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How buddies in the block beat the isolation blues

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Start talking about a sense of community to some property owners and strata residents and their eyes glaze over faster than an unsuspecting victim during a dinner party pyramid-selling sales pitch.

We’ve all trotted out the tropes and cliches – “vertical villages” was enjoying a revival until the spread of covid-19 had high-rises rebranded as vertical cruise ships.

However, a recent survey by Macquarie University has revealed how the isolation required to counter Covid-19 in apartment blocks has exposed the fragile and often non-existent connections between people who live next to, above and below each other.

According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald, MU researchers found that 57 percent of apartment dwellers did not have a neighbour that they’d invite into their homes or ask a favour from.

To be absolutely honest, I was surprised tha 43 per cent of residents did have buddies in their blocks.

But in an odd way, those figures very roughly reflect the proportion of renters to owner-occupiers in apartment blocks. And they don’t record whether or not people are happy not to have too intimate a contact with their neighbours.

That said, if the isolation imposed by various Covid-19 lockdowns has taught us nothing else, we now know that lack of social interaction has a very real effect on people, including strata residents.

I think it’s fair to equate a sense of community with general happiness. Knowing there is someone nearby who will help you out, and whom you can help if need be, must add to your sense of security, comfort and self-worth.

The other side of the coin is that if people feel isolated and alienated, they are less likely to be happy, which must add to the potential churn of tenants. The konga line of unhappy neighbours is bound to reduce permanent residents’ sense of “home” too.

Some of the big developers have already recognised this, employing community engagement officers to make sure residents, especially of, new apartment blocks feel there is life outside their unit doors.

And if the big players are spending time and money on this, perhaps individual investors and resident owners shouldn’t dismiss its value out of hand.

Word of mouth is a major driver in people’s choice of where to live and if your block has a reputation for being cold and unfriendly, you can move to the back of the queue when potential tenants and purchasers are doing the rounds.

You don’t want to get too Pollyanna about this, but there is a lot you can do to make the apartment block where you live, or have have parked your money, a more attractive proposition all round.

For instance, you could propose a motion for your next AGM asking the strata committee to explore ways of improving community engagement in the building.

These could be as simple as a Facebook page, Whatsapp group or intranet like Stratabox which provides a community and building management platform for strata schemes.

Or it could be their providing facilities and a venue for book groups, movie nights or wine-tasting events.

Some strata managers already provide online platforms but they tend to be for the more efficient management of the building rather than digital group hugs.

If your unit block doesn’t already have these facilities, it may be simply because no one has ever suggested it before.

But think about it; it may be the cheapest and most socially valuable way you have of enhancing the appeal, and therefore the value of your property.  And if you’re a resident, you get the best of both worlds.

A version of this column first appeared in the Australian Financial Review.

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