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30 Apr 2020

OC support in a time of COVID-19 - a tale of two cities …

By Dr Janette Corcoran

Wuhan, London and New York – these are among the cities hardest hit by COVID-19 – and all feature high-rise living.

Living in close proximity in this time of social-distancing would not seem ideal.

Our regular exposure to high-touch areas (such as lift buttons), our use of shared facilities (such as mail rooms) and our need to navigate around several hundred neighbours (who are now working from home) have led some to describe our vertical villages as being akin to “cruise ships on land”.

And the responsibility for steering these “high-rise cruise ships” has fallen to building management, directed by their volunteer owners’ corporations (OCs).

As is frequently stated, this is uncharted territory.

And as chair of a large OC, I personally have struggled to navigate the array of issues that we are encountering, which include:

  • Interpreting public health orders: what is a “reasonable excuse” and whose responsibility is it to enforce?
  • Changing decision-making procedures: ensuring video meetings (including notifications, access and security) are legally conducted;
  • Promoting safety and cleanliness: determining criteria for closure of recreational facilities (pools, gyms, libraries) and exceptions to these;
  • Deliveries: negotiating access channels;
  • Disclosure: determining legal requirements for confirmed and suspected COVID-19 infections in terms of health and privacy;
  • Strata levies and finances: designing procedures to support owners in financial difficulties without compromising building operations;
  • Short-term letting: investigating options in the face of “self-isolation lets”;
  • Renovations and common property work: determining contractual obligations and protocols to mitigate risks;
  • Waste management: crafting procedures for increased waste volumes and dealing with waste from infected and/or self-isolated units;
  • Resident experience: use of by-laws to manage smoking and noise; and
  • Community wellbeing: identification and curation of support services.

In view of the foregoing, and given that high-rise living is a significant and fast-growing part of all Australian capital cities, should OCs expect some tailored support in this time of COVID-19?

Agreeing that we should is Amanda Farmer, a specialist strata lawyer and Fellow and Council Member of the Australian College of Strata Lawyers. Amanda believes our sector has a great need for clear guidelines, warning that:

“Otherwise, there will be a lack of compliance and the virus could really spread, given such large groups of people living so closely together.”

And true to her beliefs, Ms Farmer is doing her part, conducting regular podcasts on topics related to strata living and COVID-19.

Unfortunately for us, these are from a NSW perspective.

And this is just one area where our NSW OC counterparts have support.

Take the issue of short stays

From April 10, 2020 in NSW, a change to strata laws helps OCs manage short-stays as they are now able to adopt by-laws that limit their operation in strata schemes. There are restrictions, but compare that to the state of play in Victoria where changes to our Owners’ Corporations Act 2006 (introduced in February 2019), in effect, simply provided a complaints mechanism for “unruly parties”.

So, what other support is on offer for our NSW counterparts?

From the City of Sydney (CoS) comes services such as a dedicated unit focused upon apartment living which offer programs such as Smart Green Apartments and Strata Skills 101 Workshops. Through these programs, CoS is well connected to their OC community, which allowed them to quickly formulate and disseminate COVID-19 information sheets and, most recently, host a webinar, entitled: “Safe and harmonious apartment living during COVID-19”. This webinar covered – from a NSW perspective – many of the issues with which mine and other Victorian OCs have been struggling. And the session even included a (NSW) Template By-Law for Waste Disposal (prepared by Amanda Farmer in partnership with CoS).

So, how does City of Melbourne (CoM) compare?

CoM has no unit focused upon high-rise living and to date, I have not received any tailored information regarding the issues I previously listed.

To give them their due, CoM has been tremendously active in supporting the business sector. They have designed an extensive economic support package for businesses affected by COVID-19 which includes grants, rent relief, fee waiving and reduction in some registration processes.

And they have just hosted a virtual business support summit – just like CoS did for their strata community.

Two points bear noting:

Around 83 per cent of residents within the City of Melbourne live in apartments;

These vertical communities are acknowledged as encountering a distinct set of challenges.

So, here’s the thing.

High-rise living is the dominant way of living in the City of Melbourne.

OCs are volunteers who are responsible for managing these complexes.

We need – and deserve – attention •

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