Mascot Towers residents demand real action on housing defects

February 20, 2023
The Mascot Towers building remains uninhabitable more than three years after residents were forced to evacuate. Image: Green Left

Solutions proposed by the major parties for the defect-plagued Mascot Towers building do not go far enough and the New South Wales government needs to step in to fix the problem, owners told the ABC on February 12.

The apartment complex in the inner-south remains uninhabitable more than three years after residents were forced to evacuate, after the basement started to crack.

The Mascot Towers debacle came just six months after 3000 residents were forced to abandon their apartments in the Opal Tower, in Olympic Park, due to major movements in the building’s foundations.

The Mascot Towers Owners Corporation’s submission to a NSW parliamentary inquiry in August 2019 said owners and residents “relied on the ‘system’ to provide a satisfactory dwelling” and that the government had failed to set a safe regulatory framework for builders, certifiers and property developers.

This included failures in the private building certification process and a lack of builder supervision.

“Our residents have inherited a building with numerous defects — defects which were originally signed off on by our government, engineers and certifiers as ‘within standards’,” the submission said.

“Somewhere along the lines, maximising profit has become a misinterpretation for ‘delivering quality’,” it added.

The owners want a Home Warranty Insurance scheme reintroduced for all levels of strata development, an extension of the statutory warranty period and assistance for remediating cladding and defects.

The submission also recommended mandatory supervision of private certifiers be reintroduced.

Now, more than three years after owners were ordered to evacuate, and with an election in sight, the Coalition government and Labor opposition have promised to extend rental relief payments to residents beyond June. More than $16 million has been provided so far.

Labor is offering low-interest loans to remediate the 10-storey building and promising to overhaul the industry.

The Coalition is proposing an expert panel, headed by the building commissioner, to explore viable options, to report in April, after the election.

Rachel Evans, who is running for Socialist Alliance, in Heffron where the Mascot Towers is situated, told Green Left that those owners have every right to be cynical about the sudden interest in their plight.

“Most of the Mascot Towers home buyers would have poured in their life savings and also have taken out huge mortgages. They deserve more than what’s being offered: their rental relief needs to be extended indefinitely, and the developers need to be forced to pay up.”

Evans believes that unless planning powers are returned to local councils and the building certification process is taken out of the hands of private companies, the same terrible plight awaits more people trying to get a roof over their heads.

“SA supports the set-up of a state-owned body to provide low-interest home loans and we want developers to be banned from holding onto unoccupied land for speculation.”

Apartment owner Rachel Williams told the ABC that many investigations into the engineering faults have been done, but “nothing has actually been remediated”.

Williams said that several Mascot Towers owner-residents are “maxed out” with their mortgages. “There’s no money that they can now continue to borrow. There’s approximately 14 families that are now looking down the bankruptcy path.”

Much of the problems lie with the neoliberal privatisation of the regulation and certification of the construction industry in the 1990s. Prior to this, local councils undertook the building certification. Now, private companies, or individuals, are responsible for most of the NSW’s building certification.

This came after a significant lobbying effort by developers who saw local councils as a roadblock to their profit-making plans. As a result, councils were stripped of many of their planning powers and there has been a widening of the scope of developments that do not have to have local council approval.

The “tick-the-box” certification process means developers only need to provide certain documentation, rather than be subjected to scrutiny throughout the design and build stages. As a result, thousands of buildings are plagued with defects.

University of New South Wales researchers released Cracks in the Compact City in 2021 which found that more than a quarter of new buildings sampled in Sydney had defects. The actual number could be much higher, due to a lack of proper documentation and records.

Building industry workers, including those working on the Opal Tower, often often try to report dodgy construction practices, but are ignored by construction companies and developers. When defects are found after construction, developers and building companies face little responsibility. Developers and building companies commonly use the practice of “phoenixing” — creating $2 companies to carry out specific projects — to avoid legal and financial responsibility for defects.

Developers are making huge profits, while thousands struggle with unaffordable rents and mortgages — rental prices in Sydney rose nearly 20% just last year.

[For more information on Socialist Alliance’s housing policy, visit the website.]

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