In the old days, when strata blocks were mostly two or three-storey walk-ups, everybody was on the committee and communication was chats in the hallway and notes slipped under doors.
Clearly, in these days of mega-complexes of more than 300 units, that isn’t going to happen. As a result, meetings become more formal with, sadly, individual owners becoming remote from the daily running of their blocks.
However, in the meantime we have all been hooked into some kind of social medium or another. Clearly, there’s an opportunity to exploit the new to bring us back to something approaching the old.
This surfaced in the Flat Chat Forum recently when an owner who had set up a website for his block was concerned about privacy issues and ongoing management of the site.
These are two critical questions and if you are thinking of going down that road, you might be better off finding a commercial product that does the job for you and continues to service the strata scheme when you have moved on or lost interest.
Factor in the legislation in many states that allows owners to vote online, and this is clearly an area that can only grow.
For instance, Stratabox.com.au (a Flat Chat sponsor) is a kind of self-management programme that will appeal to small schemes that don’t have a strata manager or larger schemes that want more input into how their strata manager runs things.
As well as the nuts and bolts of levies, maintenance, meeting agendas and online voting, it also has noticeboards and forums where owners and committee members can discuss issues and ideas as they arise. There’s a free component but the premium service costs about $1 per unit per month.
Cheekily named Strata Chat (no relation), is a bot-based information service for your scheme which also has chat rooms that have different levels of access. It’s free of charge.
Strata Vote, provides a reliable and legal framework for online voting so that more owners can be more involved in the decision-making without having to turn up at meetings. It charges on the size and frequency of votes taken.
There are many other options, although most of the biggies have developed from strata management software and often aren’t all that user-friendly for your average amateur strata committee member.
And then there are home-made in-house websites and Facebook pages. These are fine, as I’ve said, as long as someone competent is looking after them for a sustained period.
But they would be hard pressed to have a rock-solid online voting component. And the inevitable sound and fury of owners arguing over issues that very quickly get very personal, can see them shut themselves down for fear of legal action.
This is a serious issue. People think they can say what they like on the internet (because so many people do) arguing that expressing an opinion is covered by Freedom of Speech legislation (or even the First Amendment). Firstly, the First Amendment is American and secondly there is no right to Freedom of Speech in our constitution.
In terms of strata, you have limited ‘privilege’ over comments made during discussions related to the management of the schemes, provided they are kept internal and are not malicious.
You can see the potential problems immediately where a Facebook page, for instance, can be read by anyone then overnight or over a weekend gets plastered with abusive and defamatory posts from a disgruntled current or former resident. The problem for you is that the person who “publishes” the website can be held responsible for the material published.
That’s an extreme situation but I met a strata manager a couple of years ago who had to shut a strata scheme’s website down because of two owners’ vile abuse of each other. That said, a clearly defined set of rules, nothing getting posted until it had been cleared, with the proviso that the editor’s decision is final, would take care of that.
It will lead inevitably to accusations of censorship for the simple reason that you’re dealing with people (see previous comments on Freedom of Speech).
However, all said and done, the future of strata communication is definitely online. It’s not just complaints and meetings. It’s recommendations for everything from plumbers to pop-cafes near you, it’s people sharing an interest and building communities.
And if there is resistance to this new-fangled nonsense, just make sure your old-school committee doesn’t saddle you with a system that doesn’t work, doesn’t fit and – most importantly – doesn’t get used by residents.
A version of this column first appeared in the Australian Financial Review.