Taxpayers' money wasted while ACT Housing turns a blind eye

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(Photo of vandalised apartment at Strathgordon Court, Lyon, ACT by Chris Mordd Richards)

With the second highest rate of homelessness in Australia, Chris Mordd Richards provides an insight into the crisis going on in ACT and the ongoing mismanagement of public housing stock by Housing ACT.

ACROSS AUSTRALIA, the waiting times for public housing properties has blown out to ridiculous levels over recent years. In Victoria, Western Australia, New South Wales, the Northern Territory (registration required), South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory, the number of eligible people on waiting lists has grown considerably, with some tenants facing waits of up to ten years or longer in some places for access to a housing property.

In Canberra, the waiting list for public housing properties has greatly exceeded the available stock, according to a new Report on Government Services published by the Productivity Commission in 2015. With the ACT having the second highest rate of homelessness in Australia, this is not an issue that can be just ignored or treated lightly. Which is why the mismanagement of public housing stock by Housing ACT is such an important issue that can't be ignored. By allowing properties to sit empty for months on end and allowing vandalism of said properties to occur without taking adequate steps to prevent this, ACT taxpayers money is being literally poured down the drain by ACT Housing, and they are turning a blind eye to what is going on.

At Strathgordon Court in Lyons (ACT), one of the many ACT Housing apartment complexes, consisting of 100 per cent public housing in a single complex, taxpayers' money is being actively wasted right now. I live adjacent to this apartment and, due to my proximity to it and the three years I have lived here now, a situation has come to my attention that needs to be brought to the public's attention. I have given ACT Housing a more than reasonable period of time to address this situation and they have failed to act, despite knowing that if they did not act on this by 6 February, I would be publishing an article about this shortly after. More on that part below.

Just before New Years Eve last year (2016), it came to my attention, via way of a neighbour, that the resident of the apartment in question had been in AMC (the Alexander Maconochie Centre) for the better part of 2016. This was interesting to learn, because there had been one or two people occupying the apartment pretty much continuously for the entire time the resident had been away (which I was aware of, just not where) and who had keys to the apartment as well (that I had observed myself). However, I was told those people were no longer staying in there and some local kids had started squatting in there instead and partying. I had observed a lot of loud noises from the apartment over Christmas and leading up to New Year's Eve, but hadn’t paid it too much attention due to the time of year in general and this not being out of the ordinary for this apartment complex or that apartment in general.

The apartment itself is easy to access, as you can climb over a one metre high fence, walk along the tiled roof and hop through a window or onto the balcony with ease. Over New Year's Eve itself and in the days afterwards, the noise from the apartment grew out of control, and I observed up to ten teenagers occupying the place at a time with a lot of smashing of furniture, doors, glass and other related noises rang out at all hours of the night. I, along with other nearby neighbours, started calling the police, making noise complaints and informing them of the squatting from New Year's Eve onward. By 15 January, by my count, ACT Policing from Woden station came out a total of nine times, possibly more, in relation to this apartment alone.

Bafflingly, every time ACT Policing came out, the officers would knock on the door (I would hear this from my apartment), then the teenagers would jump out the smashed back windows, slide down the roof, jump the two and a bit metres to the ground and run off. Every time, officers would come running around the corner about two to three seconds behind the teens and, with the exception of one slow female teen they nabbed the first time I observed this, the other teens got away every single time.

I explained to the officers on six separate occasions they came out, including the first time, that they needed to send officers around the back first, knock on the door and the kids would literally jump into their arms. Yet every time they came out, they knocked on the door first, then ran around the back and the teens squatting in there got away every single time bar the one teen they caught the first time. I even called the station and spoke to the Sergeant on Duty after the eighth time they came out and I watched this – I had given up telling the officers themselves by then – and even then they continued to come out and repeat the same comical failed attempt to catch the teens every time.

After about 15 January, the teens stopped actively squatting in the place, as they realised the other residents were not going to stop calling the police every time they came back now, however with multiple windows shattered, no glass in the frame and the door unsecured, they or anyone could come back at any time if they wanted to. I first notified ACT Housing of the situation on 6 January, by way of email to my housing manager (who does not manage the apartment in question — there are multiple different housing managers for my complex).

I emailed my housing manager again on the 9th with more information about the apartment and the police being out there multiple times in relation to it. I emailed again on the 10th, with photos to help illustrate the level of damage recently caused to the apartment and it’s contents. Yet again I emailed them about the apartment on the 12th, 16th and 18th, and by this time had made clear that I expected action to be taken soon to properly secure the apartment and stop the squatters getting in again, and that I was prepared to publish about this myself or go to other media in regards to it if they did not take action soon.

(Photo by Chris Mordd Richards)

Each time, I was assured the information I had provided had been passed along and was being looked into, but for privacy reasons my housing manager could not tell me any specific details in regards to it, which was understandable but frustrating at the same time. I had pointed out that I was giving ACT Housing the benefit of the doubt that they really did not know the apartment was being illegally occupied for pretty much all of the period 2016 the resident had been in AMC.

These are one bedroom apartments, and I knew the resident – although not very well – and I knew he was the only resident authorised to live there by ACT Housing. So I was prepared to assume that they were not aware of the situation until 6 January, when I first emailed my housing manager about it.  That was the date I was going by, from which I was prepared to give them a reasonable amount of time to act before applying pressure myself by making this public.

Shortly after this date, on 22 January, Greg Cornwell published an article on The RiotACT, a local Canberra-based news website, about another example of wasting taxpayers' money with an ACT Housing property. As a former member and speaker of the ACT Legislative Assembly and it’s predecessors, and being familiar with matters such as how public housing stock in the ACT is meant to be managed, Greg seemed like a good person to consult with about this situation.

So I sent an email to The RiotACT editor Charlotte Harper, asking her to forward it to Greg. Greg reverted to me almost right away, and we had a chat by phone and I filled him in on the situation. Greg felt that one month was more than sufficient time to allow for ACT Housing to address this issue, before I could reasonably consider that they had failed to act. So after talking to Greg, I decided I would give them until 6 February to secure the apartment properly, before seeking to publish on the matter.

(Photo by Chris Mordd Richards)

Then I called ACT Housing, on 27 January, to inform them I would be publishing in the media after 6 February if they hadn't acted by then. I was put onto Bruce Perry, the team leader, Tenancy Management, Southern Region, for ACT Housing. I spoke with Bruce for the better part of an hour and told him everything he needed to know, who I was as an independent journalist, and my intent to publish on this if they did not act in a timely fashion. I also have a recording of this entire call, taken with Bruce’s permission (their system also recorded the call on his end too).

Bruce assured me the matter was already being actively investigated, and had been since my initial email on 6 January, and that they would definitely act to secure the apartment by 6 February. I informed him I had consulted with Greg Cornwell about it (at Greg’s suggestion). Bruce agreed 6 February was the date by which they should reasonably act and agreed that was more than reasonable. I was quite positive after this call that ACT Housing would finally do something to secure the apartment properly.

Sadly, 6 February came and went with no action had been; the broken windows, trashed apartment unsecured door were just as they had been for the past month. I called Bruce and got his voicemail on 7 February and left a message for him that I would now be submitting a piece about this now to publish on a news media site. He didn't return my call. Even still, I gave them an extra week, hoping against hope they would still come out quickly. Although, by that point, I still intended to publish this article regardless, I was hoping at least to be able to report in it that they had finally fixed the situation just prior to publication.

Taxpayers' money has been wasted from the damage that has been done to the apartment itself, the residents belongings and ACT Policing resources, with the police coming out so many times to chase off the teens squatting in there. The situation has been allowed to go on for close to one year now without action being taken and despite multiple communications from myself to ACT Housing about this since 6 January, they have failed to act at all to secure the apartment. 

I called Greg Cornwell again on 7 February, after leaving the voicemail for Bruce at ACT Housing, to tell him they had not acted still and asked if he could give me a quote on whether he thought ACT Housing normally adequately addresses these type of issues or not and his opinion on that.

Greg told me, in reply:

“Housing do not adequately address these problems, which is most unfortunate given the number of people on the waiting list for Housing Trust properties.”

It is sad to see that it appears Greg is spot on in that regard, if this situation is anything to go by at least.

(Photo by Chris Mordd Richards)

The attached videos in this piece were taken first from outside the apartment, the same way the teens squatting regularly get in and out, and then later the inside video was taken on a day the apartment was empty, and the door sitting wide open and the apartment completely unsecured. They demonstrate better than any words could the extent of the damage that has been done and the ease of access to the apartment in it’s current state. 

Aside from whether the apartment should have been re-allocated or not, given the resident has been unable to occupy the premises for at least one year now, if the resident intends to return here after their release from AMC, then significant repairs will need to be undertaken to make the apartment habitable again. The resident will also need replacement furniture and household items, which will likely have to come from ACT charity agencies, wasting precious donations given to these agencies. 

I am hoping that after the publication of this article, ACT Housing will finally be pressured into acting swiftly to secure the apartment properly, and re-allocate it back to stock after repairs are made, or repair it for the return of the current resident, and I will update you all in the comments if and when they do, but I am not holding my breath for the moment, given the pressure I have already privately applied to ACT Housing to act on this which has failed dismally to date.

Postscript 3pm 17 February, 2017:

I awoke this morning to the sweet sounds of power tools at work and workmen shuffling about. I went to have a look, and the broken windows had been replaced, some with new glass, one with a wooden board secured in place. There was a female ACT Housing official inside the apartment along with the contractors. Seeing me approach from outside the door, I said hello and commented "What a surprise to see you guys out here the day after the article publishes", to which she replied a very rude and stern "I am not f***ing talking to you, no comment, no comment". I wonder if my phone in my hand, camera ready to go, tipped her off who I was, or she already knew from my previous reports direct to Housing ACT as to which other resident I was.

Either way, I would like to believe that their being here today securing the premises is co-incidental timing, but alas I am not that naive. The timing is obviously very much not coincidental, and it is gratifying to see if nothing else, at least my work here has finally motivated real action to occur to finally secure the premises. My neighbours informed me last night, they had informed ACT Housing of the situation in early December, a full month before I contacted them about it. So I am quite sure without the publication of this piece, the problem would have continued to drag on for goodness knows how much longer.

You can follow Chris Mordd Richards on Twitter @Mordd_IndyMedia

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