Monitoring cleaning services, supporting owners who are struggling to pay their levies, keeping track of the disputes procedures, keeping contractors and service providers afloat, advising on the use of communal facilities and helping schemes transition to electronic meetings – these are just some of the tasks facing our larger strata management firms.
And, as we all settle into self-isolation, the professionals at the coalface of strata life are having to make their own adjustments as well as help us to manage ours.
Some are focussed on keeping everyone safe while keeping the wheels turning. Other are taking matters to what some might see as extremes.
According to this story in the Sydney Morning Herald, a strata management company based in Port Macquarie last month told owners they had a “duty of care” to make sure their property did not pose a potential risk to health and safety – and suggested they dob-in neighbours whom they thought presented a coronavirus risk.
“If you are aware of residents that have travelled to a high-risk community in the past 14 days or going forward, please advise your committee chairperson, a committee member, or your strata manager,” the letter said.
“Likewise, if you become conscious of a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19 in your strata property.”
What the committee members or office-bearers are supposed to do with that information was not revealed in the news story.
Obviously, strata management firms’ first priorities and duty of care is to their staff, closely followed by us, their clients. The NSW branch of Strata Community Association, the professional body for strata managers across Australia, has been active on both fronts, offering advice and support where and when it is required.
But a highly informative insight into the whole industry’s response to this professional and personal crisis is provided by the email that Strata Choice (Flat Chat’s principle sponsors) sent out to their clients in strata, community and company title properties this week.
And if their readiness to adapt to the new challenges in strata is an indicator of the industry as a whole, we seem to be in capable hands.
“Our team have now been working remotely for two weeks and we have settled into a routine of interaction with clients and colleagues,” it says. “With the use of technology, our internal team interactions such as team meetings and daily catch-ups are still occurring, albeit from our homes.”
Increased pressures, late levies
Responses to the virus, and the measures taken to control its spread such as self-isolation, social distancing and working from home, seems to have created a kaleidoscope of unintended consequences
“We have seen a large demand for increased cleaning services, increased levels of waste and foot traffic due to most people now working from their homes,” says the Strata Choice email. “There has also been an increase of cleaning / disinfection of common property areas.
Then there’s the question of levies and the reasonable assumption that some owners who’ve been laid off or had working hours reduced, won’t be able to pay on time or, worst case, for several months.
“Whilst it is extremely important that the building maintains cash flow to continue to pay contractors and utilities servicing your property … some owners unfortunately may be unable to make payments of their levies on time,” it says.
But while the strata managers can neither excuse late payments nor, in NSW, waive the mandatory penalty interest (only the owners corps can do that, as explained in this post) Strata Choice say they will not charge their standard fee for late payment notices.
More significantly, they have set up an easily accessed process so that their strata schemes’ owners can apply to their committees for some leeway, including waiving of penalty interest and a payment plan for overdue levies.
The above link is for Strata Choice owners only but other strata managers may have similar options available on their websites.
The company is also trying to make sure their contractors and service suppliers don’t suffer unduly in these tough times.
“As many contractors / service providers … are small businesses or sole traders, we have put in processes to speed up payment to all our service providers,” they say. “We encourage the strata committee members who co-approve payments to access the payments portal regularly to keep the payment flow to contractors and service providers regular.”
Strata Meetings and Elections
“It is important that annual general meetings and other meetings continue as normal,” say Strata Choice. “We are now conducting all meetings via electronic methods such as web-based voting, video and teleconferencing.”
However, they point out that the holding of annual general meetings via electronic methods is not common in NSW due to a variety of reasons, one being that it is a great way for owners to come together in their community to discuss important strata matters, another being that the election of the strata committee must be conducted in person.
So they are proposing a compromise, that AGMs are held electronically but the election of a new committee, which would normally happen at the same time, is deferred until such time a traditional meeting can be held.
Strata Record Inspections
Among the services they provide, access to strata records for prospective purchasers is still vitally important for owners looking to sell or buy apartments.
“We have been a fully digital based business for some time,’ says the Strata Choice newsletter. “Strata inspections that support the property sales process will proceed via our online portal to ensure there is no interruption or delays of this process.”
Most of the larger strata management companies are similarly “digitised” but some smaller “mum and dad” companies, whose strength has always been personal interaction, may be less corona-ready.
LIFTS: If you live in a building that has a lift or lifts, practise social distancing whilst awaiting and travelling in them. Most lifts are limited to two unrelated people at a time, standing 1.5 metres apart.
VULNERABLE NEIGHBOURS: If you are concerned about your neighbours, this website has some great suggestions on how to make and keep in contact with them. Official neighbour day was on 29 March 2020, however, every day can be neighbour day, such as by using this card to check in.
LOCAL BUSINESSES: Try to support local businesses as much as possible. The larger supermarket chains (Woolworths, Coles and Harris Farm) have also instituted support initiatives for vulnerable customers in the community. Click on the above links for more information.
TRIBUNAL HEARINGS: NCAT has changed several procedures with regard to how hearings are conducted, filing applications and lodging of documents. You can find more information on their Coronavirus (COVID-19) web page.
If your scheme is managed by Strata Choice, you will have received this email newsletter already. You should read it as there is a lot more information and advice in it.
If your scheme is managed by one of the other strata management companies, they may have issued something similar or have information on their websites. Check them out.
If your strata scheme is self-managed, then websites for Fair Trading in NSW, Consumer Affairs in Victoria and in Queensland, a comprehensive fact sheet is available on the Body Corporate Commissioner’s website. Other states may have similar information online.
Strata Choice has established a COVID-19 resource page on their website, covering everything from online meeting etiquette to signage for closed facilities, and you can access it here.