Having braved the wilds of Scotland and the woes of Covid, we are back with a brand new Flat Chat Wrap podcast, with our usual mixture of optimism and, it must be said, the occasional bout of weary skepticism.
The optimism stems from the plans for a new high-end apartment block that will bring owners together with key worker in affordable rentals, plus some social housing.
And the remarkable thing about this is that the purchasers of apartments costing up to $2.4m actually like the ides of having a broad democratic spread among their neighbours.
The skepticism comes from wondering what the government is going to do about rental affordability and availability when they are so desperately keen not to do anything about holiday rentals having taken over what should be residential homes.
And then we have the woman in a small apartment block whose racist neighbour is just making up the rules as he goes – aided and abetted by absentee owners and a supine strata manager – including banning her from common property. That’s all in this week’s refreshed and renewed podcast.
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TRANSCRIPT IN FULL
We’re back, after a couple of weeks’ break while I was away, and while we were doing the ‘Lawyer in the Hot Seat’ thing.
And then when you came back, you brought a special souvenir for me; two souvenirs. One was a really nice pair of pyjamas, so thank you for that, and the other one was a dose of Scottish COVID!
Yes, it’s a very special Scottish COVID. Deep-fried COVID.
So my pleasure at seeing you back was tempered somewhat, by both of us then falling ill.
Yes. At one point earlier this year in Scotland, one person in 11 was infected with COVID. If I had known that, I would never have gone over there! And we are in a very unusual position for us, this week.
You’ve just finished writing a book?
Which means for the first time that I can remember, you are not in the middle of writing a book, because they’ve all overlapped. You know, you had ‘Elizabeth & Elizabeth,’ and then you had ‘Daughter of the River Country,’ and then you had ‘Mary Mary.’ Oh sorry, the Fiona Wood biography, which is coming out…
In September, I think, yes. It’s weird, isn’t it? I mean, it’s so strange, because all the time you’re on a mad deadline and you’re working and you’re thinking “oh my god, I wish I didn’t have these books to write.’ You think it’s going to be so wonderful when you don’t have them and and as soon as you don’t have them, I start getting really fidgety and thinking “oh, my god, what am I going to do with my life?”
You’ll think of something.
Yes. I wrote the words ‘the end’ today, which is my favourite part of writing a book, but I still need to go through the book and just trim it up and kind of refine it a little bit, I think.
The essence of good writing is rewriting.
Yes, but hopefully not too much rewriting!
Okay, now back to our proper job, which is this podcast. I’m Jimmy Thomson, I write the Flat Chat column for the Australian Financial Review.
And I’m Sue Williams and I write about property for Domain.
And this is the Flat Chat Wrap.
One of the features on the Flat Chat website at the moment, is something that you wrote for The Sydney Morning Herald, about a development in Wollongong.
Yes, that was fascinating. I mean, I went there just before you came home and made me sick, Jimmy.
Can we just get over it?
Okay. So I went down to Wollongong. I went to the breaking ground ceremony and it was the start of a new fabulous luxury apartment building. But it was a very, very different apartment building. They think it’s the first in New South Wales, and maybe even one of the first in Australia, where you’ve got social housing and affordable housing, cheek-by-jowl with luxury apartments. So you’ve had in the past; you’ve had some social housing tenants put into apartment buildings, and you’ve had some affordable housing units and apartment buildings alongside privately owned apartments, but you’ve never had all three in the same building together.
Yes, because often they’ll do a separate building on the same block of land.
That’s right. There are lots of complexes where there’s one building, which is just for social housing people, or one building, which is just for affordable housing and then another building, which is for private owners, you know. Which kind of help prop-up the finances of the whole complex. But this they think, is the first time where it’s all been meshed all together. It was really interesting, because to get permission for the building, they had to set a limit on how much affordable housing and social housing they would have in the building. You know, usually they they set a minimum, but this time, they set a maximum.
Because the idea is that they don’t want social housing and affordable housing anymore, to be all just stuck together. So, all just tenants together in one big block, like they used to have in the 50s and 60s. You used to have buildings which became almost ghettos of deprivation, because people there just didn’t have much money and they were really struggling all the time. This time, they wanted an absolute maximum set, so that these people would be living together with private owners, and they would all be mixed together. So you’ve got kids of social housing parents, who can see from their neighbours, how their neighbours are living and they can go to the same schools as their neighbours, and they can have the same kind of aspirations, as the children of the private owners.
Hey, we have a prime minister who was brought up in social housing.
And a Governor General who was brought up in social housing, so I mean, anything is impossible, but this is kind of giving the kids an extra boost really, by getting them to live in with other people, as well.
Because I think the developer, the name of which is Traders in Purple…
It is! They built a block somewhere (was it in Adelaide or Melbourne), and a social housing group came in and bought the whole thing.
Yes, that’s right. No, that was also New South Wales; in south New South Wales, on the south coast. That was meant to be a mix between social housing and private housing, but the Social Housing Trust went along and liked the building so much, they bought the whole building,
Which kind of undermined the concept of blending together.
That’s right, but there was such a shortage of social housing there. It was really interesting, because the CEO of Trades in Purple said during the ceremony (the breaking ground ceremony), that he loves being a developer; he loves developing new buildings. But he’s found working with social housing trusts, to be incredibly empowering and he read out an email that he got from somebody who lived in that first building, who said ‘thank you so much, you changed my life. I was living in a car, and then when you offered me a place in that fabulous new building (which is a nice building; real luxury finishes, fittings and really well-designed), I went on to finish my degree, then I got my PhD and now I’m lecturing in University.’
Wow! That’s terrific. It’s a great success story.
Because just down the road, there was a family of four living in a tent and there were lots of other families living in cars, because social housing is in absolute crisis in this country. People just can’t get homes.
Well, I’m going to raise something here; that plot where they built this building, had originally been a social housing block.
And now they’ve got private apartments, they’ve got affordable apartments, and they’ve got social housing apartments… Has been a net loss in social housing?
I’m not sure. There probably would be, because it was a low-rise building; a kind of very old 60s building, so there wouldn’t have been that many. But there probably was a little bit of a loss, because in this new building, there’s going to be 54 units, and of those, there’s six apartments for affordable housing and 10 for social housing, and the rest are going to be privately owned. So you kind of think, well, 10 social housing; there was probably more than that, on that site before. But if in lots of these new buildings, they all have an element of social housing, how quickly would that deficit be made up?
Now, I’m going to put you on the spot here, because you came back from that groundbreaking ceremony and said you were not very impressed with our Planning Minister; my very good friend, Anthony Robbins. I think the word you used was ‘tool.’
Look it was a shame. I mean, it was good that he actually went there; he went all the way to Wollongong (which I was quite surprised at). So, he obviously saw that this was a really valuable social experiment and he said in his speech that he would like to see this happen much more. And in fact, the same developers do have other projects in the pipeline in Sydney; in Padstow and Villawood. In two places, anyway. I don’t know; Anthony was just a bit odd.
He made a joke about the name, didn’t he?
He did. He got the name of the developers wrong. He said “oh, is it ‘Tradies in Purple?'” He kind of tried to take the mickey out of the developer and it was a shame because the developer had spoken so passionately about their passion for this project, and so movingly, and with such great examples, and there was everybody else there, from the the Housing Trust, from Social Housing… You know, there were people from every aspect of the housing industry, so it was a shame that he spoke so dismissively, about the developers. I kind of thought it was really bad taste.
I don’t think he’s a bad person; I think he just needs a better script writer.
I think one of the things that was really interesting about this apartment building, was that people thought, is this really going to work? Are people going to want to buy apartments in a building that also has affordable and social housing? I think that the developers kind of worried about that as well, for a while. But then they discovered that no, people weren’t put off by that, at all. People liked the building. They liked its location and they were actually really quite keen, most of them, when they talked about it, to say that ‘we’re very happy to have this building to be a microcosm of society. We don’t want to be separated from the other parts of society; the other demographics. We are very happy to be all mixed up. We want our kids to learn about the world and learning about the world isn’t just about people living in nice apartments, with plenty of money and a nice mortgage. It’s also about people who can’t really afford that kind of housing. It’s about nurses and teachers and police officers. It’s those people who can’t normally afford that standard of apartment
Talking about affordability; how is that going to work?
Well, obviously, the privately-owned apartments…. I think they’re from about $690,000, up to $2.4 million for the penthouse. But for the social and affordable housing, they pay a rent, which is 30% or 25% of their total income, so they never pay too much more than 30% of their actual income, for those apartments.
And this is administered by?
The Housing Trust. It’s looked after by the Housing Trust and that’s one of the reasons that so many people were very keen to live in the building; the private owners, because they knew that when you live in a building, you get some people who maybe aren’t great neighbours. Well, it’s certainly not going to be those people in the social and affordable housing, because they’re all administered by the Housing Trust and if there are any problems whatsoever, the Housing Trust goes and sorts them out.
It’s not like you’re calling the chairman up, and saying “oh, we’ve got a problem in flat 15; can you issue Notices to Comply?”
No, the Housing Trust have made a commitment to sort that out. So that’s a really great compromise, isn’t it?
Because I do recall a few years ago, that the Housing Commission were basically dumping problem families in apartment blocks and then, if they became a problem in the apartment block, the owners corporation would call up the Housing Commission and say “you’re the landlord, deal with this,” and they’d say “not our problem. It’s your problem. You’re the owners corporation, you deal with it.” I don’t think that happens.
No, not at all. And you know, you’re just as likely to get a problem tenant in a Housing Corporation place, as you are in a private place. You know, we’ve got maybe, a neighbour or two in our building, which can be ‘problem people.’
I mean, no, it’s not a socially exclusive thing.
Difficult people are difficult people, whatever class of society they came from.
And if you’ve got somebody you can go to and say “can you solve this problem for us?” In a lot of cases, you’ve got people who are not used to living in apartments like that; who don’t realise that they’ve got responsibilities as well as rights and it’s just an educational process, really.
I thought this was a great step forward and hopefully, we’ll see a lot more like this, coming up.
Okay. When we come back, we’re going to talk briefly about housing availability and affordability (more generally).
Watching ‘Insiders’ on the ABC this morning, I was struck by Amy Remeikis of The Guardian, who raised an issue that has gone very quiet… Probably because of COVID and probably because there hasn’t been tourists coming into the country… That is how Airbnb (especially), is affecting the availability of private rentals, to the point that there are apartments and houses sitting empty, and people are living in their cars. Can you see the government doing anything about that?
It’s very difficult, isn’t it? The government is really keen not to interfere with (what we say are), the mum and dad investors, who kind of…
You know, Airbnb would deny this, but we know that they cannot be trusted with figures and facts. They would say it’s all mum and dad investors and its little old ladies needing somebody to rent a spare room. We know in fact, that there are people who are literally making millions out of renting multiple properties on short-term lets in some of our more desirable areas. I think the biggest problem for the government is they want tourists to come in. I don’t think they give a damn about ‘mum and dad investors,’ but they want tourism coming back here, as quickly and as much as possible.
But we’ve got so many hotels and motels with empty rooms.
But nobody to work the coffee machine. And also, the other problem is that those backpackers and whatnot, who would be coming here to work in our hotel industry and stuff like that, they can’t rent in those areas, because Airbnb inflates the rents. I mean, it’s something that the state governments and the national government has completely ignored. The state governments have just fluffed it, at every turn.
Could the state governments go forward and say people can only own maybe, a maximum of two Airbnb properties at a time and so therefore, all those people who’ve got multiple properties… We know where there are some up to 100, I think…Could they not stamp out those and say no, they have to go back into the private rental market? Because that’s a huge problem. Rents at the moment are going really, really high, because there’s just not enough rental accommodation.
And there are people sitting on empty apartments, because they don’t want to put tenants in, because as soon as tourism picks up again, they go straight onto Airbnb. You know, if those people were forced to release their apartments back into the residential rental market, that would actually push house prices (or at least it would put a brake on house prices), as well. But nobody’s thinking about these things in any kind of sophisticated way. When I was in Scotland, I did a hike from Fort William to Inverness, and one of the little villages we walked into, had a big sign. There’s a row of little cabins; a big sign, Airbnb. I mean, a big, big sign, saying ‘this is the Airbnb accommodation you’ve been looking for.’ And I thought, yeah, that’s how it should work, that you build cabins for tourists and the tourists find them through a website like Airbnb. I don’t see any problem with that. The problem is when Airbnb markets itself as ‘live like a local…’
And takes regular rentals away from the regular market.
And the locals have to go and live somewhere else. And this is the insidious thing. And this is why I find it really hard to stomach what Airbnb does, because from the moment they moved into Australia, they lied about what they were doing. They misled the government, they even persuaded at one point, the Tenants Union to support them. I found a picture today, of somebody shooting themselves in the foot and it reminded me that I had said to the Tenants Union “you realise they are taking away residential rentals?” They came back and said “no, Airbnb have shown us these figures, that show this isn’t happening.” You go “yeah, come on. Now, use your brains.” There’s a new regime at the Tenants Union and they really pissed Airbnb off, when they turned around and said ‘we are stepping back from what we said before. It’s not true.’ But something needs to be done. I mean, I don’t care if it’s Airbnb, or Stayz, or any of these things. The mayor of Kiama wants a 90-day limit as they’re going to have up in Byron Bay. It’s a start, because then, what’s going to happen on the other 260 days of the year?
Well, I guess those 90 days are always going to be in summer, so the difficulty is that you’re going to get somebody who’s going to take out a lease… They’re only going to be able to take out that lease for nine months and then for the three months, what are they going to do? It’s really difficult.
There just should be a distinction made between residential properties and holiday properties. Just make that distinction. We’ve got this situation in Queensland, where they have blocks of apartments on the Gold Coast, which they say ‘may not be used for short-term lets,’ in their planning, and you buy in and you say “oh great! I’m not going to be in one of these horrendous blocks, where half the year, it’s tourists.” But then, Airbnb comes along and says “oh, we’re actually residential.” People who have bought into these apartments, believing that they wouldn’t be holiday lets, find that they’re just as bad as everywhere else and that’s because of gutless politicians, if you ask me.
Right, we’re going to talk very briefly, about a very strange situation that’s come up in the forum. I’m pushing on here, because I’ve discovered that the average length of time our listeners listen to our podcast, is 19 minutes. Now, that’s average. Some listen for less, some listen for more. That’s how averages are worked out, but I don’t think we can be going over half an hour, ever again. In the forum last week, a woman wrote to us. She’s in a small block of four and everything was fine and then, a new owner moved in and decided that since she had a separate entrance into her unit, at the back of the building, she was no longer allowed to use the common property entrance. He changed the locks and when she tailgated a tenant in one of the other units into the building, he called the police and said that they had an intruder in the building.
Oh my god!
So you think, okay, it’s a toxic situation, with this guy, because this woman is married to someone of North African descent, he shouts racial abuse at them, “go back to where you came from,” and all that. What can you do?
What can you do?
By the way, the strata manager is just totally useless in this; won’t even say boo to a goose. Because you know, how much money are they making off a four-unit block; $1,000 a year. It’s not worth him picking up the phone. But somebody should step in and say, this is just not acceptable behaviour. The woman is confronted with the probability she’s going to have to go to tribunal. She’s probably going to have to get the strata manager kicked out and replaced with a statutory manager.
What about the two other owners?
They’re overseas investors, so it’s that nightmare. But I think the police should be coming around and saying to this guy “hey look, we actually are aware a little bit about strata law, and you can’t be doing this,” apart from the racial abuse and all that. But the problem is that there is nobody in strata that you can call and say “this terrible thing is going on in my life. My life is being ruined by this neighbour; can somebody come and do something about it?”
What about the Strata Commissioner?
Do we have one?
Yes, we do.
What does he do? When have you ever heard him do anything? He’s a real estate agent; that’s who he’s concerned with. He’s concerned with real estate. Now, Strata Community, Australia, which is the strata managers thing, they could offer a pro bono service, where one of their strata managers comes along and says to this person “you cannot do this and we are going to support this person, if they take you to the tribunal. But really, for ordinary people left high and dry, who do you turn to? I mean, she’s going to end up probably selling her apartment, and hope that the person she’s selling to doesn’t know about the crazy guy. Which brings me to (in closing), Marrickville Legal Centre, who offer free legal advice. People tend to think if you own an apartment, then you must have some money. But you think about people who bought their apartments years ago, when they were really cheap and now they’re retired and they’re on a fixed income and the levies have to go out and they don’t have money to spend on lawyers. Marrickville Legal Centre will provide you with legal advice and even representation at a tribunal, if need be. They’re having their big fundraising at the moment. We’ve got a story on the website. Click on the story, have a look at them; send them some money, and then maybe we’ll get them to help this woman out.
Good idea; excellent. I mean, they’re always fabulous people. They’re great. They’re really worth supporting.
And they’re committed to helping people and Marrickville Legal Centre covers the whole of New South Wales. They’re the only free legal service for strata owner residents, to cover the whole of New South Wales, so they need money. That’s it, we’re back! We’re firing on all cylinders.
Fantastic! You’re well enough to go outside. I’m still in purgatory until Tuesday, and then I’m free to go outside.
I think she’s faking it, folks!
I wish I were!
She’s sending me out for ice cream and things like that.
If only I could go as well, though!
With any luck, we’ll survive another week, and we’ll talk to you next week.
Thanks for listening to the Flat Chat Wrap podcast. You’ll find links to the stories and other references on our website, flatchat.com.au. And if you haven’t already done so, you can subscribe to this podcast completely free on Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your favourite pod catcher. Just search for Flat Chat Wrap with a W, click on subscribe, and you’ll get this podcast every week without even trying. Thanks again. Talk to you again next week.