The views from level 27 of Regis Tower in downtown Sydney are almost postcard perfect. There are the sparkling harbour glimpses, a world-famous skyline and an open horizon beyond the Anzac Bridge. Problem is, the two men sleeping in bunks on the balcony to fully appreciate the spectacular vista beyond.
They are cold and tired, they don’t speak much English, and don’t realise they are living among Sydney’s secret ghettos in the sky. Pitt St is the epicentre of overcrowded Sydney but the squeeze is being felt everywhere the eye can see from their view with a room. It is in the city, the suburbs and by the beach.
Sun Room $110 p/w. High Level, Nice View. Call Jeong."
This quiet morning on level 27 is the start of a typical day in the two-bedroom apartment of Susan Kim and her teenage son Jeong, which is home to nine tenants. I found myself here after answering an ad on a noticeboard in a Chinatown corner store. It was written mostly in Korean but for the details: ‘‘Second Room $120 p/w. Sun Room $110 p/w. High Level, Nice View. Call Jeong.’’
Twenty minutes later I had accommodation for a week and a front-row seat to a bizarre scene being played out repeatedly throughout the residential monoliths in and around World Square.
Jeong, who translates for his mother, says they both sleep in the main room while another four sleep on bunks in the second. I was promised one of the two bunks in the ‘‘sun room’’, which was a section of the balcony enclosed by thin windows. But on arrival, the balcony tenants hadn’t yet departed and I was relegated to a sleeping bag on the lounge room floor. There is a shared bathroom, two fridges and the common living area, no bigger than a single-car garage, was filled with the laundry of eight men and a woman.
“Yes, lots of people in the building live like this, it’s very common here,” Jeong says. “The swimming pools and spa in the block can get very, very busy.
This is the disturbingly real and little known side of a city where tenants and landlords dance in the grey area of law by making unapproved renovations to walls and plumbing to cram as many people into as little space as possible.
City of Sydney council has introduced new development consent laws to limit the number of adults that can occupy a single bedroom and restrict short-term rental accommodation. But the new rules don’t apply to buildings constructed before 2006, leaving councils, fire brigades and government departments to catch people on technicalities such as fire safety orders.
The Institute of Strata Title Management (ISTM) and Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore have called for councils to have more power to enter and inspect these properties and to regulate and control the practice.
“It’s not that these kinds of short-term rentals should be stamped out, they need to be separated from long-term residents so checks and balances can be introduced,” ISTM director David Ferguson says. “People just need somewhere to live and the laws are being flaunted because of that.”
When former NSW Housing Minister Matt Brown was discovered to be renting out one of his investment properties to multiple tenants, he was defended by the Real Estate Institute of NSW. Institute president Steve Martin says the situation was a result of land tax and stamp duty scaring developers away from building new rental accommodation stock.
“What we see here is the symptom, not the disease,” Martin says. “We are not condoning over-crowding and multi-tenant residences, but see them as a predictable result of the huge shortfall between the demand for accommodation and what is available.”
While the Kim family’s apartment is crowded, they are not doing anything inherently illegal in renting it out. The unit is small but comfortable and it doesn’t take long to fit in with the disparate group of international students and young migrant workers.
Susan Kim, who became a permanent resident after migrating to Sydney seven years ago, moved into the new unit after buying it for $550,000 earlier this year. She doesn’t work and with $810 a week income from a full house of tenants, she doesn’t have to. Her husband visits from Korea for three months a year. “I like it here, it’s very new and clean,” she says. “I have lots of friends here that also rent out to Koreans.”
Tenants Sung Hyun Moon and Huyun Il Kang are in their 20s and here to learn English and a trade as chefs. For them, this is neither a ghetto, a slum, nor the result of historically low building approvals. Living in each other’s pockets is a cultural way of life.
In western Sydney, overcrowding is at its worst in areas such as Auburn, Ashfield, Bankstown and Liverpool; suburbs where many migrants flock after moving to Australia, bringing with them their homeland’s living habits.
Earlier this year, Auburn Council issued more than 460 orders to dismantle illegal conversions in a single unit block where large ethnic families had jammed into small units. The recent Section 430 report by the Department of Local Government into Auburn Central criticised the state of the development; revealing more than 20 two-bedroom units had been illegally converted into six-to-eight-bedroom units.
In these units smoke alarms were covered and fire doors wedged open for access to a building with far less security keys than the real number of residents. Illegal toilets were set up on balconies and connected to laundry drains and external downpipes as makeshift plumbing. Garbage overflowed through the hallways, busting out of the garbage rooms crammed with more waste than the building was designed to bear.
Auburn Mayor Le Lam says his area is an ideal target for illegal building conversions. The council has hired an expert team to raid and inspect units that don’t comply with development, fire and safety regulations.
“We have lots of students and families seeking cheap accommodation and unscrupulous unit owners have been taking advantage of this growth market,” Lam says. “They figure, why build new accommodation when you can do an illegal conversion and stack people in. We’re not backing off. In the next few months our compliance team will continue their blitz of the area.”
While they are migrant families in the west, the targets of eastern suburbs’ landlords are travellers and backpackers looking for a good, and cheap time close to Sydney’s famous beaches.
The Department of Fair Trading has issued a warning about dodgy landlords to backpackers and students in share accommodation. In one instance three backpackers had each paid a $700 rental bond, for a Coogee apartment, that was never returned. The unit owner was unaware the property was being sub-let to the backpackers by a middle tenant. She was fined $1100 by the department, but these one-off infringement notices have done little to stop the hive of overcrowded units in the east.
Back in the city on level 27 of Regis tower, the cold morning is starting to irk Sung Hyun Moon and Huyun Il Kang after spending so long sleeping on a balcony. The language barrier is hard to break, but through English student Hyokil Jung their frustrations are clear.
“They don’t like the cold, they get sick and the blankets aren’t warm enough,” Jung says. “For what we pay here we could probably get our own room in Korea but everyone in Sydney wants to be in the city.
“There are hundreds of places like this advertised on Korean websites like Hojo.com. We are happy to stay here while we are in Sydney but hopefully we can get permanent visas and return for good one day.’
"welcome to club 11:
Fuck off we're full"
four to a room in a squalid box
"Welcome to Club 11: Fuck Off We’re Full.”
The sign on the door of Niranjan Gautan’s small studio apartment leaves no room for doubt as to how crowded and gritty city living can be. Four single mattresses are sprawled across the floor, the shoebox kitchen is a mess and an air duct out the back window has been turned into a communal garbage dump for the entire building.
The hallways are littered with ash and cigarette butts and the building’s majority owner wants to tear the place down. This is the state of 7 Elizabeth Street (right) where scores of international students have made a ghetto out of the 1930s building — once the height of luxury for the city’s well-to-do.
“I like it here, it’s very close to everything,” Gautan, 22, says. The Nepalese student has been studying accounting at Central College for the past year and a half, splitting the $300 a week rent with his buddies.
Other residents of 7 Elizabeth St aren’t as happy.
They want the building to endure and have been pleading with City of Sydney council to take action against the high number of studio apartments housing anything up to six people at any one time. “The biggest issue is the fire concerns,” says Dave Austin, a tenant of five years. “The last time someone threw a lit cigarette down the garbage shute the fire alarm went off and there was absolute chaos when so many people tried to get down the fire stairs at once. It was impossible to move.”
Austin and fellow resident Stephen Taylor point the finger at the man they dub a “slum landlord”, Ormond McDermott, who owns 60 per cent of the building’s units that are advertised as “short term, no bond” rentals on accommodationsydneycity.com.
The “slum landlord” tag is rejected by McDermott, who ran for mayor of Sydney against Clover Moore at the council elections early this month and attracted 1 per cent of the vote (or 600 people out of 60,000). He would rather pull the building down and promised if he became mayor to “implement a comprehensive policy of zero tolerance on all city building owners under fire safety and the Building Code of Australia”.
“They are only small studios and every lease is based on two people, but landlords all over the city have the same problem — you lease it out to a person and assume they are going to abide by those conditions,” McDermott says. “But quite frankly you can’t enter a premises without 14 days notice and I don’t socially mix with tenants so can’t really know what they’re doing. If something is brought to my attention I can do something about it.”
Mayor Moore wrote to Taylor explaining the council-introduced regulations in May 2006 to stop overcrowding by restricting the number of adult occupants of a unit to twice the number of bedrooms. Under the regulation, one bedroom equals two adults, two bedrooms equals four adults and so on.
“Unfortunately, in the case of 7 Elizabeth Street, there is no such condition,” Moore wrote.
Those conditions, however, do apply to the recently built Tarragon Apartments in Ultimo, where 26 units were found to have illegal building works. Owners had turned the units into high-density dormitories by building dividing walls and complex arrays of improvised power and plumbing services for the extra tenants.
The Council has taken 13 unit-holders in the building to the Land and Environment Court and issued several $600 fines for fire safety breaches. “This behaviour is both illegal and dangerous, with fire fighters saying they could not guarantee the safety of residents in case of emergency,” Moore says. “It also has serious impacts on amenity for other tenants, with other residents faced with noise, garbage, security and increased maintenance.”
Council rangers will be given powers to launch surprise raids on rental units where tenants are crammed in slum-like conditions under a plan by Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore. Ms Moore will meet NSW Planning Minister Kristina Keneally to seek new powers of entry targeting landlords exploiting tenants trapped in the rental crisis.
A The Daily Telegraph investigation into overcrowding has found the city’s apartment towers are being reduced to ghettos in the sky.
At Regis Tower in Pitt St (right), nine people lived in a tiny two bedroom unit — with two sleeping in bunks on the balcony/ “sun room”, one on the lounge room floor, four in a makeshift dorm in the second room and two in the main bedroom. It is a scene being repeated across the city and is leading to rapid deterioration of apartment blocks’ plumbing, garbage, laundry and other shared facilities.
Ms Keneally said she would listen to suggestions on how to stop irresponsible landlords.
“I’ll review any council proposal which has checks and balances and which properly balances people’s right to privacy in their own home with the need of the council to enforce safety standards,” she said.
The Institute of Strata Title Management also wants greater powers for inspectors, with director David Ferguson saying the growing incidents of overcrowding are driving down the value of units across the city.
Ms Moore wants amendments to the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act to give rangers power of entry to units with no notice. Auburn Council, which issued 460 notices for illegal unit subdivisions in one week, has set up a unit of rangers to target overcrowding and illegal building conversions. Currently, rangers have to give notice to landlords and tenants, giving them time to clean up illegal behaviour.