% multi-unit housing in total dwelling stock, 2011 Census (source data, DIRD)

The Qld government is undertaking a review of the state’s property laws, including community titles legislation. The first stage is publication of an options paper prepared by QUT’s Commercial and Property Law Research Centre on body corporate governance issues.

Living in strata titled multi-dwelling developments presents challenges; according to the options paper, some of the matters causing problems include smoking on balconies, keeping pets, and overcrowding of rental units e.g. during periods like ‘schoolies week’.

These are complex issues. For example, smoking on balconies is a nuisance for residents of apartment complexes because they live very close to each other e.g. in the apartment immediately above. Although rates of smoking are falling sharply, society is getting increasingly intolerant of smoking (e.g. see Should smoking on streets be banned?).

On the other hand, a ban on outdoor smoking in apartments would restrict the smoker’s right to quiet enjoyment of their home. More practically, since many smokers are addicts, it might increase the exposure of children and other household members to side-stream smoke by causing smokers to puff indoors.

There’s a more general issue here though; the law is simply not keeping up with the movement to multi dwelling living. Many more Australian urban residents now live in multi-unit developments than (say) 20 years ago.

At the 2011 Census, 30.8% of the dwelling stock in Australia’s major cities was comprised of higher-density multi-unit dwellings, such as town houses, terraces and apartments. In Sydney it was 40.7%; a significant increase on the 38.8% share five years earlier. (1)

Some of the downsides of multi-unit living, like visual privacy, can be addressed satisfactorily by design. But some – noise is an obvious example – can only be addressed to a limited extent in physical terms; getting a good outcome relies more on residents behaving cooperatively.

Sometimes the failure to address problems like noise leads to bad outcomes e.g. residents who otherwise would be happy with natural ventilation might install refrigerated air con so they can keep their windows closed to block out unwanted noise.

These issues don’t only affect the welfare of other residents in the same development. They also add to the fear in the minds of existing residents of detached housing when new multi apartment developments are proposed in their street or neighbourhood.

As I’ve noted before, the fears of existing residents are threefold.

  • The probability of getting a ‘bad’ neighbour goes up with multi-unit developments simply because there are now more neighbours within the same critical distance.
  • Multi-unit residents are more likely to rent and hence have less incentive to invest in preserving good relations with neighbours.
  • The demographics of multi-unit housing currently favour younger people who are more likely to have parties, play loud music, stay up late and generally have a good time (while this is changing, the perception lingers with existing residents).

What’s needed is a recognition that these sorts of issues primarily require behavioural rather than physical remedies.

While social norms regarding appropriate neighbourly behaviour might have been enough to mediate almost all differences between neighbours in the 60s and 70s, that is not enough today. Lifestyles, domestic technology (particularly amplified sound) and possibly even personal attitudes to strangers have all changed.

Bodies corporate have an important role in regulating behaviour within developments but there are limits to what they can do; their ability to address conflicts between their members and neighbouring land uses is even more constrained.

With more Australians living at density, governments need to take a more proactive attitude to finding ways of making living at higher densities attractive for residents; as well as less of a threat to neighbours, both existing and prospective.

Update: Know your neighbourhood noise restrictions.

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  1. The increase in Sydney might look like only a small difference (1.9 percentage points) but bear in mind it’s a change in share; and it’s happened over just five years.