Apartment rules upset Sydney residents

A new apartment complex being developed in Zetland, 4km from Sydney’s business district. There is a big shift towards high-rise living in the city.

SYDNEY - More and more residents of Sydney are making the move from houses to apartments, but the shift has prompted controversial changes to the rules for flat-dwellers.

The state government's new proposals for apartment blocks include bans on smoking on balconies and making it easier to have pets. But the rules have not been to everybody's liking. Some critics say residents should be allowed a greater say over what goes on in their apartments.

Australia's largest city, with a population of 4.5 million, has long been known for its urban sprawl and an obsession with living in sprawling suburban houses. But soaring property prices, poor transport, heavy traffic and the growing popularity of inner-city living are fuelling a big shift towards high-rise living.

Currently about 30 per cent of residents live in apartments but this is expected to rise to 50 per cent in 20 years. Across the city, 25,000 new apartments are under development in 130 projects, according to a study by Deep End Services, a property consultancy firm.

"Inner Sydney is on the brink of an apartment construction boom," the firm said in a report in September.

The study found that 86 per cent of all development approvals for inner Sydney in the past year were for apartments, compared with 50 per cent in 2006.

An Australian urban planning expert, Dr Hazel Easthope, from the University of New South Wales, said Australians have undergone a dramatic shift away from private homes. But she said the apartments were "not all Hong Kong or Singapore-style high rises" and many people still live in low-level blocks and townhouses.

"There is a major shift in terms of the type of properties people are living in," Dr Easthope told The Straits Times. "We are seeing a shift to higher density but not necessarily to massive high density like you see in some Asian cities."

The shift to apartments has prompted the New South Wales government to propose new sets of rules for tenants - the biggest overhaul of such rules in 50 years. These will be included in the state's template rules for new buildings, which are adopted by most buildings though owners can agree to adopt different rules.

Usually, changes to the laws will require the support of 75 per cent of owners.

The new rules include preventing the building of noisy timber or tiled floors and changes to the voting system for apartment owners to encourage people to participate in the building's affairs. Smokers who ignore repeated complaints about lighting up on balconies could be fined. And the default rule for tenants will be that pets are allowed.

The government said the changes were needed because of growing numbers of large apartment blocks as well as an increase in the number of people choosing to rent rather than buy properties.

"These laws were devised when a typical apartment block was a 12-unit, two-storey walk-up," the state's fair trading minister, Mr Anthony Roberts, told Fairfax Media. "We need to change them to reflect the way we live now."

But the changes triggered a vocal debate about the right of resident groups to impose rules on other residents.

A property law expert at the University of New South Wales, Ms Cathy Sherry, said the rules did not go far enough and should have given more freedom to residents to choose what they do in their own homes. For instance, she said, a majority of residents should not have the power to stop another resident from having a pet if it did not disturb others.

"What people do in their own home is no one else's business unless it disturbs others," she wrote in a column in the Sydney Morning Herald. "If schemes so choose, they can still ban all pets, including cats which never leave their apartments or dogs which rarely make a noise. This is profoundly undemocratic."

But some health advocates called for tougher laws on smoking, saying it should be banned throughout a building. Such debates are likely to increasingly occur across the country, with all major cities moving to prevent urban sprawl in the past 20 years.

Dr Easthope said state governments were seeking to contain the spread of cities to try to keep infrastructure costs down. But she said the reasons people moved to apartments or the inner city varied widely, including lifestyle choices, faster commutes and affordability.

"Sydney is a very expensive to live in," she said.

"For some people, living in an apartment is a matter of affordability. For other people, they might not want to maintain a house and garden. Or they might want to live in the inner city or a more desirable area."

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