How inclusive is your Owners Corporation?

Accessibility and discrimination within Owners Corporations.

The topic of discrimination within strata properties is a complex one. Private property does not need to comply with the provisions of antidiscrimination legislations, such as the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (EO Act). Owners Corporations however, despite being private property, cannot be treated in the same way as a standalone house due to their shared nature, and the range of persons who may require access to and use of the property. This access is a fundamental right of those who privately own or lease within the property.

While more legislative guidance in this area would be welcome, a ruling in the 2018 case OC1-POS539033E v Black has helped clear things up, by irrefutably defining an Owners Corporation as a ‘service provider’ under the EO Act. In this case, the supreme court found that sections 44 and 45 of the EO Act – which state that a service provider ‘must not discriminate against another person’ and ‘must make reasonable adjustments for a person with a disability’ – do apply to Owners Corporations.

This is an important ruling, as these sections do not expressly refer to Owners Corporations and differ from Section 56 (which does) in that it is not only the responsibility of the OC to ‘allow’ the alterations, but rather to ‘make’ (and therefore, it can be inferred, ‘fund’) the alterations.

So, we now know that an OC, as a service provider, must accommodate reasonable requests of owners or tenants with a disability. But should Committees wishing to future-proof, and secure their property’s position as a valuable and desirable place to live, consider taking things a step further?

A variety of factors – including housing affordability and an aging population – are resulting in an exponential increase in the number of people living in strata-titled properties. As our strata population grows, so too does the likelihood of accessibility requests which the Owners Corporation may be required to pay for.

An Owners Corporation which plans for this, taking a proactive, rather than reactive, approach is not only going to become more attractive to a wider range of residents, but also minimise the chance of special levies being raised if a resident with accessibility needs requests modifications to common property. Committees may consider adding a budget amount each year towards the sorts of retrofits which may be required for people with disabilities. These works could include installing or upgrading handrails, installing automatic doors, or even installing a lift where one is not present.

Having the money set aside for these items will mean that when the request is made by a resident, swift action can be taken, and that access to and peaceful enjoyment of their home is not restricted. Especially proactive Committees may consider going ahead with these sorts of works even if not yet requested, to ensure they are creating a truly inclusive community for all who may one day call it home.

Another element that can be forgotten about is ensuring any resident with a disability has a personal evacuation plan in the event of an emergency. These can be drawn up with your building manager and will provide committees with peace of mind that the needs of all residents in an emergency will be met.

There are numerous perspectives to consider when making these choices. The works may not equally benefit all owners at once, however it is worth remembering that any resident may benefit from improved accessibility, at any time. For example, in the case of an injury, or new parents with prams. And while there may be ongoing maintenance costs associated with these inclusions, the improved appeal, sense of community, and potentially property values can all be justifications for this spend.

While no definition has yet been provided by the courts as to what constitutes a ‘reasonable’ request, it is our view that Owners Corporations should always approach these topics with compassion and an open mind.

You never know when someone in your community might find themselves in need of a bit of extra support, and with the right planning and consideration, your Owners Corporation can ensure their home remains a safe and inclusive place to live.

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This article was first written for and published by The VIC Strata Magazine (July 22 edition)