Strata Reform Speech

Strata reform is a growing concern in Sydney and will soon become an election issue as apartments make up a greater proportion of the housing mix and buildings become larger.

 

There is no question that laws need to be updated to ensure fair management and better construction of buildings.

Unfortunately the last four years have seen some major setbacks in strata law.

We’ve seen home warranty insurance scrapped for buildings of four or more stories. Home warranty insurance was not perfect, with most buildings unable to access returns, but it was a useful fall-back for defects when owners could not take a builder or developer to court because he or she was dead, missing or bankrupt.

 We also saw the statutory warranty period for defects reduced from seven years for all defects, to six years for structural defects and two years for other defects.

 Followed by, at the beginning of this year, redefinition of defects so that only major defects are covered by the six year period with major defects defined as ones that cause a building to fall down, require demolition or become uninhabitable. While fire and water defects were included in the definition for major defects, if they don’t cause the building to fall down, require demolition or become uninhabitable they will only be covered by the two year period.  

Serious defects often don’t appear in the first two years and it is rare that a building will be in such a detrimental state that it will fall down, be demolished or not have people live in it.

 In Parliament I opposed these changes and tried to have all fire and water defects covered by the six year period through the regulations.

 Last year a High Court decision also removed defects from the law of negligence (another avenue used by owners to get redress for defects). I asked the minister to legislate to restore defects in negligence law however the minister told me it is unnecessary because owners have access to pursue defects through statutory warranties.

 On the positive side, the minister informed me that the government remains committed to strata law reform and will introduce a bill in the first half of the year. While I am unaware of the opposition’s strata commitments, I do note that it supported Clover Moore’s private members bill, which was the catalyst for government reform.

 I will work with whoever is in government to get the changes needed to make apartment living fair and sustainable. I will take you through some of the reforms I have been pushing and will continue to push.

 Short term rentals and overcrowding in apartment buildings are the most common complaints I hear about. Both have serious impacts on costs, amenity and security. I repeatedly raised these issues with successive ministers and the Premier but the government has not acted, claiming it is a council matter.

 It is true that building zones, consent conditions and building codes, which are council matters, can make short term letting and overcrowding unlawful, but councils are often unable to get the level of evidence required by the courts to issue an order. Generally councils must enter a property to get the needed evidence and this can only occur with the owner’s permission, which is rarely given by a perpetrator. The only option left for councils is to get a Search Warrant which requires an equivalent level of evidence.

 Although the Lord Mayor and I have repeatedly told the government that current laws cannot be enforced, it has refused to consider changes and the expected strata reforms are not likely to address this.

 I am committed to introducing a bill that would enable councils to get the evidence to bring these matters to court successfully. I am looking at allowing courts to admit circumstantial evidence, such as classified ads and photographs of luggage, which is currently only permitted for cases of illegal boarding houses. My work on this is ongoing and I will soon consult stakeholders including the OCN.

 Concerns about proxy harvesting is the next most common strata issue raised with me – in fact some owners say one of the barriers to stamping out short term letting and overcrowding is when perpetrators hold majority proxies.

 Current practices which allow one person or a small group of people to control management of a building, sometimes at the expense of most owners, are unfair and undemocratic.

 I’ve called for reforms to address this problem and suggested that blind proxies be banned so that proxy holders must consult those they represent. The government says its reforms will limit proxies to five per cent of lots per person if a scheme has more than 20 lots or one per person if a scheme has 20 lots or less. This proposal would be a significant improvement on the current situation although I understand owners of some large schemes remain concerned that this model would enable persons to work together to harvest votes and vote as a block in their collective favour. Anyone with such concerns should raise them with me so that I can tell the minister before a bill is introduced.

 With more families with children living in apartments the number of people raising concerns about drift smoke from neighbouring apartments and balconies has been increasing and this trend is set to rise unless it is reasonably addressed.

 Everyone should be able to live in a smoke-free home, especially children.

 While a building can move a by-law to ban smoking on common property or balconies, this requires majority support which provides no guarantee. I don’t believe that access to a smoke free home should depend on the will of other owners – it is a right that everyone should have. Queensland is considering a ban on smoking on balconies however not all smoking on balconies affects neighbours so this approach may be overkill.

 I support empowering an authority to issue orders and notices to ban smoking where second-hand smoke drifts into the apartment of a neighbour and I will be calling on the government to introduce reforms to this effect.

 Pet ownership is vital for many people, especially those who live alone. Pets provide companionship, reduce stress and anxiety and in the case of dogs, encourage owners to exercise. As apartments make up a larger portion of the housing mix, the need for more pet friendly apartments increases. But most strata schemes still ban pets outright and it can be very hard to have a pet in the inner city.

 In response to my question in Parliament, the former minister changed the default by-law, which most buildings adopt automatically, from one that bans pets to one that allows them with executive committee permission.

 I would like to stress that under these changes, existing pet bans will not be overturned and new buildings can change the by-law to ban pets. Pet bans just won’t be the default position of new buildings. I hope that this will result in more pet friendly apartments. I hope that strata schemes that are now reluctant to ease bans will see more good examples of how well pets live in apartments and change their positions.

 I understand many of you are concerned about improving the sustainability of apartment buildings. While urban consolidation allows more people to live close to jobs, services and entertainment so that they drive less, and reduces native vegetation clearing for new developments, apartment buildings use a lot of energy and water from lighting and cooling hallways and car parks, operating lifts and pumping water to high levels. Unfortunately the Building and Sustainability Index – BASIX – was never increased as promised and still requires high-rise apartment buildings to achieve only 20 per cent energy efficiency improvements with this target accounting for energy efficient appliances like dish washer and washing machines which are temporary. Unfortunately, planning laws do not allow councils to require energy and water efficiencies beyond BASIX so this minimum is what most developments provide because many developers do not want to invest in sustainability.

 I will continue to push for laws that encourage sustainable buildings but I’m encouraged by the number of community initiatives out there helping owners corporations to improve efficiencies.

 Green Strata – run by Chris Byrne who is here today – and the City of Sydney help inform owners and residents of ways to green their buildings. Last week I was shown a new App. called Watt Block which allows owners to punch data about common areas into their smart phones and get advice on ways to save on emissions and money.

 Energy and water efficient buildings make both environmental and economic sense and I hope future governments will do more to reduce the environmental footprint of future buildings.

 These issues only briefly outline the main concerns I have been raising and will continue to raise if I am re-elected.

 As we all know, getting changes that benefit owners and residents of strata schemes remains a struggle. Promised strata law reforms have been delayed for over a year and the changes we have seen, as I outlined, largely favoured developers and builders. How do we turn this around?

 Owners and residents need to lobby on strata reform much more.

 People must talk to their local State MP and at election time that should be extended to all candidates.

 It is also worth contacting the Minister for Fair Trading as the minister is the one who will drive any change, however it is unlikely that individuals will get meetings with ministers and advocacy groups like the OCN will be in a better position to get personal time. Where the minister simply doesn’t listen, large campaigns like emails and petitions that target the Premier are needed (these make Premiers nervous and may direct a minister to act). It is also important to lobby the Opposition as its position will put pressure on the government and multi-partisan support for an issue is always best.

 When you lobby decision makers it’s important that you provide succinct and clear information. Don’t assume that they know the law already and don’t ask them to assess reams of documentation like court reports – MPs get hundreds of requests every week and have a limited number of resources. A one page summary with a clear request for action is the most useful thing you can provide. Don’t be emotive, aggressive or rude.

 Different MPs relate better to different types of communications. The most effective will be one-on-one personal contact. Form letters, email campaigns and petitions won’t have the same impact as a human face and a personal story, unless you have thousands of these contacts, and even then it may be the personal story they remember.

 Using the media is helpful to give your issue attention and get progress. This doesn’t mean you need to focus on getting your campaign on major TV current affairs programs or daily newspapers. Indeed local papers are often more targeted to your MP’s direct constituency and they will often provide you with more comprehensive and localised coverage.

 Remember decisions are made by those who show up, so make sure you show up!