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Unfair strata rules need to be changed to enable sustainability upgrades in apartments

apartment in docklands strata unfair

Although most of the conditions are now right for sustainability upgrades to strata buildings, Green Strata president Christine Byrne says there are still major regulatory and cost barriers stopping these retrofits.

She told The Fifth Estate that this is a “hot button issue” and that inaction to overcome these structural issues in many Australian jurisdictions means apartment owners are missing out on the cost-saving benefits of sustainability upgrades, including rooftop solar.

At the same time, Byrne says rooftop solar is now affordable for townhouses, the medium and the high rise sector. On top of that, the NABERS for Apartment Buildings was released last year, which has helped boost awareness of sustainability upgrades.

“All these things have come together – the time is right.”

Now the main thing holding back widespread sustainability upgrades, she says, is that “governments don’t understand strata.”

She says that although intentions are generally good, sustainability-boosting incentives and measures are usually focused on houses, with “apartments” often tacked on as an after-thought. 

There’s a tendency to treat strata like “50 houses stacked on top of one another” when in reality the structural dynamics of apartment buildings are quite different. 

“If we buy an apartment our home comes in the form of an airspace. That’s the bit we own or lease,” she says.

“This means we can’t change anything on those boundaries because that’s outside our airspace and is collectively owned by everyone, it’s common property.”

This means decisions to alter windows or the lighting in corridors is a decision that must be made by the owner’s corporation.

She says this is significant because the common areas include energy-guzzling features such as lifts, ventilation systems and pool pumps, and can use up to 60 per cent of the entire energy consumption of apartment buildings.

But there’s movement afoot

Lowering voting thresholds – generally from a 75 per cent majority to a 50 per cent majority – is one way to make it easier to make sustainability upgrades. 

And according to NSW President of Strata Community Association Chris Duggan, the majority of states are investigating this option.

ACT led the pack a few years ago with strata structural reforms in favour of sustainability upgrades, followed by the recent changes to legislation in Western Australia which involved lowering voting threshold to 50 per cent among other changes.

Victoria is currently going through a strata law review where Duggan expects better approval thresholds to be implemented. He also says Queensland will likely go through body corporate reform in the next few years.

And as part of the NSW government’s pre-election campaign last week, the re-elected Premier Gladys Berejiklian and energy minister Don Harwin said the government would change the strata laws to make it easier for strata committees to get owners’ support for solar panels, battery storage and electric vehicle charging point by lowering the voting threshold from 75 to 50 per cent.

Duggan told The Fifth Estate the remaining states are likely to follow suit. He says this is a good sign because it means governments are starting to think about some of these issues. 

But he also says that lowering thresholds are just one small component and that broader structural reforms need to be considered.

For example, when initiatives and incentives become available for sustainability upgrades, strata needs to be considered as a core policy element and not just “tacked on”.

He also said that any reforms to strata rules and systems results in “slow burn” change due to the nature of the sector. 

Changing voting thresholds is not the magic panacea

Any action to improve strata rules to allow for sustainability upgrades are welcome, but Byrne says there are still some misconceptions about the way strata voting works. She says changing voting thresholds is not the “magic panacea” that governments perceive.

According to Byrne, it’s not actually 75 per cent of all owners needed to support this kind of change to common property, nor more than 25 per cent of all owners against. The percentage is applied to those present and able to vote at a meeting where a quorum has been declared – and that can be a lot less than 75 per cent of all owners.

Byrne says the shift to 50 per cent (a simple resolution) will, however, “definitely make a difference in some cases”.

What stands in the way of sustainability upgrades

One such situation is low rise apartments, where there’s less distance between apartments and more roof space per apartment so that individual apartment owners can connect them up to for their own energy needs. 

Byrne says there’s lots of people trying to do this who are “put through hoops for no reason”.  

“I despair for these people.”

One issue is that a bylaw is required, which means the owner must foot the legal fees. When combined with the cost of an extraordinary general meeting, which individuals also have to bear, this can add up to as much as $1000 to $2000 to the project.

Owners can vote against solar panels on appearance

Another concern is that other owners can vote against solar panels and other upgrades because they “can’t stand the look of them.”

She says this “just isn’t fair” when it’s so easy to install rooftop solar on houses.

Byrne says these are two simple changes to strata laws and governance to make it easier to make sustainability upgrades – that you “can’t not back solar on the basis of appearance” and that standard bylaws are made available “so everybody doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel for solar.”

She says there have been some moves to introduce standard bylaws in the past but they never really got off the ground.

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