As we edge ever closer to relief from our various lockdowns – and the inevitable spike in infections that will follow before vaccinations fully kick in – the NSW government’s plan for apartment blocks is quietly gelling in the background.
And, as detailed in this story, part of the plan to limit the spread as we transition to semi-freedom, will be to blitz any unit blocks where an infection pops up.
One major element of that strategy is to allow managers, health workers or even police to knock on apartment doors to find out who’s living there and who is a frequent visitor.
Now, as discussed on Amanda Farmers live podcast last week, maintaining accurate strata rolls is among the least-observed strata laws – and it IS law – on the statute books.
However, as we discuss on this podcast, that piffling $200 maximum fine for not registering on the strata roll could become a $5000 slam for not give “true and accurate” information under the new public health orders.
And does having a strata roll that doesn’t match the names and numbers of people living in a unit increase the chances that the block will be deemed “high-risk” and locked down?
Also this week we discuss the importance of good ventilation in apartment blocks – especially when there’s a deadly airborne virus flying around.
And we have some handy hints on how renters can make the most of record low rents in our CBDs.
Finally, the Bachelor finds a pad, and a brief reminder of why a good pair of headphones are an absolute boon for you and your neighbours during lockdown.
That’s all in this week’s Flat Chat Wrap.
If you enjoyed listening to this podcast (or reading the transcript), please share it with your friends using the social media buttons at the foot of the page.
TRANSCRIPT IN FULL
I was listening to Amanda Farmer’s podcast, which is on Friday afternoons. I listened in last Friday; there’s a lot of chat about the issue that we raised in the website last week (and it’s been elsewhere), about the new measures that the government is preparing to take in apartments, in cases of potential ‘block-down.’
As you’ve coined it.
It was interesting to hear her, because she’s a strata lawyer and her podcasts tend to be listened to by a lot of strata managers and strata professionals. She was talking about the legalities of these new powers that the government has given people, to go in and basically come and knock on your door and ask who’s living here; who’s been here visiting. So, we’re going to talk about that and you’ve got stuff about air quality; you’ve written an article about air quality, which will be on the website. And, we’re also going to talk about how to get a good rental.
From a tenant’s perspective.
From the tenants perspective, yes. I’m Jimmy Thomson, I write the Flat Chat column for the Australian Financial Review.
And I’m Sue Williams, I write about property for Domain.
And this is the Flat Chat Wrap.
One of the new powers that’s been given to strata managers and health professionals (and you wrote about this in the Sydney Morning Herald), is the ability to go and knock on doors and say “who’s living here? Who’s been staying here?” This is when there’s an infection in an apartment block and they want to do onsite contact tracing, I suppose you would call it.
Yeah and they want to check how many people in a building have tested positive and want to know whether they should lock it down. So therefore, they want to know who lives in each apartment and who’s been visiting each apartment.
And there’s quite substantial fines for people who don’t give true and accurate information.
Really, how much?
That’s the wording, yes. I think it’s about $5,000.
Okay, that’s 10 times more than Tony Abbott got, for not wearing a mask at Manly.
Isn’t it funny, he’s saying we’re not a nation of dobbers, but really, maybe we should be, if people aren’t doing the right thing?
Well yes, I mean, what a strange message to send out, you know, say “oh look, if you see people doing the wrong thing, just ignore it, because it’s un-Australian.” At the moment, there’s a whole campaign about, if you see somebody being abusive to women, don’t just ignore it; dob them in… Say something and now here’s Tony Abbott saying “oh, it’s only a global pandemic. There’s no need to change Australian values.” Getting back to the thing about naming the people who live in apartments… The government (as so often happens, when they’re dealing with apartments), has got it wrong, because they’re telling strata managers, ‘you’ve got to update your strata rolls.’
Isn’t it up to strata managers to do that, in buildings where there are strata managers?
Well, yes, so it can’t be a duty for strata managers, if every building doesn’t have a strata manager.
And how many people don’t have strata managers?
About half of them.
Wow, that’s a lot, isn’t it?
Probably less than half now, because a lot of the newer buildings are bigger, than the older ones were.
So they’d always have strata managers.
Yes, but the thing is, it’s up to the secretary of the scheme, to maintain the strata roll; the duty comes back to the strata scheme, not the strata manager. So yeah, if you’ve got a strata manager, you can say to them “can you keep on top of the strata roll?” But really, that has to come from the secretary of the strata committee. As we know, a lot of people just don’t bother to update the strata roll. They might know who owns the apartment, but strata law says that the owner has to notify the strata committee or the strata scheme, who the tenants are and who the sub-tenants are. Now, there’s a whole bunch of reasons that is not happening, even though under the strata act, there are fines for not doing it.
Presumably beforehand, it was because of fire safety; all those kinds of things?
Yes and being able to say, if there’s a problem in the building with the residents of one apartment; well, who are those residents? How do we get in touch with them? How do we tell them they’re causing a problem? One of the main reasons that the strata rules are not kept up to date, is because rental agents don’t bother to tell the strata committee ‘oh, we’ve just put two new tenants in that apartment,’ or ‘the tenants in that apartment have just asked us for permission to sublet, or to have someone else come in and rent a room.’ So, that’s a big issue and I think OCN is saying it should be under the residential rental act, that rental agents have to notify the strata committee about who the new tenants are, in the building.
That makes sense, because I’ve seen some letters from OCN to OCN members, swapping, how best to keep a strata roll up-to-date and Excel spreadsheets and things and tips for doing that. It’s quite an onerous task, isn’t it, really, if you’ve got a big building?
Well, if you’re not getting any help from the rental agents. One of the other reasons that you won’t get a true and accurate list of who’s in your apartment block, is landlords who are trying to evade tax. They don’t want there to be any paper trail of how many tenants they’ve got in an apartment. They might declare one lot of rent, but not the other.
And if people are Airbnbing their apartments as well…
How do you track that?
Yeah, sure. So, what is the importance of being able to know people’s names and phone numbers in a COVID epidemic?
So, you’ve got an apartment, in a block where there is an infectious person, who has been in common property and has been mingling in lift lobbies and in lifts with other residents… You want to be able to go ‘we need to tell these people who have been in this building (not just the residents, but their visitors), that they may have come into contact with this person and they need to go and get COVID tested.’ That is in the new Public Health Order, as well. If you are in an infected building (or an ‘affected’ building), and become an ‘affected person,’ you are given the choice; either you go and get a COVID test, or you go into self-isolation. In the case of visitors to an apartment block, it specifically says, you go into self-isolation in that apartment block, even if you don’t live there.
Oh, that’s problematic, isn’t it?
So you’ve got somebody who comes in, who’s a regular visitor; it might be somebody’s girlfriend, or boyfriend, or whatever. They’re a regular visitor; they don’t actually live there, but they are in the building when the building is declared as high-risk, then they can be told, either go and get COVID tested, or stay in this building and if you’ve got to sleep on the sofa, that’s tough.
What if it’s a cleaner, or something?
Well, a cleaner would be expected to go and get COVID tested and to self-isolate until they were clear.
They wouldn’t be locked down in the same building, would they?
No, because that would not be their choice. They would rather (I would imagine most people), would go, “I’ll go and get the test and then I’ll go home.” But you know, there’s lots of tradies and people like that, who come through buildings, who the authorities need to know. We’re about to come (in New South Wales), into a time, when 70% of people have been double-vaccinated, everything’s going to open up. There’s going to be more infections; there’s definitely going to be more infections. I mean, 70% of people double-vaxxed, sounds great. That means 1/3 of the population, isn’t and as we’ve seen, this virus can spread very, very quickly. And, we’ve also seen cases of people who just don’t take it seriously, so they have to be made to take it seriously.
That’s a real problem for apartment buildings, isn’t it, where lots of people are pushed together and if you’ve got a few irresponsible people, everybody may end up suffering.
I mean, look, we’re in the eastern suburbs. The adjoining neighborhood is Elizabeth Bay. It’s one of the highest (or was last week), one of the highest upturn in infections, but we go out in the street and we count the number of people who are walking around with no masks. I’d say about one in three people, at least, are not masked.
Especially after this weekend; it just feels like we’ve all declared that it’s all over and we’re kind of counting down now and we’re relaxing.
But, some of us aren’t counting down. Some of us are just going “yeah, it’s over” and that’s not what we’re supposed to be doing. We’re supposed to be holding the line, until…
For the next three or four weeks…
Until the 70% is reached and in an area like this, you’re going to have a lot of buildings, which potentially could become high-risk. I think it’s quite possible that when they go in and they go around the apartments in a block and say “how many people are living here? What are their names? What are their mobile phone numbers?” Then, compare that to the strata roll, they could be saying… Well, first of all, they could be going back to the secretary and say “you haven’t been maintaining the strata roll. We could fine you for that.” I think they might also go ‘you know what, this building; there are too many imponderables here. Let’s lock it all down, because we can’t be sure we’re getting a true and accurate figure of who lives here and how much time they spend here.’
So that’s a major motivation for people to get their strata rolls in order then.
I think strata rolls is one of these things that has been allowed to just slide over the years; that people don’t really take them seriously. I can’t recall a single case where I’ve heard of somebody being fined $200, for not registering on the strata roll. I think that’s going to change; I think it has to, because we need to know who’s living in the buildings. Okay, when we come back, you’re going to talk to us about air quality in apartment blocks. That’s after this.
Air quality, Sue; what’s it all about?
Yeah, when we first started out with COVID, we were obsessed with washing our hands and wiping down surfaces, because we felt that it was touch-points; that that’s what spread infection. With the Delta variant, it’s about aerosol; it’s all about droplets in the air and particulates that spread the virus and that’s why so many families and households have become infected, when one person enters the home and everybody ends up infected. Now, they’re talking about, we really have to start looking at air quality in lots of places; in commercial premises, absolutely, but also in people’s homes. The experts are saying that apartments are really the worst affected by this potentially, because modern building standards mean that our apartments can be quite airtight, before we open a window or open a door, because that’s how we save on energy costs. But, that also has a problem; we just don’t have much fresh air circulating in apartments anymore. You know, in the old days, those old 1920’s blocks; in the lobbies and the corridors, you used to have all those ventilation blocks that would go outside, so you’d always be guaranteed fresh air coming in. That was often I think, to prevent the old fashioned gas lighting, or, you didn’t want to be suffocated by gases from stoves. Now, because buildings and apartments are so airtight, it actually can be a real problem, because we’re all breathing in the same air. The experts are saying that lifts are a huge problem, because they’re just not getting much fresh air. They’re talking about now air purifiers; sophisticated air purifiers, which have these special HEPA filters to filter out particulates and they should be installed in every lift in every apartment building, because there are so many people coming in and coming out, even if it’s only maybe two or one person allowed in a lift at the same time. The infected ar can stay there for about an hour, they think, so I can get into a lift, three quarters of an hour after an infected person and I could breathe in that infection. We really need to have air purifiers in lifts, as a matter of urgency and also, in some of the common areas, where it’s not particularly well-ventilated. We live in an apartment building and in the gym, it’s got those glass…
That lets in lots of fresh air all the time, but most gyms are not like that. Most common areas, they might have meeting rooms. Saunas can be a real problem, as well.
Of course, especially with the warmth.
That’s right. So, we’re having to rethink the safety of apartments generally, in terms of design and the experts are saying, the design is going to change. We’re going to have apartments, where you can open the windows and where it’s really comfortable to open windows and doors for long periods of time, because you obviously can’t prop open front doors because that’s a security risk. All new apartments will have doors, they’ll have louvres, they’ll have the outside air coming in, which is quite different to how they’ve been designed; most recently, as well.
So this is new buildings and presumably, this will filter into the planning system for buildings. What about existing buildings? Is it just HEPA filters in lifts, or will existing buildings be retro-fitted? Can they be retro-fitted?
Yes, they can. I mean, these air purifiers are quite sophisticated, but all they need is electric power. When you buy some of the most sophisticated ones, you pay for a contract, for the people to come in and service them, maybe once a month, because the filters have to be changed regularly. It’s perfectly okay to put them in, because they just need an electric power plug, so that’s quite easy to do. They can do quite big areas at the same time. You can get bigger ones for bigger areas and smaller ones for smaller areas.
What about air conditioning; is that a problem, or does it help?
It doesn’t really help, because you’re basically breathing in the same air that’s just being circulated around and around, so air conditioning doesn’t help at all.
Unless it’s got a HEPA filter in it.
That’s right. What you really need to do, is open windows and open doors and get fresh air in and get the air circulating, which is something we tend not to do, especially coming up to summer. Many people have air conditioning and they’ll close everything off and that can be a real problem. It was interesting; I was talking to a Professor Geoff Hanmer, who’s a member of the International Co-Council’s Pandemic Task Force. He was sitting in one room and his wife was sitting in another room. She was a teacher and she’d been a contact of a kid who tested positive for COVID, so she was sitting in her room with an air purifier and he was sitting in his room with an air purifier, to mitigate the risk of cross-infection. So, there are people who are taking these things really seriously. We kind of think ‘oh, look, we’re nearly over lockdown and surely, it’s going to be okay,’ but these are the extra issues that are coming up. Unfortunately for apartment residents, they seem to be more critical than for people living in freestanding homes.
Yes, because you don’t have that cross-infection happening in lifts and common areas and things like that. Even if you do have a house that’s hermetically sealed and air conditioned to within an inch of its life, you’re not walking out the door and potentially infecting other people.
Something that has occurred to me about masks; which I think is a good thing about masks… You know these horrible bits of pollen; the plane tree things that come down and they hook into your throat and you can’t cough them out? You won’t get them when you’re wearing masks.
Well, that’s true; that is one positive.
I’m going to keep wearing my masks, until they’ve all gone. Okay, that was really interesting. When we come back, we’re going to talk about how to find the best rental property for you. That’s after this.
Sue, you’ve been really busy. Another story you’re doing is about the best rentals. How do you find the best rental?
Yep, this is for apartments, again.
Because rentals are really kind of attracting a lot of people now, aren’t they?
Yes, that’s right. We do obviously have an under-supply of apartments to buy on the market, so lots of people are looking for rentals and rent rates are quite attractive at the moment. People are offering some good bargains on rents, because they want to attract good tenants that are going to stay for a while. I think we mentioned last week, lots of places in the CBDs in Melbourne and Sydney, are being offered for maybe 25% less than they would normally.
Because all the students and foreign workers and Airbnb people…
That’s right; they’ve all gone. So suddenly, there are all these vacant properties. You might be able to get a nice view of the Yarra River or of the Harbour Bridge, that you might never have thought you’d be able to afford, so that’s one thing you can do. You also have to bear in mind if you’ve got a pet, you’ve got to choose not only an apartment where the landlord says you can have a pet, but also a building where you’re not going to get into a huge fight with a pet really. Although, you can have pets in most buildings now, as we know. You should also check that there’s no remediation work that’s going to be done on an apartment building, before you decide to take up a one year lease.
Who would you check this with?
You could check it with the building manager, if they’ve got a builder manager. You could check it with a strata manager, if they’ve got one of those, or you could check it with the secretary of the strata committee, to see if anything is coming up. The landlord should be able to tell you too and one of the most important things is the tone of the building. If you’ve got a family with kids, it’s nice to live in a building or a complex where there are other kids as well, that your kids can play with. Or, you know, you might really want peace and quiet, or you might be an older resident; you don’t want kids around. You should just check other tenants and residents that a building has. Also, the experts advise that you want to check the condition of individual apartments. You know, if they’ve got lots of wear and tear, then probably the owner hasn’t taken much care of them, so maybe, you don’t really want to be bothered with them. At a time when you’ve got a big choice, you want to choose a really well-maintained apartment. Probably these days with COVID, you want a bit of outdoor space or a balcony, because it’s quite possible we may be locked down in the future, too.
Also, check if there’s been any complaints from apartments near the apartment that you want to rent.
Again, who do you check this with?
Well, always the strata committee…
Are they going to give you that information? Are they going to say “you don’t even live here; why should we tell you?
Well, you can go to the landlord and the landlord will speak to the strata committee, because they are entitled to that information and they will have past minutes, where that’s always been written down in the minutes. If they want you (and most landlords want really good tenants), then they’ll tell you. They’ll make a bit of effort on your behalf.
What happens if you ask your landlord “have there been any problems in the building,” and the landlord says “no, no, no, no, no, no, no; it’s all fine” and then you move in and you find that the next door apartment is occupied by Hells Angels and has been a constant source of problems… Have you got any redress, then?
Then you can go to the Tenants Union and talk to them and then you’ll probably be entitled to a reduction in your rent, because you’ve taken the apartment under false pretenses, really.
So, you want that in writing though, don’t you? You want something in writing; something to say ‘look, there’s been no problem with nearby tenants, or residents.’ As we know, it’s not just tenants who cause problems in buildings.
And often, if you’re sending somebody an email, then the email that you get in response is a good written confirmation. If you’re just having a phone conversation with the landlord, or the rental agent, then you can ask them to send you an email and it’s odds -on that before they send you the email, they actually will check, because suddenly they’re realizing that they’re giving you written confirmation and advice, so they will make the effort.
So in all these inquiries, you want them at the very least to be emails; friendly emails.
Like, ‘do you know of any work coming up in the building, that’s going to be going on for a while? I mean, buildings are always having renovations; we know this. Is there any problem with neighbors?’ If they come back and say ‘No, no, no, it’s fine,’ and it turns out not to be true, then you’ve got a leg to stand on.
Yep, sure and there’s special things with apartments, you need to look at, as well. Someone was saying to me, get a friend to come and inspect an apartment with you (in times where you’re allowed two people to inspect an apartment). Get your friend to go outside and call the lift and when you’re in the bedroom, listen out to see if you can hear the ‘ding’ of the lift, or the rumbling of the lift motor. I remember when we first moved into our building, one of our neighbors disabled the ‘ding’ of the bell on the lift, because it was so noisy for his apartment. It woke him up every night!
In our building, they installed industrial lift bells.
Yeah, because they were cheaper. So, they were bigger and noisier. They were intended for offices and things like that. There were quieter lift bells, because you know, the lift bell is only there to alert the person who’s standing next to their lift. It doesn’t need to alert everybody who is on that floor, inside their apartment. Those were cheaper and that’s why they installed them, but every floor now, the lift bells have been…
Vandalized, I would say.
Tweaked! Our friend, Tonja Gibson from Strata Answers, gave me some great advice as well. She was saying that you should also check (because she’s a real rent-vestor; she’s always rented in places)… She was saying you really want to check external lights; go into the bedroom and check they’re not going to be any lights from other buildings opposite, shining into your bedroom, or lights on the building outside, shining in. Do you remember, there was a big row about a building in Kings Cross? Just looking over the big King’s Cross sign, which is illuminated every night; a Coca-Cola sign. If they’d had taken this advice, they probably wouldn’t have taken the apartment.
Because those people complained to the council, because they’d only seen the apartment during the day. It didn’t occur to them that this big red and white sign across the road, was going to shine into their apartment. It brings me to a couple of pieces of advice, I always give people and is always overlooked. Go round at night, as you’re saying, but also listen out for the sounds; any noise. A couple of times, just drive past, get a sense of what the apartment block is like at night, because that’s a very different thing from during the day, when everybody’s at work or at school, or whatever.
Absolutely and also have a look in the early morning, because lots of people get disturbed by glass collections first thing in the morning, or if you’re kind of living near a pub or a hotel, that can be really noisy, as well. At four in the morning, you don’t really want that every morning.
I remember; it was an apartment we were looking at renting, many, many years ago and we asked the neighbours, what’s the building like and they said “it’s great, apart from at six in the morning, the glass collection truck reverses up our laneway and the beeping and then the crushing of the glass…” The other thing I suggest to people is; one good way to know if you’re going to fit in is go and look in the car park and look at all the other cars and think ‘would my car fit in with this little community of vehicles?” If they’re all high-end sports cars and things, you might think ‘there’s a lot of people with money here,’ which can be a good thing or a bad thing.
Aspirational, I suppose?
Yes, or they can be entitled people. If they’re all beaten up and bashed and look a bit dodgy and rusty, you might think “oh, do I really want to live in this community?” It might be exactly the kind of community you want to live in; a bit of a knockabout place. Yeah, that suits me. That’s fine.
It’s a nice idea.
And, on a slightly different note… When we’re all locked down together; when we’re all ‘blocked down,’ a lot of people are sitting at home. They think ‘I’m going to go through my music collection.’ They’re cranking up the stereo. It’s not really fairon everybody else, especially if you haven’t worked out how to turn down the bass. Because, it’s the ‘thump thump, thump, thump, thump…’ I mean, sometimes you hear music from other apartments and you go “oh, that’s quite nice; I quite like that tune and it’s not bothering me.” But, if you all you hear is ‘thump, thump, thump, thump, thump,’ it’s not so good. Which is why I ran a piece on the website, about headphones. A retailer did this quite lengthy piece about the different kind of noise-cancelling headphones you can get. I didn’t realize there was such a lot of variety. You can have on-ear headphones, like you’re wearing now (no one else can see this, but I can). You’ve got the over-ear ones (which is what I’m wearing) and then you’ve got the in-ear ones. You can even get in-ear noise-cancelling headphones. Yeah, I didn’t know that.
Yeah. If you really want to listen to music while you’re relaxing at home, get a decent pair of headphones and you can blast your eardrums, to your heart’s content.
And, you’ve got one final piece of media news?
Just to welcome Sydney’s newest apartment resident; Jimmy, ‘The Bachelor.’
That’s not me.
Not you. Yeah, I don’t think you are a bachelor, Jimmy, sorry. This years’ ‘Bachelor,’ Jimmy, has just bought an apartment in North Bondi, but by himself… His fiancee (is she his fiancee, or the woman he chose to share his life), isn’t on the deeds of title though. Presumably, she’ll move in with him.
We don’t know; it’s television.
So, Jimmy the pilot is flying high!
To North Bondi. It’s poetry!
Okay. So by this time next week, everybody will be out having picnics.
That’s right, in New South Wales.
In New South Wales and then coming home to find that their apartment blocks’ been locked down, while they were out! Okay, thanks very much, Sue. Thanks for your very substantial input into the podcast this week.
And, thank you all for listening. Talk to you again soon. Bye.
Thanks for listening to the Flat Chat Wrap podcast. You’ll find links to the stories and other references on our website, flat-chat.com.au And if you haven’t already done so, you can subscribe to this podcast completely free on Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your favorite pod catcher. Just search for Flat Chat Wrap with a W, click on subscribe, and you’ll get this podcast every week without even trying. Thanks again. Talk to you again next week.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai