Covid or no covid, it’s been a tempestuous year in strata in Australia. From a win for pet owners in NSW to dubious stats from Tasmania, there’s been plenty to keep us occupied here at Flat Chat.
Among the issues we exposed through this website (and the associated column in the Australian Financial Review) was the scandal of integrated networks – where infrastructure providers install systems free of charge to developers, provided they can persuade new owners to sign inflated and ultra-long-term maintenance contracts.
Apparently Fair Trading is already looking at that. Next cab off the rank will be pre-sales of management contracts, the Queensland disease that is apparently creeping south.
And we highlighted some of the smoke and mirrors, spin and disinformation that typify pronouncements about short-term holiday letting across Australia.
For instance, earlier this year, apartment blocks in NSW were allowed to pass by-laws banning short-term holiday lets (STHL) from their apartments.
However, there may be a massive loophole in that people who claimed their home was their principal place of residence, say for four days out of seven, could probably toddle off at weekends and let their apartments, unsupervised, for the rest of the time.
Those new laws were supposed to come with a code of conduct and a registry of holiday letting hosts. Part of the code of conduct arrived last month, threatening five-year bans for hosts, guests or properties that were persistent nuisances.
Unfortunately, there is neither a blacklist nor registry to make this work but they have been promised for June next year. We’ll see.
Meanwhile, the determinedly anti-Airbnb blocks are creating their own semi-legal barriers to holiday lets, in the hope that owners and tenants who sub-let will have so many hoops to jump through that they will go and set up somewhere else.
We need to be vigilant. The government need the economy to pick up and tourism is a huge part of it. Until such times as overseas travellers are allowed to return, it will be interstate visitors who will be knocking on your doors, demanding access to your facilities.
This is not time to be “dog in a manger” about this. But neither should apartment residts give up what few protections we have, becasue you can bet your life you won’t get them back.
A bigger issue for the policy wonks is that NSW Fire Services have said publicly that, to be safe, STHL properties will need to have integrated smoke alarms, emergency exit maps on room doors, heat sensors, fire blankets and fire extinguishers in kitchens.
The costs associated would put many hobby Airbnb hosts out of business so it will be fascinating to see how the government waters down the safety provisions the Firies say are needed to save visitors from stumbling around in the smoke from fires in unfamiliar apartments in previously unknown buildings.
But, rest assured, the regulations will be diluted like the last skerrick of orange cordial on a blistering hot day. Having accidentally dudded their Airbnb mates over the STHL by-laws, the government will be desperate to make amends in whatever ways they can.
Meanwhile the hypocritical hysteria over flammable cladding – who authorised it in the first place? – might have a fire blanket thrown over it in case people start drawing comparisons with any lack of concern over the fire safety of apartment block holiday lets.
Talking about STHL, this past year saw some of those lovely, cuddly, “just want to make some pin money” Airbnb hosts encouraging potential Covid-19 carriers into our homes to “self-isolate”.
How greedy or stupid do people have to be not to make the connection between the need to isolate travellers from the general public and moving guests into apartment blocks where they are free to share facilities with people who don’t realise they are there specifically because they might be carrying the coronavirus?
Another story that kept headline writers busy was the dog-fight (pun intended) between pet owners and strata committees in two large blocks in Darlinghurst, Sydney. Both blocks had “no pets” by-laws that had been challenged at the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal (NCAT) which ruled that blanket bans on all pets were “harsh, unconscionable or oppressive” and therefore invalid.
Earlier this year the NCAT Appeals Board disagreed and reinstated the by-laws. However, finally, in October, the Court of Appeal reversed the reversal and reinstated the original revocation of the by-laws.
Fervently anti-pet apartment owners are now either hoping none of their residents ever wants a pet, or are scrabbling to formulate by-laws that can legally control pets on common property.
In Victoria, there were stories of people in the hard lockdown having to put up with being forced to stay at home while selfish neighbours renovated their flats.
By the time the Health department and Covid committees had worked out that this wasn’t a good thing, the renovators were saying their units were now unsafe due to the demolition work and needed to be completed.
And, of course, we had Pauline Hanson being sacked from her TV gig for saying that residents of locked-down housing commission unit blocks were “drug addicts” who “cannot speak English”.
And, by the way, a couple of times I have asked Victorian government spokespeople if their proposed laws that forbid sales contracts from having voting rights attached means that developers will no longer be able to put “no Airbnb” clauses into their sales agreements. They have told me to wait and see, for the simple and credible reason that they don’t know.
But the Victorian Labor Government seems to hate apartment owners, as witnessed by STHL lets virtually taking over some prime blocks in the Melbourne CBD and Docklands areas. So don’t be surprised if this last protection against residential blocks being turned into quasi hotels is also swept away.
In Queensland they were wrestling with only one issue – being taken seriously by their government.
Just for starters, apartment owners there wanted action on the presale of management rights, the spread of STHLs into apartment blocks that were supposed to be residential-only and the fact that strata managers are unlicensed and unregulated.
Before the recent election the Unit Owners Association of Queensland was told by Deputy Premier Steven Miles that, if re-elected, the government would create a new Strata Legislation working group, to be chaired by the Commissioner for Liquor, Gaming and Regulation, to look into these issues.
And here in NSW we think it’s tough being lumped in with the broken toys and dodgy mechanics at Fair Trading. Breath-holding is not to be encouraged.
The very fact that they have to explore whether or not regulation strata and building managers is a good or bad thing shows how low down the priorities apartment residents are in the Moonshine (sorry, Sunshine) State.
WA and Tassie
West Australia saw a major revamp of its strata laws which has led to some WA commentators getting a bit over-excited, telling us Easterners that we should have laws like theirs – most of which we’ve had for years.
And in Tassie, the government recently released a report, welcomed by the STHL industry, “proving” that holiday lets have no effect on residential rents because the number of STHLs has dropped and housing availability has increased.
However, another independent report has said this actually proves the opposite. Holiday lets dropped because visitors couldn’t get to Tasmania. The residential rental availability only increased because holiday lets were empty.
It seems, all across Australia, there are lies, damned lies and strata statistics.
A version of this column first appeared in the Australian Financial Review.