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Podcast: Covid alerts – cover-up or just a cock-up?

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Elsewhere in this post

Is it a series of cover-ups or just another run of cock-ups? Either way NSW Health is making a mess of its covid alerts when it comes to apartment blocks.

Whether it’s deciding not to let us all know that there are major outbreaks in public housing schemes – and asking residents not to tell anyone about it – or not alerting neighbours in privately owned strata blocks that there are cases in their buildings, the response has been ham-fisted.

An editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald from the Owners Corporation network has outlined just how dangerously incompetent the NSW government’s approach to covid infections in apartment blocks has been.

And the worst thing is the confusion it has created, with some buildings over-reacting to a potential threat, others fail to take it seriously at all, and a huge chunk of the strata community misses out altogether.


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Meanwhile we look at a story from the forum which reveals an issue that comes up much more often that you might expect: an owner taking over common property for their own benefit, increasing the size of their apartment and expecting not to have to pay for it.

Then we look at how introducing some greenery into your strata life can lower your stress and make you a nicer person to be around in the last of our locked-down days (we hope).

And finally, Jimmy has his annual pre-summer rant about balcony barbecues and discovers that a lot of the suggestions he made ages ago about limiting the smoke and smell intruding on other apartments – which were howled down by outraged neighbours and dismissed contemptuously by his block’s committee –  have quietly found their way into a code of conduct.

That’s all in this week’s Flat Chat Wrap.

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TRANSCRIPT IN FULL

Jimmy  00:00

We had two picnics, this weekend.

Sue  00:01

Yes, we did! It was hard work, wasn’t it?

Jimmy  00:04

It was very hard work, because there was a lot of people, down there in the park.

Sue  00:08

It was like Christmas Day, really. I think there was a real celebratory mood though, which was really lovely.

Jimmy  00:12

Yes, it was. There were people walking around; they’d take their masks off to eat and forget to put them back on again.

Sue  00:20

It kind of felt like we were out of a pandemic, when really, we’ve still got a bit to go, I guess.

Jimmy  00:25

And there was police wandering around, not bothering anybody. It was pretty good. I’m not a big fan of picnics, as you know. That’s my two picnics for this year; possibly this decade.

Sue  00:37

And that’s why it was such hard work, because Jimmy doesn’t like sitting on the ground. We ended up having to cart five chairs, a table; and then we had knives and forks and plates and stuff, whereas most normal people would be happy with the little bag of sandwiches and on a rug for the ground…

Jimmy  00:53

But our friends said it was the best picnic they’d ever had, or maybe the fanciest picnic they’d ever had. It’s not sitting on the ground that bothers me, it’s getting up. That’s the issue. Today, we’re going to talk about the ongoing issues with notifications of infections of the COVID virus in apartment blocks. You’ve got a nice uplifting story about greenery and I’m going to dig into the forum, because there’s a story that’s come up there, that’s really quite interesting and it’s one that comes around quite a lot. I’m Jimmy Thomson, I write the Flat Chat column for the Australian Financial Review.

Sue  01:36

I’m Sue Williams and I write about property for Domain.

Jimmy  01:39

And this is the Flat Chat Wrap.

[MUSIC]

Jimmy

The Owners Corporation Network; the spokesperson on COVID, Jane Hearn, got an op-ed in the Sydney Morning Herald, this morning. It’s basically saying the government has really dropped the ball, in terms of notifying residents of infections in their buildings and they’re also being incredibly selective about which buildings they choose to call high-risk high-rises.

Sue  02:25

There are no regular rules, that define it?

Jimmy  02:28

No, it’s at the Minister’s discretion, but it could be that a building might have only one infection in the whole building, but they might decide that because of the way the building operates, it’s high-risk, or no-risk. We know that there’s a building very close to us where there’s a couple living in the building who both have a Covid-19 infection and the health authorities have said yeah, it’s okay… You know, you’re a big grown-up building, with building management and stuff like that. You just ask them to self-isolate; nobody needs to panic, although, I think they may have closed their gym again.

Sue  03:10

You can understand the sense of that, but then again, it does mean that people who live in fabulous, well-run buildings (which are often in nice locations, and which are a bit more expensive than other apartments), are treated in one way and it does look as if apartments (maybe Housing Commission residents), in other parts of Sydney, are treated quite differently.

Jimmy  03:33

And, the one thing we’re not hearing about, is the small apartment blocks that don’t even have strata managers. They’re still working on a system that was evolved 50 years ago, where the committee meeting is actually a series of notes, slipped under the door. They don’t have that organization, they haven’t downloaded the mask posters, saying you’ve got to wear a mask indoors. One of the things that strikes me is (and it all comes down to what they were saying in the editorial); committee members as chairpersons and even building managers, don’t know what they’re supposed to do. We’ve got a letter to the forum this week, from somebody saying that their building manager has decreed that all common areas are closed. Residents aren’t even allowed to go into outdoor common areas, because of a risk of infection. As far as they know, there’s no infection in the building, but the chairperson of the building has decided to err on the side of caution and said no, you can’t even go out into the open common areas. Obviously, their gym and their swimming pool and everything is closed, which they seem to accept as part of the deal. I’ve had to point out that even in the LGA hotspots, the government has said you’ve got to wear a mask. In all strata schemes, you’ve got to wear a mask when you’re in common property. They’re saying, you don’t have to wear a mask when you’re in outdoor common property and this is in the hotspots. So, that’s a message the government’s quite clear with; it’s there in the Public Health Orders. So in the one hand, you’ve got people in high-risk areas, wandering around without masks in common areas and then you’ve got strata committee members saying “oh, we don’t want to take any risks at all, because we might get fined,” I think this person is saying.

Sue  05:36

I mean, I think a lot of people are worried that they will get sued by residents, if any other residents catch Covid from other people. It’s really difficult, because it demands a huge amount of diligence to go through the rules, to try and work out how they actually affect you and I think some people are actually getting legal opinions as well, which is very expensive.

Jimmy  05:55

It’s ridiculous.

Sue  05:55

And it’s really hard even for lawyers, to make sense of some of the regulations, as well. I think there does need to be some very clear markers put out.

Jimmy  06:04

If New South Wales Health was even remotely interested in strata, they would have a subcommittee that sat down and came out with a set of rules, based on maybe the size of the building. If you’re in a building that’s this size and you have these facilities, this is what you must do and most people would be happy with that.

Sue  06:24

And maybe a percentage of infections… I mean, if you’ve got a building or a complex with 800 residents and one case, that’s not really much of an argument for closing down the place. But, if you’ve got a small building of four apartments with a shared entry, then maybe that’s the case for closing that down.

Jimmy  06:44

Yeah and yet, that is a building that is least likely to have a strata manager (and certainly a building manager), who’s going to come in; who’s going to download this information from the websites and pass it onto the residents. I would imagine now the government is thinking, oh, we’re almost through this current phase, so let’s not change anything. But, I would think if they don’t change things even now, the chances of us getting through this current phase reasonably quickly and smoothly, are seriously diminished.

Sue  07:19

It’s kind of like people are holding their breath, isn’t it really and  thinking “okay, I can’t catch Covid now, if I hold my breath and don’t breathe anybody else’s.” Well, it’s almost like that. You’re getting into the lifts; like everywhere else, people in common property should be wearing masks. You’re in the lift and the person is not wearing a mask and they realize you are wearing a mask and they go “oh shit! I should put my mask on!” A lot of people walking around with their jumpers pulled up over their noses, which doesn’t really do it. But look, we’ve been banging this drum for the past month or so, if not more, that there needs to be clear messaging coming from the government. I keep going back to that quote from New South Wales Health media (about five or six weeks ago), where I said ‘can you not bring out some special rules for strata?’ The media person said “we don’t discriminate against strata residents.” They were her actual words and I’m going, ‘it’s not discrimination; it’s common sense.’ You think that mindset in New South Wales Health; you can’t shift it and of course, there’s a political element to all this, because these people just never want to admit that they might have got it wrong.  It’s hard for them to backtrack.

Jimmy  08:42

Very hard. We’re keeping an eye on that. I don’t know how much long-term effect the OCN editorial will have. I suspect (sadly), that it’s already being dismissed as a noisy minority, but I think what has been exposed in all this, is that our state government still doesn’t get strata.

Sue  09:10

And it’s the same in Victoria, isn’t it?

Jimmy  09:13

No, it’s not, actually.

Sue  09:15

Okay. What’s the situation in Victoria?

Jimmy  09:18

Well, you take for instance, renovations… In Victoria, if you have one apartment in a block that’s occupied (still occupied), you cannot have any renovations inside that building.

Sue  09:30

Oh, that’s right and that’s similar to the ACT as well, isn’t it?

Jimmy  09:32

The ACT has just introduced that. Whereas, we have this bizarre thing that you can have a renovation with two tradies, if the people are living in the apartment. If the people are not living in the apartment (the specific apartment is being renovated), you can have…

Sue  09:50

 100.

Jimmy  09:51

 Well, it’s one per four square metres. If you’ve got 100 square metre apartment, you could have 25 tradies in there.

Sue  10:01

So it’s pretty sad, if you live next door and you’re getting in the lift every time, with all these tradies coming in.

Jimmy  10:07

Absolutely.

Sue  10:07

And you’re getting the noise, because you’re trying to do Zoom meetings for work; you’re trying to home school kids.

Jimmy  10:13

They’re telling us that if you can work from home, please do work from home.

Sue  10:18

And many people just don’t have the choice now.

Jimmy  10:21

It’s that kind of ignorance, I think you might call it; lack of knowledge or caring for people in strata, that’s actually being quite vividly exposed at the moment. It’d be interesting to see when we come out of this, if there is any move in the strata sphere, to prepare for the next time this happens and actually get a bit more knowledge and experience of living in strata. Here endeth the sermon. When we come back, I want to talk about another email that came into the forum and it’s about a bit of a land grab, in a strata scheme. That’s after this.

[MUSIC]

Sue  11:11

What’s the land grab you’re talking about, Jimmy?

Jimmy  11:13

Okay, so somebody has written to the forum and said that the chairperson and secretary of their apartment block has announced that she will be putting through a bylaw, to allow her to take over the roof space, above her apartment. I’m guessing this is a small, older-style apartment block. I think their argument is, if they can get a bylaw, then they can do it. They have no intention to pay anything to the Owners Corporation and they have no intention of changing the levies. The levies in this building have always been done on the basis of those four or eight apartments and everybody pays the same, which is a very common thing in older buildings.

Sue  12:04

It’s kind of like a new form of neocolonialism, isn’t it? You know, the invaders arrive on a land and they say ‘okay, we’re going to just take this land.  We don’t owe anybody anything.’

Jimmy  12:16

Yep, so it’s been quite gratifying to be able to write back and say, look, there’s several moving parts in this… She cannot just take over common property and not pay something. There’s a formula set (I think it’s by the High Court; either the High Court or the Supreme Court), that says, you take the value of the apartment after the renovation and the value of the apartment before the renovation; subtract the difference, subtract the costs of the renovation and whatever’s left over, you hand over to the Owners Corporation. Plus, you need a bylaw that says that she will be responsible for any changes to common property. Plus, you need assurances of any damage that might occur to other apartments. So this idea that this person has, that they can just say ‘look, I’m passing the bylaw; you can’t stop me and I’m renovating.’ The other thing is, if the apartment is basing it’s unit entitlements purely on dividing by the number of apartments, that’s wrong, to begin with, so this is obviously an opportunity to fix it. It’s one of the earliest stories we came across and remember, we were having dinner with some friends in an apartment block; they said that the people had bought into the upstairs apartment and just taken the ceiling out and kind of moved into the roof space. Without even without so much as a by-your-leave and still, that attitude exists. ‘I’ve got the top floor and that space up there isn’t used by anybody. I may as well use it and because nobody actively uses it, then why would I pay anybody anything for that?’ The difficulty comes on the unit entitlements thing, because changing unit entitlements is so tricky.

Sue  14:13

But there are experts in that field who specialize in that. I mean, it’s expensive, but it’s good to go to those, because that’s going to be something that’s going to last for a long, long time.

Jimmy  14:23

The advice I find myself giving people quite often, is work out how much benefit this is going to do to you, when your levies are lowered and how much cost it’s going to be to get it done and spread that over 10 years and see if it still makes economic sense. Even though it’s makes logical sense to do that. So that’s something I think we’ll probably be running for a couple of weeks in the forum, but you know, you can only give people the best advice that you have and let them get on with it.

Sue  14:58

Yes, because renovations; I mean, we’re still going through a renovation blitz, really. People are still looking at their homes and seeing how they can improve them and make use of space that they haven’t really taken advantage of before. There’s kind of a whole new dimension to this subject now.  I think that’s something that is going to come up more and more often.

Jimmy  15:17

I think it’s a good thing. Space anywhere in buildings, is at a premium and I think if you can find a way of utilizing the space in your building to your advantage, then you should do so, but not to the disadvantage of everyone else in the building.

Sue  15:33

That’s right and even the common area spaces; when we moved into our new building, I remember we went round and said ‘okay, this could be a good space for storerooms. This is an area that we could put a cupboard in. This is an area where we could put the building manager’s office. There were lots of little nooks and crannies around the place and it could well be that some people might want to buy those common area properties and then the strata makes a bit of money on it; all the owners make a bit of money, as well.

Jimmy  16:03

The case that established this formula, goes back (probably), 10-15 years. It was somebody who owned the majority of shares, or unit entitlements in the building; so much so, that they were able to pass all the bylaws legitimately, to give themselves the roof space entirely, for a token amount of money. A couple of residents took that to, I think, the High Court and the High Court came up with a phrase that ‘this was a fraud on the minority.’ Even though legally they had all the votes to allow this, they were still depriving the other owners who didn’t have the votes, of something that belonged to them. So that’s a principle that’s worth bearing in mind when you’re thinking of renovating; you’re not going to get away with doing it for free. When we come back, you’re going to talk to us about green stuff. That’s after this.

[MUSIC]

Jimmy

Sue, you’ve a big article in the Domain magazine, about ‘greening up your apartment,’ or ‘greening up your home?’

Sue  17:14

I guess there is a new focus on greenery now. Because of Covid, we want to get outside; we want to see some greenery around us. There’s a huge number of reports, talking about how greenery is really good for us. It lowers anxiety levels. I mean, this is gardening and also gazing at greenery. I much prefer gazing at it, than gardening; I’m not very good at gardening. It lowers heart rate, it lowers blood pressure; increases productivity and creativity and happiness. It’s amazing! All these reports, they’re unanimous on the benefits of greenery and I think as a result, we’re seeing lots more greenery on people’s apartment balconies now. We’re seeing lots more landscaping around new buildings. We’re seeing green walls appearing on lots of buildings, as well. Lots of the developers are saying this is now an integral part of apartment complexes; there’s a demand for this and we want to satisfy that demand.  I talked to Iwan Sunito from Crown Group and all his buildings have a huge amount of landscaping around them. His new waterfall building, for instance (that’s in Waterloo), and that has more than 5000 tropical plants, as well as green walls and it has this seven storey high waterfall, which gives the building it’s name. It has parkland around it. I know you talked to Indira Naidoo this week on radio and she’s become really well known for propagating plants and growing vegetables and herbs and things on balconies.

Jimmy  18:50

She’s done a couple of books on it.

Sue  18:52

She has. It just seems that we’re all kind of getting much more into this now. I mean, obviously in lockdown, we’ve been at home much more, so we’ve been able to look after the greenery, because I remember nearly every time I went overseas, I’d come back and our plants on the balcony were kind of dying. But now, they are blooming. Well, we’ve got a gardener in, first of all, who told us exactly what to do and how many times to water them.

Jimmy  19:18

We either over-watered or under-watered.

Sue  19:22

And now, diligently twice a week, we water them, so they’re doing incredibly well. I had never realized before how much greenery can help one’s physical health, mental health, psychological health and emotional health. So yeah, it’s great to see so much greenery on apartment buildings.

Jimmy  19:41

I recall (to put a spanner in the works); I recall getting an email a couple of years ago from a former city council engineer, who said planters on balconies up against the balustrade (which is where you would put them normally), are probably illegal.

Sue  20:00

And that’s because kids can climb up on them and…

Jimmy  20:02

It gives them a climbing option.

Sue  20:04

You have to be very careful.

Jimmy  20:07

If they’re going to put plants on their balcony, they’re going to put them up against the edge, aren’t they?

Sue  20:13

Probably, but then they should keep a really close eye on young kids.

Jimmy  20:18

That’s what they say about swimming pools; it doesn’t matter how close an eye you keep on the kids… Kids move very quickly.

Sue  20:26

Well, absolutely. I mean, for families then, they have to be very careful. One of the newest design fashions in homes apparently, is having greenery indoors. I remember in the 80’s, you used to have one sad plant that used to die every year and you’d get a new one. It used to be a maidenhair fern, I think. I used to hate those.

Jimmy  20:46

Mother-in-law’s tongue was popular. Cheese, what was it; cheese plant?

Sue  20:53

Yes, that’s right. Cheese leaf plant or something, because they had holes in them.

Jimmy  20:59

Swiss cheese plant. Very disappointing when you discovered that it didn’t actually grow Swiss cheeses.

Sue  21:06

But now, apparently, that’s the big thing for designers; putting really nice touches of greenery; pops of greenery, in people’s homes. I guess people look after them well, because we’re all at home, all the time. I was a bit distressed, when I heard about that being the new fashion. I thought ‘oh, my god! Not those plants indoors again.’

Jimmy  21:30

I mean, having said that thing about the planters and harking back to what we were saying about the overly-cautious committee members… I’m sure there will be people who are told they may not have plants on their balcony, because of the safety risk. You know, there are people who just love to interfere in other people’s lives, a little bit too much.

Sue  21:50

But maybe, you could have a green-wall balcony and then you don’t need much depth in the planter, I think. The green walls often come with their own watering systems, as well, so maybe, you could do something like that. But then, you can’t see; if it’s a glass balcony, you can’t see through the balcony, if you’ve got any kind of view at all. You just have to work it out.

Jimmy  22:13

Imagine the view, or have different plants. I think the end-wall would be a good place to have your green-wall, if you’re going to have that. But you know, that’s the trouble with balconies; they’re common property, over which you have exclusive use and that means that the committee can come along and say ‘no, you can’t have that there.’

Sue  22:37

It would be quite unreasonable, though, wouldn’t it, really? And actually, maybe you could apply for permission, because it’s a sustainability issue and then it’s much harder for them to turn down a sustainability proposal.

Jimmy  22:52

I think the safety issue, if somebody invoked that, would probably take precedence. While we’re talking about balconies; I just noticed our building issued a new barbecue code of conduct. Now, I’ve been banging on about barbecues.

Sue  23:09

Oh, god, you have, Jimmy!

Jimmy  23:11

For the past 20 years!  I remember trying to bring in (what I thought were sensible restrictions on barbecues) and having somebody stand up at the general meeting, point at me very accusingly and say “this man is a vegetarian,” as if it was the most heinous crime and, I wasn’t; I am now, but I wasn’t then. What I thought were very light-touch restrictions I suggested,  were basically laughed out of the AGM and then I saw our code of conduct. It’s funny how these things quietly evolve and I mean this as a general thing, not just for our building… The things that have snuck in there, which I think are good things. You cannot have a big six-burner barbecue on your balcony; it’s got to be proportionate to the size of the apartment or the balcony space. You’ve got to have a fire extinguisher, next to the barbecue. You cannot cook uncovered fish, which is a big stinkeroo, when the person below you decides to burn a few prawns for their Sunday lunch and there’s limits on how late you can use the barbecue. You think, finally, people are catching up. Obviously (I hate to say it and this was this will happen in any apartment block, anywhere), all it takes is for somebody on a committee to be affected by something like that and then things change. I’m guessing that’s probably what’s happened here, but the restrictions that they’re bringing in are perfectly sensible. To allow people to have stinking smoke… People burning off; that’s another thing they’re not allowed to do. You can’t burn off the previous barbecue fat, as part of the cleaning process. You’ve got to clean it with a brush and soap and water.

Sue  25:15

So, this has been taken to an AGM?

Jimmy  25:17

I don’t think so; I don’t recall.

Sue  25:20

Just quietly slipped in?

Jimmy  25:22

I think it’s an advisory, because to take it to the AGM and make it a bylaw… When you think that barbecues are only allowed on balconies, because the committee or the bylaws allow them, then they could take that privilege away. It’s a privilege, it’s not a right. The people who actually own the balcony (which is the Owners Corporation), as a whole could say, we don’t want barbecues on our balconies. In fact, our last building did not allow barbecues on the balcony. If they wanted to enforce this, they would have to have a bylaw, but as it is, it’s kind of just like an advisory. But, that might be the way to go, just to say to somebody ‘look, here’s the barbecue code of conduct. You’ve got a charcoal barbecue on your balcony; you’re not allowed to do that, so get rid of it.’  I think in the majority of cases, people would go ‘yeah alright, I’ll get rid of it.’ I know that some residents are now running around trying to find the fire extinguishers that would actually work, because the next thing; you can’t put one of those big red ones on the wall… Well, you could, but probably the committee would say ‘no, that’s common property; you can’t do that.’ I don’t know if the little ones for cars are strong enough, for what might happen with a gas-fired barbecue. Anyway, summer is coming; the air will soon be full of (if it’s not full of Covid-19), stinky, burnt meat smells. Enjoy! Thanks, Sue, for joining me this Monday morning, for a change and thank you all for listening. Bye.

SUE

Bye.

[MUSIC]

Jimmy

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.

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