The construction industry is under fire over fears of shoddy workmanship on new residential high-rises nationwide being allowed to slip through the cracks, after the evacuation of another city apartment building.
Residents of Sydney’s defunct Mascot Towers were facing homelessness at the weekend, forced from their homes after structural fractures were discovered in the block of 131 units.
Roughly half the residents of the apartment complex will not even be able to return home to collect personal items for at least a week.
Since the building was evacuated, the block’s consulting engineer has determined different “access zones” to be in place for the next five to seven days, according to an update provided to owners and occupiers.
Just 64 of the building’s 122 units are in the partly-accessible zone and tenants have been told they “may be accessed for a short period of time to collect personal effects only with escort by the building manager” by appointment from Monday.
Owners are now also facing the possibility of being slugged millions of dollars to fix the cracks.
Construction lawyers and academics researching the building industry told The New Daily there is a distinct lack of oversight of Australia’s new apartments, and it is “scandalous” that unknowing buyers are later being left with enormous repair bills.
Several experts pointed to the “defects” stemming from developers cutting corners and using cheap materials as they rushed to capitalise on the increasing demand for housing and government’s desires to build up.
The billion-dollar question
In Australia, especially in Victoria, the recent controversy has been around who will pay to fix flammable cladding that was given the green light for hundreds of apartment buildings.
University of Melbourne urban planning expert Dr Kate Shaw said developers aren’t being held to account.
“It’s scandalous in Victoria that owner corporations have to pay for the repairs and the replacements with work that is illegally done by the original developers,” Dr Shaw said.
“After a certain amount of time a developer is no longer responsible for defects – it’s out of warranty.
“Developers try to keep the cost down and maximise their returns. That’s their nature.”
On Sunday, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters that the government “will hold everybody to account” for the cracks in the Mascot building.
Industry lawyers, however, said state governments had known about widespread construction issues for years and not held anyone responsible or done enough to fix the problems.
At worst, the faults are leaving people homeless.
One Mascot tenant, who did not wish to be named, told The New Daily that she and her husband had been offered no assistance since being forced to vacate.
“We don’t have any family in Sydney and none of our friends has a spare room, so we’ve been staying in the hotel for $200 a night,” she said.
“They just took two weeks rent off us, and they haven’t given it back.
“They [the real estate agent] is saying ‘We can’t refund you, we may not be able to give your rent back, you can’t have any of your stuff’.”
‘Wallpapering’ over the problem
Construction lawyer Bronwyn Weir is the author of a landmark report into nationwide issues with strata building standards.
Ms Weir told The New Daily The Shergold Weir Report, released in 2018, identified a number of costly safety problems that highlighted the lack of oversight of new multi-storey developments.
“There have been people reporting on defects in high-rises for a number of years,” she said.
“We’ve got a couple of incidents in NSW, and some in the NT that we are aware of, but there are no boundaries. The problems are across the board. Not enough has been done, given the feedback has been coming through for so long.”
Lawyer and strata specialist Stephen Goddard claimed developments could be rushed through by governments eager to profit from stamp duty and other taxes.
“Everybody is on a money hit,” Mr Goddard said.
“The government wants to keep the builders building because it gets stamp duty … what happens in the end? People who buy in these apartments get it in the neck.”
Discovering defects comes with a range of burdens for owners. Not only can they not live in their homes or rent them, they are often responsible for the costly repairs. They then struggle to sell them.
Such has been the case for the owners of Opal Tower apartments in Sydney, after it was discovered to have cracks last year.
“Before, everybody made money, even on a bad building. Now the tide is going out. Suddenly you find people in Opal Tower who paid $800,000 for a one-bedroom apartment – they can’t live there and they can’t sell it,” Mr Goddard said.
He said residents needed better protections, such as rules making the developers and contractors sign a statutory duty of care.
In the past decade, the number of multi-storey buildings has almost tripled, with more than 2.2 million people living in apartments, according to The Australian National Strata Data report.
Within that, strata lots are collectively valued at a whopping $995 billion, but 80 per cent of them might have faults, according to research done by the Future Cities Research Centre at UNSW.