Covid-19 is back in the news in new, super-infectious variants, and in the podcast this week we ask the highly relevant question of what do you do if it comes to your apartment block?
Do you expect everyone in your block to be told that someone is self-isolating because they have been tested, or were in a certain place at the same time as an infected person, or if they just have a bit of a cough and the sniffles?
Would you be annoyed if you were that person and all your neighbours were warned to stay well clear of you?
Do we have to wait for a resident to get the bug? And should our entire block be locked down if someone does?
Should residents in “hot” zones be wearing masks in lifts and carparks right now or do we have to wait for the state government to tell us what to do?
We say, most blocks watch the states’ health departments’ notices slavishly, so we need some clear advice now, so we can be ready.
Then we follow the story of the woman whose leaky balcony was getting up her nose – literally – in the form of black mould.
And that story has led to a revelation about Victorian balconies in the Forum.
And, finally, three big developers face a range of negative reactions as their projects are rejected or are in serious trouble, while real estate agents are in the crosshairs for not warning prospective purchasers.
All that and more in this week’s Flat Chat Wrap.
Transcript in Full
There’s a lot going on in apartments this week and a lot of news and not much of it very good. We’ve got the lockdown of the apartment block in Melbourne. We’ve got the spread of the Coronavirus in Sydney and the call by OCN for New South Wales Health to actually have protocols for apartment blocks.
Sounds like a good idea.
And we’ve got developers getting themselves into all sorts of trouble. Plenty to talk about! 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.
So, lockdown of an apartment block in Melbourne and then virus spreading through… I mean, I don’t know if you can even call it casual contact… Passing clouds.
Absolutely! That’s a real worry, isn’t it?
It is and they are connected, these things. The apartment block in Melbourne; apparently, the transmission of the virus was through people passing in the carpark. These are townhouses, although it looks like an apartment block from the pictures. These are basically townhouses and they have their own front doors to the outside. So you’re thinking, well, how’s the transmission going on here? Apparently, it was in the communal carpark, underneath.
That puts it on another level completely, doesn’t it?
Well, yes, in so many ways, Sue. Then, we hear about the spread from the Bondi Junction shopping center and they’ve actually found CCTV, where they’ve got the original infected person and saw him basically brush past. I don’t know even if they made physical contact or walked in the vicinity of the person who got infected and that’s all it took. Basically, two people, breathing the same air.
So, what can you suggest to help keep apartment and townhouse residents safer?
Stay home! Look, the Owners Corporation Network has sent out a press release. It’s actually a letter that they sent in February to New South Wales Health, saying “come on, you’ve got to come up with a protocol for apartment blocks.” Remember back a year ago, or a little bit more. We were outraged that Airbnb hosts were saying “come and self -isolate in our apartment blocks.” This is before hotel quarantine started, so that hotel quarantine has taken that away, to some extent. Now we’ve got, “how can you isolate entirely, in an apartment block?” New South Wales Health; we contacted them and we passed on the OCN’s concerns and said “what are you doing about it?” Basically, we got a motherhood statement. You know, “we believe in vigilance and hand washing and masking in enclosed spaces.” You think “yeah; none of this is apartment -specific.” They haven’t really thought through any differences that might apply to apartments that don’t apply to any other kind of housing.
Which is astonishing, really, because when you think about those tower blocks in Melbourne that were locked down; there were Housing Commission blocks. I mean, until then, we hadn’t seen apartment residents really hit by this, but now with the Delta variant, it’s going to be even worse. So, you’re right; we just do need to do something to protect apartment residents a lot more.
I think surely, they should have in place a range of options. The worst case would be if someone in your apartment block was infected, then that would be isolation of the apartment block. What happens within the apartment block?
That’s right. Should you be wearing masks when you’re in common property areas? Corridors, in the lobby and the car park?
Yeah, I think you would have to tell people; instruct people to wear masks as soon as they stepped outside the front door of their apartment. It’s all very well to say “well, just stay in your apartment.” What about putting out the garbage? What about getting food and things like that? I mean, these are things that the government scientists are best placed to work out, but it doesn’t seem as if they’re even thinking about it and they’ve got so many examples. The hotel cross-contamination, they discovered, is somebody opening their door at the same time as a person across the corridor who was infected, opened their door and just that transmission of air across. It’s manageable, but you’ve got to have a plan.
Yeah, you’re right. I mean, most people now, could order food online, but you’re quite right; just the simple things, like putting out garbage. I mean, how do you manage that? It’s okay, maybe in buildings with concierge services, because they can help, but for those buildings that don’t have that kind of thing, I guess there should be a protocol for the local Department of Health, to have a section where they can be galvanized into action to do something to help.
Yeah. I think everybody has got so used to waiting for the government to tell us what to do, because everybody has a different idea. I mean, there’s some people who think “oh, it’s just pointless; just live as you normally would and if you’re lucky, you won’t get COVID,” which is a kind of stupid argument. There are other people who will not do anything, unless the government has said “this is what you must do.” Not because they don’t want to do anything, but they don’t want to do anything that they shouldn’t be doing. The government needs to come out with protocols for apartments. It really dropped the ball in this and they’ve now got all the evidence they need from Melbourne and from Bondi Junction, to tell them this is what needs to be done.
Because, these are big clusters of people living together, who are going to be very vulnerable if there are more outbreaks of the Delta variant. You don’t want those running rife through big buildings.
I wonder if this is one of these situations that falls in the gap between two different government departments? You’ve got Health New South Wales, who are kind of like King of the Hill at the moment and you’ve got little Fair Trading, sitting there, looking at their broken toys and dodgy mechanics and basically not getting any traction, with New South Wales Health, about what should be happening in apartment blocks.
Well, maybe the new Commissioner for Real Estate…
Property Services Commissioner.
Maybe, he or she, when they’re appointed, could have a word with the government, too.
I got an email from their PR person the other day, saying “hi. I’m working.” I said “great! Can you tell me what this person’s actually going to be doing?”
Nobody has been appointed yet to the post, have they?
I’ve got a feeling that they kind of have, but they haven’t. They’ve identified the person they want, but they just haven’t told them yet.
Okay and what did the PR come back to you and say?
Hasn’t. It’s just a couple of days ago and it is the weekend, so we’ll give them a break, this one time. When we come back, we are going to talk about a horrible situation and one that is all too common. It’s the health consequences of not maintaining common property. That’s after this.
And, we are back. Sue, you’ve been following a story. In fact, writing about people in Melbourne, who have suffered serious health consequences of common property not being properly maintained?
That’s right. It was a young woman in Melbourne, whose balcony was leaking terribly. She bought an apartment; it was seven years old. She got out of bed one day and it was raining and her carpet was absolutely sodden, because the water was flooding in from the balcony. The doors weren’t properly fixed, so it was a clear defect. The builder came in and fixed it, but it was during lockdown in Melbourne, so it took a long, long time. She had to live with that for a while and it was a long period of negotiation with the builder, before it was fixed. She went into her local doctor to have a routine COVID test. The doctor put a swab up her nose and came back and said “oh my god; what is this? It’s black!” She said “I have no idea what it is.” Then, she said “it looks like mold spores to me.”
When she went back to her apartment, she ripped up the carpet and there was black mold, all under the carpet and then along the walls, from all the damp over the years. She had to start using an asthma puffer and of course, because of lockdown, she was in that apartment for a long time. People were saying to her “put on heaters, to try and dry out the carpet,” but of course, that makes mold grow even faster. It was a difficult situation and it has affected her health; hopefully, not long-term, but, quite possibly, long-term as well.
Just this morning, I got a post from a reader in Melbourne, who said they just read your story and theye’v had the same problem in a different building, where the balcony is leaking. It’s actually the balcony upstairs, that’s leaking and now they’ve discovered in the heavy rain they’ve had, that their balcony is now leaking into the apartment downstairs. What they don’t have in Victoria, is a very active group, like Owners Corporation Network and (dare I say it), like Flat Chat. It’s not that prominent there. So, there’s nobody there saying “here’s the process;” go to their consumer affairs, start the process, get to VCAT (Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal), and get the orders, that it’s there in the law. It’s quite clear; they’ve got to do it… They’ve got to fix it. In Victoria, they don’t have that culture that was developed here, of knowing the processes to follow. So, you hear fewer of these stories. This guy who wrote to the Flat Chat forum this morning; he said he’d read your story and he said “we’d been about to buy into that apartment block; the one that you wrote about… My wife has started coughing at night a lot and we’ve just realized that probably, this whole business has started affecting our health as well.”
It’s good that they’ve avoided further complications, hopefully, by not buying into another trouble building. When you say, there’s not too many people to help, that’s right, but there is one group which has started up over in Western Australia called the Australian Apartment Advocacy, run by a woman called Sam Reece. She launched an education kit in WA, to tell apartment residents about their rights and responsibilities. She’s trying to launch (presumably) tailored kits, to different state laws and regulations and she’s planning to launch her education kit in Victoria in late July and maybe also one in New South Wales in late July, as well.
Her background is real estate; she is on-side with a lot of developers. She’s getting some funding, I believe, from developers. I guess we’ve got to say that you don’t have to be at war with developers all the time. There are good developers who want the right thing to be done. There’s also developers who will quite happily co-opt people from the owner’s side, to give them some sort of credibility. So, we just have to be careful. But, it’s good to have another voice in the arena.
Yeah and she highlighted an issue that the woman with the black mold has had. When she bought her apartment in Victoria, there’s a section 32 document, which is a compulsory vendor statement about a property that enables an agent to market a house. That should have on that, any problems that have arisen with an apartment, but that was absolutely blank. Then, when she looked at the strata minutes, nothing had been recorded in the strata minutes about defects. So, that was a real omission and this woman had done all her checks and she’d felt that this place was going to be fine, but in fact, it seems that the Owners Corporation weren’t keeping regular records in some ways.
Well, it sounds like one of these classic cases where the Owners Corporation might be dominated by investors and they’ve basically said “let’s not even talk about this stuff, because people might not want to buy into our building if we do.”
And that seems to have changed now, because I spoke to a lawyer for the Owners Corporation and they’re actually planning legal action at VCAT against the builder. They sound as if they’re becoming a lot more proactive now. They’re going to talk to them about common area defects and they’ll also be helping private individuals with their own defects within their apartments, as well. So thankfully, something’s happening at last, but a bit late.
Yeah, that is one of the areas that Victoria, in one way, is better off and that is that the duty of care of builders is transferable to the purchasers of apartments and it lasts for 10 years. So, your six year warranty (that they also have for defects), is with the developer, but, if you’ve still got problems after your six year’s runs out, then you can go to the builder and say “you’ve got a duty of care; there’s a guarantee implicit in the work.”
Fantastic! Whereas, in New South Wales, there’s a disconnect, isn’t there?
I don’t know if they fixed it, or they’re gonna fix it, or they’re planning to fix it, or maybe, they’ve already fixed it, but that duty of care thing is a big issue. If the developer can say “well, the builder, let me down,” and then the builder says “well, my contract was with the developer; it wasn’t with the owner of the apartment, so you have no claim.” But, that’s in Victoria; you can pursue that all the way through and talking about developers… There was a few interesting stories and we’ll be talking about them, after this.
And, we’re back. Sue, you’re digging up stories about developers, all over the place!
Well, we’ve had Victoria having problems, but New South Wales still has plenty of problems as well. We know that the Building Commissioner has now refused to issue an Occupation Certificate for a big complex in Castle Hill, which is built by the developer, Toplace. There’s lots of negotiations going on about that, because there’s lots of alleged defects that have been found in the buildings. There’s action, continuing on that. Also, we’ve heard that Meriton (Harry Triguboff), had been proposing 1900 apartments in Little Bay. Little Bay is a place in the eastern suburbs of Sydney, which is a very Little Bay, just like its name. It’s a little beach and it’s a really pretty little oasis in Sydney, but these 1900 apartments could possibly have changed it forever.
I remember looking down there a couple years ago and the developer was very; I remember them being very conscious about not not wanting to over-develop. Obviously, they wanted to build as many apartments as they could, but they didn’t want to over-develop, because of the nature of the place. Well, it seems like their wishes are going to be fulfilled, if Harry’s been knocked back.
Well, he has been knocked back now, by a planning panel. But it is interesting… I went down there a couple of years ago and I was quite amazed by how much development is there already. It is quite incredible and that’s the area just near Long Bay Goal. It was really stunning at the beginning and it’s still stunning, but it is quite densely populated. You kind of think, well, another 1900 apartments would have made it possibly intolerable, really.
Is there much in the way of services there, like shops and cafes and things like that, or is it just a dormitory suburb?
I think there are a few cafes. I don’t think you have to go very far for shops. One of the big draw-cards at the beginning, was the golf courses around there, as well. You’ve got the pretty beach but you know, it is quite small. It’s only a small stretch of beach and if everybody on a hot day; everybody wanted to go down there at the same time…
It’d be mobbed!
Yes, absolutely. You’d be standing six people high, probably!
Or, giving each other COVID. You mentioned Toplace, because they’re involved in a dispute. I think it’s in Parramatta, where they’d done a deal with the council to dig out some car parking for their apartment block but it involved taking over a council carpark. Then, they were going to return the parking spaces to the council and more, probably. Now the council’s discovered that they’ve dug a couple of extra levels of car parking underneath their apartment block; the council says, without permission. Then, they’ve got this problem that there’s water seeping into the bottom level and it would cost a fortune, to waterproof it. But, the alternative is to have water pumps running constantly, which is not environmentally clever at all.
No, that would take a lot of energy and it would be noisy. What a ridiculous situation!
You know, the old ‘involved in negotiations,’ makes me think, regardless of what ‘Topless’ thought they were doing, or thought they were entitled to do and all the rest of it; the power of councils to actually deal with developers who don’t do what they said they were gonna do… They seem to be absolutely toothless. I mean, they’re in a bind, because they need to get the car parking spaces back, but if they get too heavy-handed and start taking whoever to court over whatever, then everything gets stopped; everything slows down. There just doesn’t seem to be anything in the law that says to developers, when you have signed the contract, it’s not just legally binding. It’s fraudulent not to do, what you’ve said you’re going to do.
So, wouldn’t a council inspector have gone onto the site and noticed that there was heavy machinery digging below?
You would hope so, but, you know, the council inspectors, I mean, how can they tell?
It’s probably hard to get on the site, anyway.
And when you look at the depth of car parking… I mean, we’ve spent several months having a hole dug out of the basement of a new apartment block. They drilled through the sandstone, right in front of our building and it went on for months and months and months. There’s no way you could have said “oh, that’s two levels of parking, or three levels,” or whatever.
You’d have no idea from the outside.
You would hope that a council inspector would be a bit better trained than I am.
Peering over the balcony.
It’s not going to do it.
No, exactly. That’s a tricky one.
And there is another one in the eastern suburbs?
Of Sydney, yes. In Edgecliff, which is just on the way to Bondi, from the city. There was an application for a developer to build around 500 new apartments…500 new apartments, in towers of up to 89 meters, so, pretty high. Locals were absolutely outraged by this and were saying it’s gonna be a really dense conurbation in the middle of Woollahra, which is quite a leafy, nice…
Ah, that side of Edgecliff!
That would involve an increase in building heights and floor space ratios and so that rows’ ongoing, so we’ll see what happens with that one.
All right. Well, we got through quite a lot this morning. We’ve talked about developers, we’ve talked about Coronavirus and black mold. I think we’ve done enough. We’ve given people enough to be getting on with. There will be links to all of these stories on the podcast show notes. That’s what we call the story that goes with the podcast. And, some of them will be the original story we talked about in the Sydney Morning Herald. I’m not sure if you have a paywall that gets in the way there. I think you’ve got a limit on the number of stories you can read every week. Just read the stories that you get a link to from Flat Chat; don’t read any other stories and you’ll get through fine.
Or, take a subscription!
It’s not very much money.
They pay our wages; we should say that. Well, they’ve not paid our wages. Okay Sue, thank you very much for coming in again on this cold and wet Sunday morning.
And, we’ll talk to you all again soon. Bye.
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 favorite 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.
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