Makeshift shower. Photo credit: City of Sydney

The City of Sydney has announced the details of an extensive investigation into illegal accommodation that has been underway since March.

A special, multiagency team including former members of Scotland Yard, the Australian military police, NSW police and the Australian Tax Office have been compiling information on illegally subdivided, unsafe and overcrowded properties.

The investigations have resulted in 20 search warrants granted and executed across Sydney in the past six weeks.

A media statement released by the City of Sydney on Tuesday stated it had been trying to shut down illegal accommodation providers over the past year through its own investigations and that it had been also running a campaign advising students about safe rental choices.

Examples of illegal property use and safety issues found by the City of Sydney include:

  • A three-bedroom house with 58 beds and 19 illegally-constructed bedrooms
  • People sleeping in bathrooms and, in one case, a pantry
  • One-bedroom apartments with up to 10 people living in each apartment
  • 16 people living in a two-bedroom apartment
  • Overcrowded apartments with blocked drains full of excessive amounts of hair and putrid smells in all rooms
  • Apartment kitchens with serious cockroach infestations
  • Disconnected smoke detectors
  • People sleeping in an apartment building’s fire stairs, with fire doors damaged or left open
  • Six four-point electric powerboards running off a single power outlet to service the needs of numerous tenants crammed in a single room
  • Rubbish thrown on the roofs of neighbouring properties
  • Cigarette butts stubbed-out and left on the floors in bedrooms
  • People sleeping in rooms with no natural lighting or ventilation
  • Collapsed ceilings
  • A hallway converted into a makeshift shower cubicle for bathing
  • Landlords threatening to steal tenants’ personal items or refuse their bond refunds if they complain about the living conditions.

The extent of illegal activity brought the problem beyond the realm of the City of Sydney’s responsibilities, which is why a specialist team was brought in.

The new investigative team is headed by Roy Cottam, a former Senior Detective who has worked with New Scotland Yard’s Specialist Operations Command.

Mr Cottam said unauthorised short-term accommodation was a growing issue across the Sydney metropolitan region and other global cities.

“The issue of unauthorised accommodation use is complex and ranges from technical breaches, through to more high-risk fire safety and building-code violations where illegal building works have been undertaken to facilitate overcrowding,” he said.

“Properties that are significantly overcrowded, with unauthorised building works and fire safety defects, are our investigative priority and the area where we’ll take immediate action on due to the higher safety risks and negative impact on other residents.

“We will also focus our resources on those who take advantage of vulnerable people by setting up networks of unauthorised share accommodation for large-scale financial gain.

“We want to send out the strong message: We are coming after you.”

Beds in a laundry. Photo credit: City of Sydney
Beds in a laundry. Photo credit: City of Sydney

The City of Sydney will not comment on individual investigations as they are ongoing and future court action is likely.

In-house investigations were not enough

Lord Mayor Clover Moore said the illegal accommodation networks had become more organised in the past year and their landlords had been refusing to allow council staff access to investigate properties.

Cr Moore said there were obstacles to council staff dealing with complaints.

“Some of the complaints we received were new territory for council staff because they involved organised syndicates operating illegal accommodation networks. In the past, our staff who have attended inspections have been verbally threatened and abused.

“Evidence we’ve recently collected suggests multiple offences are taking place, some of which are outside councils’ powers and responsibilities. This means a multi-agency approach is the best way to disrupt operations and deter new operators from entering this illegal market.”

Cr Moore said the highly organised nature of some of these operations, and their level of deception, meant the city needed a team with specialist investigative skills.

Cr Moore said the council was often denied entry to search reported premises and needed to gather sufficient information to convince a magistrate to grant a search warrant.

The City of Sydney is liaising with councils experiencing similar issues and says it has formed closer working relationships with key state and federal government agencies.

A comparison with Melbourne

The City of Melbourne told The Fifth Estate it has investigated about 80 suspected illegal and unregistered rooming houses since the beginning of 2014.

A spokeswoman for the City said of these cases, two resulted in legal prosecution.

“City of Melbourne understands that this is a serious issue for the City of Sydney. However, City of Melbourne does not have evidence of a systemic problem in the city to the extent that City of Sydney does,” the spokeswoman said.

“In the City of Melbourne, there are 61 rooming houses registered under the Public Health and Well Being Act. Council officers regularly investigate rooming houses or shared accommodation that may be in breach of the relevant legislation.”

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