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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Tamsin Rose

Boarding house regulations in Sydney’s inner west under review after fatal Newtown fire

The Newtown boarding house fire in March has prompted an urgent review into inspection practices.
The Newtown boarding house fire in March in which three people died has prompted an urgent review into inspection practices. Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/AAP

An urgent review of “totally inadequate” boarding house inspection practices has been launched by the Inner West council following the fatal fire at a property that claimed three lives in Newtown last month.

Mayor Darcy Byrne has also written to the New South Wales government to request a joint review of boarding house regulation in a bid to make the last resort housing measures safer and fairer.

The fire – that police allege was deliberately lit by a former resident who has been charged with three counts of murder – also prompted the council to inspect three other boarding houses owned by Albert Wong, who owned the Newtown property.

Guardian Australia does not suggest the condition of the home was a factor in the fatal fire, or that Wong was responsible for the fire. The Inner West council has confirmed the property had passed its most recent fire inspection and had a current fire compliance certificate.

Inspectors allegedly uncovered breaches of state regulations at three of his Petersham and Stanmore properties and have issued statutory orders for urgent structural and electrical repair work, as well as general cleaning.

“Mr Wong is now working with council to resolve these matters,” a statement from council read.

If the orders are not complied with, the council will consider issuing fines or taking civil enforcement action.

Wong did not respond to requests for comment.

Byrne wrote to the premier, Dominic Perrottet, in March requesting state government assistance on a joint review of the regulation and management of the sector, and has commissioned a council-led review of its own systems while he awaits response.

He said the tragedy in Newtown had shone a light on conditions in boarding houses.

“We must not look away from this problem but instead investigate and confront it. We can’t afford to wait for more fires or fatalities.”

About 3,000 people are believed to be living in more than 300 registered boarding homes across the inner west local government area – accounting for more than a fifth of NSW’s boarding house stock.

Under state law, local councils are responsible for approving new boarding houses and enforcing safety and accommodation standards, with powers to fine operators for breaking the code.

But with such an uneven distribution of boarding homes between council areas, Byrne said the burden was proving too much for his council, and the current system was “totally inadequate”.

“I’m concerned that we’re not getting to inspect enough properties frequently enough, and that there are a lot of safety issues being encountered by residents which are going undetected or unreported,” he said.

“If we’re going to have boarding houses as a place of last resort, then there’s got to be a proper system of regulation and compliance, in which we make sure that the properties are in decent working order, and that people are not being mistreated by their landlords.”

Newtown Neighbourhood Centre advocates for the rights of boarding house residents and most recently worked with emergency services to find housing for the men who lost everything in the Newtown fire.

Centre chief executive, Liz Yeo, told Guardian Australia at the time of the blaze that the property was “cramped, crowded” and “in a dilapidated state”.

While she wants to see the standard for boarding houses lifted across the board, she has warned against drastic action that does not include a major boost to public housing.

“If you go and shut down every boarding house that doesn’t meet the standard that you or I might consider would be acceptable, you’re going to have a lot more people sleeping on the street,” Yeo said.

“This is a real dilemma in this space, and that’s why there does need to be an increased supply of social and affordable housing.

“We’re not saying boarding houses shouldn’t exist. There is still a place for them. But if there was a better supply [of affordable housing], we would have less of these issues.”

The state government has been contacted for comment.

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