Finally, vertical villages are on government’s radar – but is the focus right?

By Dr Janette Corcoran

Mention was made in last month’s column of a COVID-19 silver lining, especially that high-rise living was being recognised as a distinct and increasingly mainstream way of living.

And, over the past month, there has been a flurry of activity around high-rise apartment living.

This started with the Docklands Representative Group’s (DRG’s) webinar for owners’ corporations, ironically entitled “Coming out of COVID-19 for OCs”. This was a pragmatic question and answer session where the regulatory aspects of reopening common property and OC funding were discussed. 

The next event of significance was the City of Melbourne’s virtual session, entitled the Strata Community Workshop, held on June 25. An initiative of Lord Mayor Sally Capp and Cr Nicholas Reece, this session brought together a cross section of local community groups who discussed the challenges encountered in strata living during COVID-19. A follow up session has since been held to translate some of these issues into proposed actions. This marks a much-needed return by the City of Melbourne to active engagement in the vertical living sector and, most encouragingly, there are signs that the specific nature of residential strata living is being appreciated, including a recognition of the regulatory environment that shapes what can and cannot be done.  

Watch this space.

The state government has also awakened to the specific challenges of high-rise living during a pandemic. Provoked into action due to the events in local public housing towers, a hastily convened roundtable was hosted by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) on Monday, July 13. The stated focus on this session was upon the unique risks around COVID-19 infection control in high-rise apartment living. Significantly, the scope of the roundtable included several different types of high-rise living such as student accommodation as well as residential strata. The format of the roundtable was more mutual information exchange with DHHS staff available to answer – or take on notice – specific questions on health protocols.  

It was openly acknowledged that DHHS was on a rapid learning curve about the complexity of high-rise living and was taking note that high-rise living was not a uniform sector – public high-rise apartments being very different to student high-rise accommodation which is very different to residential strata living. The point was strongly made that, for their advice to be useful, the regulatory context must be taken into consideration. This is because how decisions are made and who has the authority to implement and enforce them, differ between these types of high-rise living. For example, the management of a student accommodation building can implement procedures in shared spaces that OCs in residential strata buildings may not have the authority to do (i.e. where lot owners have a legal stake in shared spaces).  

Armed with this input, DHHS proposed to consider the material with a view to developing supporting guidelines. 

Then, a second quickly convened session was hosted by DHHS on Friday, July 17. 

The pace of this second session was not as frantic and more detailed scenarios were put to DHHS staff who, this time, were able to answer procedural questions with more certainty – such as the source of authority to ban short-stays.  

The session closed with a commitment by the DHHS to produce guidelines specific to the high-rise sector on issues such as:

  • General public health information and directions for high-rise apartment living;
  • Specific public health advice for shared accommodation and communal areas;
  • Approaches when residents in high-rise apartments test positive; and
  • Issues of mental health and isolation.

However, what has been lost between the first and second sessions is an explicit recognition of the differences between types of high-rise living – that dedicated high-rise student accommodation shares little with high-rise residential strata. In particular, there are different ways that decisions are made which are embedded in very different legal structures. 

And that, dear DHHS, is where we need assistance – not only in identifying the gold health standard but in translating this in terms of who has the responsibility or authority in relation to these guidelines (a tenant, an owner, a manager?) and to what extent can they / must they implement or enforce these?  – or are they more “suggestions”. 

The devil is in the detail and thought must be given to the specific context for these guidelines – and, in particular, care must be taken not to undermine or circumvent existing ways of operating.  

Hey City of Melbourne – perhaps this is something you can help your State colleagues in understanding! •

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