Owners fight to take back control of Aurora tower
Apartment owners at Aurora Melbourne Central tower in Latrobe St are fighting to take back control of their building after its owners’ corporation (OC) chairperson was accused of abusing the elected position’s power.
Allegations against the now former OC chairperson, Aurora resident Hung-Jing Tiong, include tearing up multi-million-dollar contracts, and dumping occupants’ parcels on the street.
Ms Tiong is also thought to have used her chairpersonship, apparently obtained by about 350 votes “proxy-farmed” from owners who also comprised of overseas investors, to take full control of the OC, allowing her to dictate the building’s affairs.
Her actions are understood to have created an environment of “passive aggressiveness” in what one resident described as “reckless” decision-making on behalf of both owners and residents, who have reported a litany of issues.
Complaints included bans on takeaway food deliveries to the building; residents wrongly accused of operating Airbnb services having their apartment key fobs disabled, and $400 fines for dogs entering the reception area.
The situation has prompted renewed calls for the reform of Victoria’s OC laws.
Property peak body Strata Community Association Victoria (SCAV) is urging the state government to act now to improve education, advice and dispute resolution for Victorian apartment and townhouse owners and residents.
Owners at Aurora have launched Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) action because of what they claim is a lack of transparency and accountability.
However, as highlighted by the SCAV, a backlog of hearings at VCAT is “affecting timely and effective dispute resolution”, with more than 1000 cases from 2021-22 still pending.
Residents have also made reports to Victoria Police and to Consumer Affairs Victoria (CAV), but both organisations confirmed the situation was a civil matter.
City of Melbourne Deputy Lord Mayor Nicholas Reece said, “frustratingly, the City of Melbourne is very limited in what we can do with aggrieved parties having to rely on civil mechanisms in the civil law.”
A CAV spokesperson said OC managers were expected to act appropriately in accordance with the relevant law, adding that “tenants or owners who may be experiencing issues with a manager are encouraged to contact CAV for support and advice.”
A resident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, believed the rules at Aurora had been enforced with a “heavy hand”, which included the resident finding their parcel from Amazon with the words “no bigger than this” written in black felt pen on the side of the box.
In other bizarre interpretations of the rules, the anonymous resident, who moved into the building last October, said all occupants had to take their rubbish to the basement rather than use the garbage chute.
Another application of a rule saw residents’ friends fined for parking in the inviting resident’s own parking space.
“It just raises eyebrows constantly like, what’s going on here,” the resident said, adding it was “not modern” living.
“It’s 2023, and now I have to find out how big a parcel is before it gets sent to me; it’s ridiculous.”
Another Aurora resident said the lift, at one stage, “descended several floors rapidly, and the people inside were terrified” in what was claimed to be a “known issue”.
CBD News is not suggesting that Ms Tiong and her committee were responsible for this matter nor if there was a maintenance issue at the time or whether it was under investigation.
A video recorded in March, and seen by CBD News, purportedly shows Ms Tiong in a verbal altercation with an unknown man during which she appears to bite his arm.
Ms Tiong has allegedly used her power since January 2021 to make decisions without consulting residents or owners, with one source, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, claiming there are “no checks and balances”.
“You have a committee that is acting unreasonably, and not in the best interests of the OC. To terminate contracts while being under the impression that damages and compensation isn’t payable is nonsensical,” the source said.
“Every single owner of the building is proportionately liable for the damages and compensation that flows from these unjustifiable sorts of actions.”
At 88 storeys, Aurora Melbourne Central is Melbourne’s third-tallest skyscraper and the tallest in the CBD. It was completed in 2019 at a cost of $800 million and comprises 1002 apartments and about 3500 residents.
To take back “some means of control”, hundreds of owners at Aurora attended an online special general meeting (SGM) on February 27 to re-elect a new OC committee for “OC1”, which is tasked to look after a building’s financial management, insurance, compliance, and legal affairs.
The meeting resulted in Ms Tiong as the chairperson being “overwhelmingly removed” as chairperson of “OC1” and replaced with a new committee.
Aurora has multiple OCs, which are listed as one unlimited OC (OC1), and various limited OCs to help lot-owners share rights, responsibilities, and costs, which is common in subdivisions where there is a mix of homes, shops, and offices.
This state of affairs is described by many sources within Aurora as a “very crazy situation” whereby “that in a single building you can have so many divides and different decision-making bodies through multiple committees” – which was highlighted in the case of the operation of the lifts in question, which fall under OC6 and OC8.
Proxy farming occurs when individuals or groups collect votes from fellow owners and residents who can’t or won’t attend their building’s annual general meetings, however such election procedures have proven to be prone to abuse.
According to Melbourne Owners’ Corporation Services (MOCS) general manager Shawn Lu, whose organisation had its building management contract with Aurora reinstated after it was terminated, Ms Tiong was still “not accepting” of being voted off as chairperson.
“She’s still acting as if she’s on the committee of OC1. She’s continuing to give instructions to contractors to say this and do that and then offering to pay contractors up front for the work even if she has no control of the OC1 funds.
“The only way to do this is to borrow the funds from another OC she has control of or pay that from her pocket,” Mr Lu said.
Sources confirmed that while she had been removed from OC1, Ms Tiong was technically still in control of other limited OC sections of the building, prompting concern Ms Tiong may “spend money she has no authority of”.
“We suspect most of the funds are being borrowed from one OC to another for her to do certain works. For us to raise money to even repay that OC in the future could take a while,” Mr Lu said.
“We’re trying to contact the contractors that we know to say, ‘please do not do any work on this building [OC1] unless you have instructions from us’.”
Mr Lu predicted it would be “at least another year to untangle the mess”, and hoped the state government would expedite reform to the Owners’ Corporation Act 2006 and VCAT.
Prior to being reinstated, Mr Lu confirmed Ms Tiong had requested MOCS to transfer $1.2 million in trust fund money into a bank account that was apparently in the name of the OC “to pay wages”, but “when we asked for the signatories of the account, she didn’t want to tell us that”.
MOCS decided to resign and gave ample notice for the OC to find a replacement manager, because it was not in the best interests of the OC or the owners. But rather than responding in good faith, Ms Tiong is alleged to have terminated MOCS, effective immediately.
The Deputy Lord Mayor moved a motion in 2021 to improve information services for apartment living in Melbourne, which was made available via the City of Melbourne’s website for tenants, owners, building managers and OCs.
“We did significantly upgrade the information services that we make available to people living in apartments so they can help themselves to resolve these things, but we are frustrated by the current shortcomings of the system,” Cr Reece said.
“Notwithstanding some recent changes to the rules around proxies and other strata living controls, this case has highlighted that the system is still vulnerable to abuse. We really do have a shambles of a system with a lack of effective strata laws and a tribunal system in place to resolve disputes."
We need a tribunal with teeth that can step in and replace committees that are failing. We need stronger rights for residents to do things like attend strata committee meetings, even if that’s as silent observers.
We Live Here, a movement founded to advocate and lobby for people that own or reside under an OC, said the issues unfolding at Aurora highlighted the “dearth of information and help available to OCs trying to navigate the complex rules and regulations under which they operate”.
“If the Aurora mess had been in NSW or Queensland, those states’ VCAT equivalents would have stepped in and appointed a manager. Why can’t this happen in Victoria? Perhaps because the Victorian Government seems to be committed to inertial indolence when it comes to legislative reform,” a We Live Here spokesperson said.
In 2022, the Victorian Government introduced laws that limit proxy holdings to five per cent, meaning that if there are 20 or less occupiable lots, a person may only vote as a proxy for one person. If there are more than 20 occupiable lots, a person may vote on behalf of five per cent of lot owners.
Before a person can vote by proxy, the lot owner must fill in a prescribed form naming that person, the form must be delivered to the OC secretary and cannot be transferred to a third person. This is only valid for 12 months.
But the We Live Here spokesperson described the government’s laws as “timid”, adding that a “chairperson would only need three supporters to subvert that intention [five per cent] if 20 per cent of the owners turn up to a meeting.”
SCAV president Julie McLean said, “with strata living only set to grow in popularity over coming decades, from one in four Victorians now, to one in two by 2050, measures can and must be taken now to protect consumer confidence in apartment living, give owners and managers the tools they need to work together in harmony and ensure greater respect and understanding in strata communities.”
Tom Bacon, CEO and principal lawyer of Strata Title Lawyers, said, “From a legal perspective, I have been approached by all factions in the building seeking representation.”
“This building certainly is one of the most talked about in Australia right now in certain legal circles. The only real solution for this building to regain normality is for VCAT to appoint an administrator for a two-year period to take control of the OCs and exercise full control over the accounts and management,” he said.
“That administrator will have some tough decisions to make, but this is preferable to the alternative, which is a seesaw battle for the building between vested interests seeking profit at all costs, and non-resident investors that want to reduce fees at all costs.”
Ms Tiong was contacted for comment by CBD News. •