A deputation of courageous residents of residential land lease communities around Ballina have joined local MP Tamara Smith in calling for changes to the Act governing their communities, in the face of increasing exploitation and inequity.
With the highly flawed Residential Land Lease Communities Act 2013 currently up for review, Tamara Smith says there’s a rare opportunity at the moment for people living in these communities to make submissions to improve the existing Act. Those affected include numerous home-owners in specially constructed villages and also some caravan parks.
With 29 such communities in Ms Smith’s electorate alone, and over 500 communities across NSW (including over 40,000 people), this is a major issue, with Ballina residents taking the lead in seeking real improvements to the legislation.
‘Their concerns range from unjustifiable site fee increases to unclear terms and conditions that only work in favour of the operators,’ said Tamara Smith.
‘The current Act leaves the home owner vulnerable and powerless. It is absurd that some of the most vulnerable people in our community are not protected from the laborious, legalistic and financially exhausting systems in place due to this Act.’
Residents scared to speak out
Although the problem has been festering for some time, many residents have been too fearful to speak until now.
One resident told The Echo, ‘People don’t want to be vocal because of what the recriminations might be.
‘There are single older women who have been widowed, living at Riverbend, and I’m quite sure they’d like to say stuff, but because of their age, and they’re not as articulate as they used to be, they will not say anything.’
Residents described their difficulties communicating with the owners of their villages (who live interstate), with important communications from the outside not being passed on and residents being forced to deal with on-site managers.
Although the residents of these communities are home owners (spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on their homes) they are also forced to pay rates, which continually rise well above CPI for opaque reasons.
Another resident said, ‘The operators give a generic statement, without any information. It just says rates have gone up.’
In one Ballina community, residents have calculated that the gap between CPI increases in recent years (which they have no issue with paying), and rate increases, are estimated to be about $800,000.
A retired resident with financial expertise said, ‘We’ve actually projected that forward for the next ten years. If the growth above the CPI continues, we will pay an extra $3.25 million. It’s about 33% above the CPI.’
Residents are calling for a valid explanation. ‘You should get an itemised account, like when you get your car fixed. Then we could make a value judgement.’
Tamara Smith told The Echo, ‘What we’ve heard from residents who’ve gone to NCAT [NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal] is that operators, when they’re asked to provide financials, not only have they provided false and incorrect financials, but the members have made commentary on the public record about how shocked they were that there was no financial transparency.
‘So that’s something I’ve fought for in my submission. In the same way that if you were in a body corporate, and you’re paying body corporate fees, you would get information about how much is being spent and how much is in the bank,’ she said.
‘What worries me is that if these guys go under, there’s no financial security that I’m aware of, because you don’t even know how much is there.’
Other residents spoke about endlessly recurring expenses which continued long after items should have been been paid off.
Come into my parlour…
One man said the business model of residential land lease communities was fundamentally flawed and unfair, ‘It’s like the spider and the fly. Once you’re in there, you realise I’m at someone else’s beck and call. I can’t get out!
‘One of our major issues in the last six months is we’re not going to be able to sell. We’ve invested quite a substantial amount.
‘We did the sums – $89 million worth of property is sitting in [this community alone]. And they object to us calling ourselves home owners.’
Another resident spoke about the owners secretly spying on a recent residents’ meeting with onsite managers from the next room, while being perpetually unavailable to deal with questions or concerns.
‘You feel threatened actually. I’m in a position where I can sell my home and move on, but who’s going to sell my home for me?’ asked one man.
‘I can go through a real estate agent, but where do the people come to? They go to the village, to be escorted around by the onsite managers.
‘They have a lot of control. It’s not until you get into the system that you realise.
‘I did all the right things, I sought legal advice. I’ve got that sort of background, in financial planning. If I cannot get it right, what hope is there? [Another man is] a retired civil engineer who worked on massive projects in Sydney.
‘We’re not silly people, and that’s why they don’t like us. They don’t like us because we’ve got together and we’ve pushed back.’
The price of power
Another resident, who bought her home in a caravan park which is also open to tourists, said her daughter had been forced out of her home and suffered damage to her mental health as a result of an ongoing stoush with owners over electricity pricing.
‘They took it out on her because I started the fight with the electricity… They knew they couldn’t come at me, because it would really look bad, but they came at her.
‘We calculated the park was making about $3000 a week on their power bills. Profit on top of what they were paying. We were actually paying their power bill and they were still making $3,000,’ said the resident.
‘I got Legal Aid help and the Tenants’ Union solicitor took them to the Supreme Court. When we got there I had my barrister and they had five. They had all the parks united against me, the whole shebang.
‘And guess what? They lost. Then they put the tail behind the legs and went back to the tribunal, and then it was decided how they would rate our power costs. And our power went down at least 50%.’
This resident says she is now being forced out of her home, after being told to deal with another power provider in spite of the stipulations of her lease.
ARPRA – fox in charge of henhouse?
The advocacy group for these residents is supposedly the Affiliated Residential Parks Residents Association ARPRA], but many residents told The Echo they were highly dissatisfied with the organisation, which is viewed as being controlled by community owners and operators.
Although the residents of various communities shared concerns about management and financial issues, they were also united in being otherwise very happy with their living arrangements.
One man emphasised, ‘This is about changing the Act. Despite all the difficulties we have with the owners, it’s a great place to live.’
Another women said, ‘It’s a fabulous community. But I’m concerned because our rent keeps going up and up. I’m starting to wonder, will my pension actually cover rent and living expenses and medical expenses?
‘And regardless of whether we’re sick, or ill, or dead, you still have to pay that rent. That money will still go to the owners of these places.
‘Worst still, if I get to the point of wanting to sell, and move somewhere else, I’m afraid that no one will want to buy my place because the rent is so high. And I’m afraid even to come here and talk about it, because once it gets out into the community that we’ve got to pay rents to unscrupulous operators, I’m afraid to talk.
‘But at some point you’ve got to start standing up for yourself and saying, what’s fair?’
MP Tamara Smith said, ‘To me it’s a fundamental power imbalance. It should be more correlated to a strata, because these people own their homes, and they are living in an intentional community if you like, so those facilities are all being contributed to.’
As one resident put it, ‘What’s happening is they’re flying under the radar. We don’t know what’s in the increases they’re putting out. It could be recurring expenses. But if they don’t take it out, they compound.’
No DAs within communities
Another issue highlighted by local residents in their submissions is the lack of development application processes within these communities.
‘We had a situation… where a carwash facility was not built when it should have been built, it was built eight years after the place was opened for business, without any consultation, although we asked time and time for it.
‘They ended up putting it beside somebody’s home without any consultation with that person. My feeling is, I wouldn’t buy her home if I was coming in from outside. Now if she lived on the other side of the fence, there would have been a DA put in, and she would have had the opportunity to pass comment or object.’
Similarly, residents were not informed about major roadworks near one community, with the notification going to Queensland and not being passed on.
As one resident put it, ‘191 home owners who have $90 million worth of investment in homes were not contacted about what was going on.’
Are laws being broken?
Tamara Smith said, ‘The existing regulations are very ambiguous, and these are the pressure points in how they’ve played out.
‘There’s a code of conduct but no duty of care in the sense that they have a responsibility and a duty to do certain things. The government’s model I believe is ill-suited,’ she said.
Another resident was more blunt. ‘There’s no pathway actually. We’re talking about the mouse against the elephant,’ he said. ‘Because if you do have a grievance, it’s very difficult for an individual or a group to get that grievance listened to.’
Residents say the problems they have described go way beyond the Northern Rivers.
One man said, ‘We’ve had contact from people south of Sydney all the way to the Queensland border, it’s not just us. It’s every one of them. And it’s been amplified by the fact that all the caravan parks and independent operators have been bought out by big American crowds.
‘It’s a business scheme that takes money from government pension schemes, funnels it through these places into big shareholders’ pockets. That’s all it is. Fair Trade are supposed to be controlling it, but it’s not working.’
An election issue?
MP Tamara Smith thanked the residents for their courage in coming forward, and urged others to also make submissions to improve the Act, as she has done herself.
‘Fingers crossed we get some real change, and if we don’t, I’ll be making it an election issue in two years time. I want a result for you and I’m not letting go,’ she said.
One resident wanted to emphasise the critical timing of the issue for many people. ‘We’re not going to get another chance to get legislation looked at for a long time. Now’s the time,’ he said.
Ms Smith told The Echo that the balance needed to shift in favour of elderly, and often vulnerable residents, not further towards multinational corporations that have become the operators of these communities.
‘The idea that these residents are at the whim and mercy of operators, without any oversight or transparency, is ludicrous and bizarre. I can’t think of any parallel,’ she said.