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Pablo is learning to be an inside dog
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We Live Here

05 Mar 2019

Cladding, short-stays and rooming

As evacuees trudged out of the CBD high-rise building that caught fire in February, the media stepped in to interview the victims of this alarming incident that has been blamed on combustible cladding.

Many people interviewed were short-stay visitors. One interviewee was a short-stay business operator who claimed to manage dozens of apartments in the building.

Overcrowding was also reported as a feature of an earlier fire at the same address two years earlier, and just last year there was a report of gangs of youths running amok at an out-of control party in a short-stay apartment in the same building.

These are not isolated incidents.

It is time the government took notice of what is going on under its nose. Instead, we are supposed to congratulate it for enacting the OC Amendment (Short-stay Accommodation) Bill 2016, which became law early this year, but which doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of the many issues facing residents in high-rise communities.

The fire that raced up the 41-storey building at Neo200 in Spencer St had some similarities to the Grenfell fire in London in 2017 and the Lacrosse fire in Docklands in 2014, both of which were linked to combustible cladding used on the exterior of the buildings.

The fire appears to have started in an apartment on the 22nd floor and raced up seven floors damaging the balconies before it was extinguished.

One person suffered smoke inhalation and hundreds were evacuated from the 371-apartment building opposite Southern Cross Station.

The assistant chief fire officer for the Metropolitan Fire Brigade said combustible cladding material was found on parts of the building near the balconies and it is believed to have been one of the fuels that accelerated the fire.

It was also reported that the Victorian Building Authority (VBA) knew that this building was fitted with “non-compliant cladding material” and had referred it to the City of Melbourne Municipal Building Surveyor (MBS).

However, following an audit in 2016, the City of Melbourne MBS determined the building was “safe for occupation” and “no further action” was required.

This is not the first time We Live Here has been made aware of different advice being provided by the relevant authorities and it is fortuitous that no one was killed or injured in this fire.

Combustible cladding, however, is not the only feature of this fire being investigated.

A history of overcrowding and short-term rental parties at this building has also been identified.

After another fire in 2015, beds were found in stairwells and apartments converted into cramped rooming houses with living areas rented to multiple tenants as sleeping spaces.

In September last year, police were called to the building at 7 am one morning following reports of 40 young people running wild and fighting inside the building. Some youths were armed with knives. On arrival police found that the party-goers had dispersed, leaving behind significant damage to the building.

In February the Victorian Minister for Consumers Affairs issued a media release announcing the enactment of “tough new penalties for out of control parties”.

In the light of the events referred to above, which are by no means uncommon, it is risible and insulting to owners’ corporations (OCs) that try so hard to manage their buildings to be burdened with such a piece of legislation as vacuous and self-serving as the so-called Airbnb Bill.

This legislation only makes things worse for high-rise owners trying to recover costs from delinquent short-stay guests. We repeat the question we asked of Daniel Andrews and Marlene Kairouz in our previous newsletter, namely: Please tell us how this Bill is actually meant to work in practice?

There will be more on these issues in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, if anything raised in this column strikes a chord with you, please write to the government with your stories and let them know what they need to do:

REVIEW the process for determining which buildings are at risk from combustible cladding and improve the method of communication with those buildings;

RESTORE powers lost by OCs as a result of Justice Riorden’s 2016 Supreme Court judgement; and

REFER to owners and residents for our opinions on proper regulation of the short-stay industry.

Put a fire risk management plan in place NOW

We Live Here made this recommendation before and the recent fire makes it important enough to repeat: All high-rise apartment buildings must implement a fire risk management plan NOW.

The plan should set out all the management steps you have implemented to make your building safe while the assessment is being carried out.

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As a not-for-profit organisation, donations from individuals and buildings keep our campaigns going. To register as a supporter of We Live Here or to make a donation please visit our website at welivehere.net

We Live Here does not accept donations from commercial tourism interests.

We welcome your comments and feedback and invite suggestions for topics you would like us to address in this column.

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