Mascot Towers debacle a sign of deep housing crisis

June 21, 2019
Mascot Towers is cracking while the well-built Sirius building in The Rocks stands empty.

The Mascot Towers debacle in inner-southern Sydney is a clear sign of the deep and many-sided housing crisis facing the city.

Residents in the 10-year-old, 122-apartment block were left without homes on June 14 after being evacuated due to widening cracks in the building's foundations. It has been alleged that the cracks could be related to impacts from the construction of a nearby apartment building.

Renters have been informed that they will have to cover the cost of their temporary accommodation while unit owners have been told repairs will not be paid for by insurance companies as the warranty on buildings only lasts for seven years after construction under NSW law.

This comes just 6 months after 3000 residents were forced to evacuate the Opal Tower, in Sydney’s Olympic Park, due to major movements in the foundations.

Stephen Goddard, a spokesperson for the Owners Corporation Network, an advocacy group for owners in strata title schemes, told the ABC on June 17: “Consumers have nowhere to go in these sorts of situations, there's nobody for them to sue; there's nowhere for them to turn.”

“Don’t buy anything less than 10 years old. You never buy off the plan, it’s unsafe to do so,” he said, adding that buyers should not assume any modern apartment building had been built according to the building code.

One estimate puts the percentage of new residential strata schemes built with defects at 80%.

Goddard called on the NSW parliament to create a statutory duty of care to better protect consumers.

“Most of our parliaments are on a sort of junkie hit when it comes to the building industry. The more they help the builder build, the more stamp duty they get, the more council and water rates come in,” he said.

But it seems the next “hit” may be getting hard to get as “record apartment rental vacancies and Sydney’s softening housing market have created an odd phenomenon — brand new buildings with no one in them,” the ABC reported on June 11.

Meanwhile, the iconic Sirius building in the inner-city Rocks area, constructed in the 1970s to house low-income people, has been sitting empty for the past two years. After forcibly evicting hundreds of public housing tenants, the state government has so far failed to find a buyer for the building.

As apartment blocks remain empty, the NSW public housing waiting list sits at more than 60,000 and homelessness continues to rise.

The crisis in the construction industry is by no means limited to Sydney.

Flammable aluminium outer cladding, similar to the material which fuelled the disastrous Grenfell Tower fire in London in 2017 in which 72 people were killed, led to a major fire in a Melbourne apartment block in February.

An audit of buildings in Victoria has revealed that a third to a half of buildings use flammable cladding.

There are calls for a national ban on the import and use of such cladding, but the process around the country has been very slow.

The current crisis in the apartment construction industry justifies a federal royal commission into construction standards and safety. Its scope should be extended to include the crisis in the provision and exorbitant cost of housing.

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