Strata challenges get residents talking votes

It has been said in many ways, many times, but there is a fundamental truth in politics: if you want people to unite, give them a common enemy.

So it should be no surprise that the recent challenges to apartment owners and residents in our most populous states have brought them together.

In NSW, the “enemies” have been the threat of out-of-control commercial short-term holiday letting through Airbnb, Stayz and their ilk, followed by the targeting of 435 apartment blocks that have been told to check their cladding to see if it’s flammable, then do something about it.

In response to both challenges, the apartment owners’ lobby group the Owners Corporation Network (OCN)  stepped up and was hugely influential in NSW ending up with what are by far the best short-term letting laws for apartments in Australia.

Taking on the challenge of flammable cladding, the OCN is now calling on all those blocks identified by the government as being at risk to work together on its Flammable Cladding Action Group.

The Action Group’s stated aims include providing a platform for collective legal action against installers and developers, a stronger united voice in talks with government, raising finance, and negotiating more favourable deals to get the work done, especially for those buildings left holding the bills after warranties expired.

Flammable cladding has also galvanised apartment owners in Victoria, with lawyers pulling together affected buildings with a view to launching class actions against the same developers who were responsible for different blocks.

This column first appeared the the Australian Financial Review.

But it’s the bitter battle over short-term holiday letting that has left the longest-lasting and deepest scar.

Thanks to new, laissez faire holiday letting laws, the 75 percent increase in Airbnb lets in the Victorian capital over the past twelve months is unlikely to have slowed.

Currently, according to data scraping website InsideAirbnb, more than 12,000 of the 20,000 Victorian listings are whole homes or apartments, many of them commercial enterprises. Other agencies are offering similar services so you can assume the market is larger.

When the Victorian Government pushed through its laws earlier this year, the main campaign group We Live Here vowed darkly that this would not be forgotten come election time.

But would that make any difference? Looking at inner city seats, where apartment blocks tend to be concentrated, in Prahran the Greens’ Sam Hibbins only has a margin of 0.8 percent. Even with Liberals on the nose nationally, a disruptive focussed campaign could easily turn that seat from Green to blue.

Possibly more significantly, Labor’s Martin Foley in Albert Park and, especially, Richard Wynne in Richmond could and probably should be wondering about any pro-strata campaign.

Why? The owners and renters who live in areas where commercial holiday lets are most common suffer most from their intrusion, and with no appreciable benefit.

The thousands of commercial “hosts” who love the holiday letting laws, obviously, live elsewhere. It will be interesting to see if any politician of any hue is prepared to risk the considerable ire of Airbnb and woo the micro-constituency of apartment residents.

In NSW, the creaking Liberal Coalition government was dragged kicking and screaming to its pro-strata holiday letting laws. But it could yet be punished by apartment owners for not doing enough to protect them from developers, especially with regard to cladding.

Innovation and Better Regulation Minister Matt Kean has gone on record saying that developers should pay but the onus so far has been put on owners to check and then deal with flammable cladding as best they can, with some individuals facing bills of $60,000 or more.

Whatever happens at their elections, both state governments have achieved something significant – they’ve got apartment owners talking to each other.

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