Owners of apartments covered in combustible cladding are suffering from depression and general poor health as the stress of living in a building that could go up in flames takes its toll.
Retired couple Rose and Graham Mercer found out that their apartment tower in Melbourne’s Docklands had combustible cladding a few days before Christmas, after the City of Melbourne sent them a “show cause” notice to remove the cladding within 60 days.
Even though the property had all the correct certificates when the Mercers bought it ten years ago, and even though there was no mention of combustible cladding in the Section 32 statement, the City of Melbourne said that the Mercers would have to pay to replace the cladding.
“How come it’s on us, suddenly? When it’s obviously somewhere along the building chain where it went awry. It’s not our fault, so why should we pay?” said Rose.
A solicitor operating on behalf of the Mercers’ owners corporation successfully challenged the first “show cause” notice. But no sooner had it been rescinded than a second one issued – this time with a shorter notice period of 30 days.
While that notice has been put on hold for the time being – pending the result of a second legal challenge – Rose says that the looming threat of having to pay tens of thousands of dollars to replace the cladding, coupled with the stress of living in a home covered in materials similar to those used on London’s Grenfell Tower, has led to a deterioration in two chronic conditions, and resulted in her taking diazepam to deal with anxiety.
“I have interstitial cystitis and fibromyalgia, both of which I thought would be eased by moving here. But [this cladding issue] keeps sending me into flares, which just means that I have to stay at home,” said Rose.
“When [the interstitial cystitis] flares, it feels like there’s a dance of the sabres in my bladder, and I need to run to the loo every ten minutes. It virtually makes me a prisoner in my own home, which I’m now told is unsafe.”
Hundreds are affected in Victoria alone
Rose and Graham’s apartment tower is one of 800 buildings that the Victorian Building Authority’s statewide cladding audit team has identified as needing “some level of rectification” – similar audits found 447 “high risk” buildings in New South Wales and 5026 in need of further inspection in Queensland – and the Mercers are far from the only owners to experience a negative impact on their health.
Kerry Ould says she’s had multiple “meltdowns” and been prescribed antidepressants since finding out her unit in Frankston South had flammable cladding.
Frankston City Council sent her and the other owners in her apartment block an emergency order roughly two weeks before Christmas that stated the condition of the building posed a “danger to life”, due to its use of expanded polystyrene cladding. The order gave the owners seven days to make the changes, and threatened them with fines of up to $80,000 each if they failed to comply.
Since then, the building’s owners corporation has spent $200,000 on repairs and is set to convene a meeting on Monday to decide whether to take out a $2.8 million loan to complete the replacement work.
“My bit of that loan is $78,000. I’m not going to be able to afford it,” Ould told realestate.com.au.
“One day, I just walked into the doctor’s office, laid on their bed, and cried.
“I’ve presented twice to after hours doctors, thinking I was having a heart attack. I’m on antidepressants now. A lot of us are. It’s all down to stress – because we just don’t know what’s going to happen.”
The VBA cannot prosecute builders
The Victorian Government has responded to the crisis by ordering homeowners to pay for the repairs necessary to make their buildings safe, rather than pursuing the builders and developers who signed off on the unsafe materials.
According to the VBA, this is because a 2017 Supreme Court of Victoria ruling means that the state regulatory body cannot direct builders to fix non-compliant work after an occupancy permit has been issued. Consequently, a spokesperson told realestate.com.au, “enforcement notices can only be served to people who own the building”.
A scheme known as the Cladding Rectification Agreement offers homeowners in Victoria low-interest loans to remove the cladding – paid off through their council rates over a minimum 10-year period. But because the scheme is voluntary for local councils, none of these loans have yet been handed out.
Meanwhile, the Victorian government has said it will pay for the remediation of all public buildings that have flammable cladding.
“There will be blood on your hands”
Federal MP for Melbourne Adam Bandt told realestate.com.au that the Victorian government’s strategy was “both unfair and dangerous”.
“Homeowners who bought in good faith should not be slugged with the cost of going to court or fixing dangerous cladding that they had no part in installing,” he said.
“If these were dangerous cars being recalled due to safety defects, it would be unthinkable that consumers would be hit with the cost of the recall – but this is exactly what is happening with people’s homes.”
Instead of asking owners to pay for the repairs, Bandt believes the federal government should directly pay for and organise the immediate removal of cladding, before recouping the costs from the parties responsible. (The Builders Collective of Australia estimates that it could cost anywhere between $162.5 million and $7.8 billion to rectify the cladding issue in Victoria alone, with accurate figures hard to come by, as the full scale of the issue has not be publicly disclosed.)
“Anyone can see that what the government is doing is wrong. It only makes sense as a way of protecting the interests of their big donors, at the expense of the people they should be representing,” Bandt added.
“I am putting the Victorian and federal governments on notice. Step in now, because if Australia has its own Grenfell there will be blood on your hands.
“If even the conservative UK government is stepping in with public action, then surely a progressive Victorian government should.”