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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Tamsin Rose

Council takes owner of gutted Sydney boarding house to court over concerns for safety of passersby

Firefighters at the Newtown boarding house.
The Newtown boarding house was the scene of a fire that left three people dead in March. Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP

The owner of a Sydney boarding house where three people died in a blaze is being taken to court by the local council after allegedly failing to make the gutted property – currently listed for sale – safe for passersby.

The Newtown block was recently put on the market, amid calls for a portion of the sale to go to the residents who survived the blaze and an overhaul of the regulatory system overseeing properties of its type.

The Probert Street building was reportedly showing signs of structural failure after the March inferno, prompting the council to issue an emergency order to owner Albert Wong to put in place safety measures.

Despite issuing a short extension to account for bad weather, the Inner West council claimed Wong had not complied with the orders, and said it had been forced to step in and do the work itself.

“Council has received advice that the upper level is showing signs of structural failure, and accordingly, an emergency order to prop up the failing upper storey walls and erect hoarding to prevent materials collapse on to the public way was issued on 13 April,” a council spokesperson said.

“A court attendance notice has been issued. Council’s prosecution relates to the failure to install the necessary hoarding to make the public areas safe.”

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. He did not respond to requests for comment.

Three men died in the fire that police allege was deliberately lit by a former resident who has been charged with three counts of murder.

The gutted 12-room boarding house property was recently listed for sale and was due to go under the hammer on 22 June. A listing described the property as a “virtual blank canvas” that was ready for “inspiration and creativity to bring it back to life”.

Shelter NSW’s chief executive, John Engeler, said it would be good to see a portion of the sale of the property go to the residents who survived the fire and were displaced.

“It demonstrates good faith and demonstrates what’s gone on here – it’s a bigger issue than a pure legal narrow framework,” Engeler said.

“That would send the right message.”

While Engeler was pleased the boarding house was not going to start back up given the poor condition it was reportedly in before the blaze, he said it would add to the already stretched housing market.

“There’s a bigger systemic issue which is now going to be added to – there’s potentially 12 more people added to the [housing] waiting list,” he said.

“Those old-style boarding houses are at best option B. We need new [homes], and people who live there deserve better.”

After the blaze, the council ordered an urgent review of the boarding house inspection practices that had been in place that the mayor, Darcy Byrne, described as “totally inadequate”.

He also wrote 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 government declined the request.

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.

The fire also prompted the council to inspect three other boarding houses owned by Wong in nearby suburbs.

Inspectors allegedly uncovered breaches at each of the properties and made emergency orders for each of them for a combination of electrical certification issues, structural stability, vermin control.

Other notices around health and hygieneand general cleanliness of all the premises were also ordered.

“To date, Mr Wong has demonstrated appropriate compliance with all directions and orders for these three boarding houses,” the council spokesperson said.

Wong’s matter will be before the court on 5 July.

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