Water Partners

Question

As Pesach approaches, many of the residents of 56, Freedom Avenue wish to use
the fire hoses installed in the entrance lobby for cleaning their cars and their
window blinds. However, Yehudah, who does not own a car but has his own private
hose, objects. He claims that although the fire hoses are jointly-owned
property, their function is solely for the needs of the jointly-owned areas.
Cleaning private cars and blinds is a private use. The other residents reply
that since all are partners in the hoses, they can use them in any way they
like. Who is right?

Answer

Let us start with a little information about Israeli water bills. These
usually contain two separate charges, one for the private usage of each
individual apartment, as well as an additional charge for joint usage. The joint
water supply is used for cleaning the jointly owned sections of the building and
watering the common garden (if there is one), as well as extinguishing any fires
that may occur, Heaven forbid. The charge for joint use is distributed equally
amongst all the apartment owners in the building. Accordingly, whoever purchases
an apartment in such a building agrees to pay his equal portion in the cost of
the joint water consumption on the assumption that it is used for joint
purposes.
It would follow from the above that using the joint water for private purposes
without the express permission of all residents is forbidden and would
constitute stealing. The fact that many residents do use this water for their
own private purposes does not make the act permissible. Furthermore, one can not
argue that such use fulfils a universal need, since some people, like our
friend, Yehudah, do not have a car but do have their own hose for cleaning the
blinds. Which leads us to the question of how to deal with a situation in which
the vast majority of residents wish to use the joint hoses for these private
purposes. Do we say that the majority can force the objecting minority to agree
to this non-standard use? The Emek Hamishpot (3:48:11) quotes the reply of
T’shuvas Maimonis (Kinyan 27:7) to a community who had a difference of opinion
as to how to proceed in certain communal affairs (appointing officials, charity
funds, etc.). He instructed them to call a meeting of all those who pay communal
taxes where decisions would be taken according to the majority opinion. The
dissenting minority could then be forced to act in accordance with these
decisions. The Chasam Sofer (Responsa, Choshen Mishpot 116) adds that the
prevalent custom to make communal decisions according to the majority is
logical, for if unanimous agreement was required, no decisions would ever be
reached and chaos would reign!

The same principle would also apply to a smaller communal group, namely the
residents of an apartment block. Decisions about how to proceed should be made
after consulting all the residents and determining the opinion of the majority.
However, just as the majority vote can only decide the course of action when it
comes to community needs, so too the majority of residents can only impose their
will on the dissenters when it comes to genuine joint needs. Similarly, when
there is a difference of opinion as to whether a particular project constitutes
a genuine need (within reason), the majority carries the day. Accordingly, since
it is clear that washing private cars and blinds does not constitute a communal
need, the opinion of the majority of residents cannot be used to force the
minority to agree to using joint water for these purposes. Yehudah’s objection
is thus valid. Nevertheless, if individual residents undertake to pay for the
joint water that they use, the other residents have no right to prevent them
from using the jointly owned water (Emek Hasmishpot, Ibid. 55:2).