If they weren’t real life horror stories, some of the anecdotes about management committees for Australian apartment blocks could form a sitcom script.
They range from the common yet irksome – no hanging washing to dry on balconies – to the truly power-hungry, highly pedantic – or even slightly scary.
As more Australians now live in apartments, with cities increasingly building upwards, it’s likely many owners and renters will deal with these committees – variously called “strata committees”, “owners’ corporations” or “body corporates” – at some point.
Claire* lives in the Sydney CBD and hits on a common root cause: “My committee is run by old, bored retired men looking for something to be in charge of.”
Her request for a one-off allowance of noise-minimised wooden flooring was denied due to the noise to the floor below: the car park. “It was ridiculous, but we accepted,” she says. More ridiculousness followed.
Furniture deliveries were consistently sent away when the pre-booked, tight elevator time slots were narrowly missed. When her mattress arrived Claire sent it up in lift – “nobody else got in or called the lift”. But someone spying accused her of “endangering the lives of elderly residents” and threatened Claire with a fine.
She cannot replace her deteriorating balcony doors until the entire building decides what to replace them with for consistency. A report said it was aluminum alloy. Then the drama: “That looked right to everyone except one guy on the owners’ corp who disagrees,” Claire says. “His can’t be (no expertise as far as I can tell), it’s something else! This has delayed a decision to start the discussion about replacing the doors for years.”
Part of the problem is the corrupt voting system, which any other democracy would abolish: “Two guys have scooped up so many proxies, they can get anything passed,” Claire says.
Claire’s isn’t the only strata committee with totalitarian tendencies.
Sanctuary Cove’s 1,300 residents on the Gold Coast earlier this year accused their body corporate of Big Brother-esque censorship when they banned the delivery of a longstanding newsletter – because it sometimes criticised them.
It contravenes advice Sadiye Ince from the Strata Community Association gives to all owners: “Communicating effectively, and in as many ways as possible – newsletters, email, apps, SMS – will do more to ensure the committee’s success than any by-law.” The Sanctuary Cove decision was reversed when a resident MP intervened.
The insufferable pettiness of some of these committees knows no bounds. Nathan Schokker has dealt with several strata committees in Brisbane, but one stands out for how it resolved repeated parking issues.
It was decreed all residents must photograph their car in its spot every single time they parked – even if multiple times a day – and email the pictures to the committee. “It resulted in thousands of emails and photos serving zero purpose because no one ever looked at them,” Nathan says. “It turned out each strata committee member had differing car park plans. So people were fighting over spaces that actually didn’t exist!”
Other infuriating stories abound – lovingly planted gardens ordered to be dug up and replaced with grey, uniform landscaping. Stasi-like surveillance of bins or lawns. No washing up liquid on window sills. Residents fined for parking in their own driveways or warned for leaving shoes by the front door.
In 2015, over 7,000 signed a Change.org petition imploring Melbourne Inner City Owners’ Corporation to allow elderly gay couple Murray Sheldrick, 78, and James Bellia, 72 to fly a rainbow flag on their balcony on special occasions, such as gay pride event Midsumma Festival. It threatened legal action, claiming the flag was an “advertising symbol”.
The bizarre ones are gold. Adelaide’s Vanessa Jones told of the “lady who produced a leaf from her tracksuit pocket to complain about the four leaves that blow onto her roof”. Tim* received a disapproving noise complaint in his Canberra apartment for the “female vocalising continuously through the night”. Tim and his male flatmate were stumped – “we’re both tragically single and should be so lucky”. Then the culprit was found: “It was the repeated hoot of a tawny frogmouth owl.”
The impact on residents can be extremely stressful. Sue* owns an apartment managed by one of the committees responsible for some of the above gripes. “If I’d known how bad they are, I’d never have moved here.” she says. The problem is that strata by-laws, in all their pedantry, can run to 90 pages long; little wonder they don’t get forensically studied.
Other cases are expensive. Earlier this year, Manly resident Patricia Murray paid $120,000 in damages to 78-year-old strata committee head Gary Raynor in a defamation case after an email dispute about her locking her mailbox.
Strata expert Professor Cathy Sherry from the University of NSW law school talks to the fact these committees are like a fourth level of government: “Australia hasn’t quite come to grips with collective owners managing themselves – you’ve given private citizens blanket power to regulate their neighbours’ lives – it’s unsurprising they’ll wield those powers in ways that aren’t sensible or too controlling.”
She has seen some doozies, including the master-planned estate that outright banned children under 13 unless they were accompanied by an adult over 21 – including in the ball park.
A common battleground Sherry says is pets. “An eco community in WA had a rule that if a pet was caught out at night twice, it could be shot by the body corporate manager!” she says. “The RSPCA made them change that rule.”
It’s controversial that buildings can still ban pets outright. “Australia is hugely more intolerant of pets then Europe. They’re hugely important for the elderly, lonely and visually impaired,” Sherry says.
Laws vary from state to state, but in 2015 NSW amended the Strata Schemes Management Act to state that strata by-laws cannot be “harsh, oppressive or unconscionable”. This was significant, Sherry says, because it was the first recognition that controls need to be placed on the powers of body corporates. She suggests a single word should be added to that high bar to encourage harmonious living: “unreasonable”.
Although most committees behave decently and do the right thing by their neighbours, Sherry has a word of advice for any would-be strata members – usually unpaid, unskilled, inexperienced volunteers.
“The best qualification,” she says “is a psychology degree.”
*names have been changed