperson told Gulf News in December that the cooling charges are included in the tenancy contracts of the residents – but residents said that they hadn’t expected such high costs.

“They lost a lot of tenants reading about the issues,” said the tenant. “People started leaving... so they dropped the prices.”

Dubai Properties, which manages Ghoroob Mirdif, did not respond to Gulf News despite several requests to comment on the issue.

Social media as a tool

Despite the challenges with communicating with management services and the elusive home owner’ associations, numerous informal residents groups have sprung up on social media.

For residents of Remraam, made up of 56 buildings out near Emirates Road, no less than two dozen Facebook groups cater to various needs.

One, with 15,000 members, serves as a marketplace. Other groups cater for fitness fans (132 member), Muslim mums (102 members), and cat lovers (138 members).

On Remraam’s main 6,400-member strong Facebook group, residents discuss community issues such as mould and leaks, parking problems, lost-and-found pets, requests for neighbourly help, and jokes.

And in some communities, these informal online communities have started to make an impact.

A Motor City resident who is among the 2,000-plus members of a Motor City community Facebook page, said that the group has partly “fed the gap” left by the lack of an powerful owner’s association.

In the free online space, “there are strong formations of opinions being aired by increasingly formed group identities,” said the resident. In recent times, representatives from services provider ServeU have joined the group.

“This is turn has made a difference.”

“Requests for work are being efficiently addressed, works are carried out in a more professional manner and people are actively praising their experiences if warranted, which then encourages others to speak up.”

However, the resident noted that as the online groups have no official endorsement, they can only go so far.

Reluctant to speak up

Other than fleeting online interactions, some residents say they are simply too scared to speak out about community issues.

“A general sense of fear is working on people’s minds,” said another resident of Motor City who wished to remain anonymous.

And online, the UAE’s strict laws on defamation and libel leave some residents confused over what action to take.

“Speaking on social media is day by day more risky. So people feel this pressure.”

For the home owner’s association and apartment owner on the Palm, keeping fairly quiet is part of a general strategy for keeping the peace with the developer.

“I want to do some renovations, and need their approval – all of this requires them to not completely hate me, and be looking for a reason to make my life difficult,” said the Palm flat owner.

The Sports City resident thinks that speaking out, and pushing a case through the courts, is simply not worth it.

Instead, residents vent their frustrations on a strictly closed-off social media page away from eyes of building managers.

“We have our own private Facebook group which we all complain to each other on,” the resident said.

‘I’ve got an issue with where I live, what do I do?’

The first question is whether you live in a freehold area or not.

Many popular freehold areas, such as Dubai Marina, Jumeirah Beach Residences, Sports City, and Arabian Ranches – are located nearer to the Jebel Ali side of the city.

If the issue concerns the inside of the apartment, it’s generally the landlord’s responsibility to fix things.

But if there are problems in wider community area, for instance, outside your villa or in the corridor leading to your apartment, you’ll probably want to contact the building’s facilities management.

Many developments, particularly larger ones, have a staffed office with manager who usually works during standard business hours.

Broader issues such as pest control – a rat infestation for example, or construction noise, should be referred to the Dubai Municipality.

Dubai’s Real Estate Regulatory Authority (RERA), can serve to mediate disputes between residents of a building and the management or developer.

Under the UAE’s laws, the tenants or landlords may speak to the media about their issues and complaints in relation to the property they rent or own, according to a Dubai based lawyer.

“However, they may not disclose the names and details of the building management or owners in any statement in a manner that would be harmful to their reputation,” warned Hamdan Al Shamsi, a senior partner in law firm that carries his name..

If disputes happen between with the landlord, tenants or building management, you have two main options, said lawyer Shouq Al Kathiri.

“The UAE’s legislations gives the right to raise complaints to the Dubai Land Department’s Rental Dispute Centre or the Dubai Municipality.”

Where do homeowner’s associations come in?

Over the years, there has been plenty of talk on the establishment of home owner’s associations, which would put control into the hands of landlords instead of the project developers.

In 2007, Dubai’s government rolled out a Jointly Owned Property Law, also known as the ‘Strata Law.’

In principle, the law divides properties into privately-owned units and jointly owned common areas managed by the landlords, who would form a homeowner’s association.

However, the law does not make clear the extent of the power that Owner Associations have, Dubai-based law firm Al Tamimi wrote in a 2013 advisory note.

Today, a decade after the original law was issued, there are only a few Owners’ Associations that have been formally registered by the Dubai Land Department, the property registration body.

The others that have been registered are considered to be “Interim Owners’ Associations”.

While some of them have been given the power to make decisions on management of the building by developers, these Interim OA’s do not have legal rights. This means, for example, that they cannot enter into contracts.

Majdel Musa

“It is questionable [also] whether they have standing to sue or be sued,” said Majdel Musa, a property law expert who formerly worked at the Dubai Land Department.

But there may be hope ahead for more self-governing freehold communities.

“There has been talk of a new OA law coming for several years now,” said Musa.

“There is much speculation in the market that the new law would leave control with the developers, or hand it over to the owners’ association management companies.”

“Yet, some still believe that the original intent of the law will be realized. We’ll have to wait and see.”

Other issues prevent the formation of fully functional owner’s associations, the expert said.

“This is, understandably, the feeling that many owners have due to some developers’ reluctance to give any control to owners,” she told Gulf News.

“But there is some concern from the developers’ and management companies’ end that board members would be given control over bank accounts, and flee the country with millions of dirhams.”

“Unfortunately, there is distrust on both sides.”