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Who’s got your back when strata schemes hit strife?

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In times of strife and confusion, it’s good to know who’s got your back. It’s even more important to know who hasn’t.

Recently in these pages I briefly listed the organisations in NSW, Victoria and Queensland operated by and for apartment owners.  That prompted a question from South Australia – “what about us?”

What indeed?  According to this report from a couple of years ago in the Adelaide Review, service provider rorts are rampant in Adelaide’s apartment blocks.

This will sound familiar to residents in the Eastern states who, because we began our battles early, do have organisations looking after our interests.

And they are not just whinge-fests and talking shops. Tapping into shared experiences, your strata scheme could be saving thousands of dollars on pointless legal battles and poorly performing service providers while no longer wasting time and energy debating issues with the self-interested and ill-informed.

Predominant among these organisations is the Owners Corporation Network, which has elbowed its way to state government tables where serious discussions about the future of strata in NSW are taking place.

Begun 15 years ago in response to the developer defect rorts that are only now being addressed by the government, it can take great credit for NSW residents gaining protections against the rampant spread of short-term holiday letting that has blighted strata living elsewhere in the country.

OCN is now actively involved in high-level discussions about the future of strata in NSW and has accumulated considerable collective wisdom as members share their experiences and tactics for dealing with problems.

Up in Queensland, the Unit Owners Association (UOAQ) is fighting battles on two fronts. Firstly there is the legalised corruption – my phrase, not theirs – of pre-sale of management rights over new apartment blocks.

With contracts stretching up to 25 years, and no influence by the people who pay for them over their conditions, or even who they’re with, the fact that this still exists in the 21st century is an ugly stain on Queensland strata.

Then there’s the incursion of short-term holiday lets into supposedly residential-only blocks, set up specifically so that Queenslanders could live in apartments without feeling they were in hotels.

UOAQ is trying to get local councils to enforce their own planning regimes as Airbnb hosts and their ilk realise that nice, quiet, mostly residential blocks are ripe for exploitation.

But UOAQ is about more than that. Queensland unit residents who want change should look there or at another group called Body Corporate Matters, which I had lost track of, but which is rebuilding after the sad loss of their leading light Gary Maynard. 

There is another group called Strata Owners Queensland, a new player in the field, but apart from a slick website (which hasn’t had a new post since June) the fact that their CEO was involved in management and letting rights for 15 years and one of their founders, Dee Panell, seems to have decamped to bolster the ranks at Body Corporate Matters, I don’t know much about them.

It’s fair to say that, as with just about everything else to do with strata in Queensland, it’s a bit of a mess but there are still good people trying to do the right thing.

In Victoria it took the single issue of short-term holiday lets to bring strata residents together. 

Not that it did them much good as the state government ran roughshod over its local council planning laws, with owners’ rights to run their own buildings trashed in favour of online holiday letting agencies.

The strata owners organisation set up in response, We Live Here, has been more effective on the question of combustible cladding, with the Victorian government offering much more support to apartment owners than any other state.

Finally, a word about Strata Community Association (SCA). On its website, the strata managers’ organisation claims to be the “peak body” for apartment owners and tenants in Australia and New Zealand.

It isn’t.  SCA does terrific work in NSW, especially, but it mostly represents strata managers and other service providers. It’s a little bit like bank managers saying they represent their customers, and SCA and the media really need to stop saying otherwise.

As for South Australia, if there is a strata residents’ organisation there, it sounds like it’s time you made yourself known.

Meanwhile, one option for those that can’t find definitive help from a dedicated group, would be to go to our “frenemies” LookUpStrata which takes questions from all over the country and pitches them at strata managers and lawyers.

The responses may not be as entertaining as you’ll find on these pages (c’mon, they’re strata managers and lawyers!) but they tend to be definitively accurate and authoritative.

Finally, there are government organisations like Fair Trading in NSW and Consumer Affairs in Victoria – but their focus tends to be in stopping the squabbles rather than deciding who’s right and wrong.

A version of this column first appeared in the Australian Financial Review.

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