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A public housing tenant passed away in his home. It took authorities 12 days to find him

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following story contains references to a deceased Indigenous Australian.

The first thing Peter "Pierre" Gawronski noticed was a smell.

Strange smells weren't that unusual in the Sydney public housing estate where Pierre lived, but this one seemed to hang around.

He tried ignoring it, but it seemed to get worse.

At first he assumed it was a dead rat. He says he'd come across seven of the little critters in 14 months.

He reported the smell to his local Housing office, which sent contractors out, but the smell lingered.

Soon, Pierre was sleeping in the laundry to get away from it.

Neither repeated conversations back and forth between Housing and Pierre, nor repeated visits by contractors to Northcott estate, seemed to get rid of the smell.

Five days after he first reported the smell, he noticed it seemed to be coming from underneath the flat of his neighbour — a man living with a disability called Arthur.

And Arthur hadn't been seen for days. Pierre got a sinking feeling.

Several days on, Pierre says he asked Housing to do a safety check.

"When I put it to [a Housing officer] that there should be a safety check on Arthur, 'I think it's Arthur,' she went, 'Don't jump to conclusions,' like I was exaggerating," he says.

"Well, that's when I snapped and gave her the ultimatum — 'Ring the police before I do.'"

Soon, police were buzzing Pierre's apartment. Almost as soon as they walked in, they told him there was no doubt about the smell. It was his neighbour, Arthur.

Housing would not confirm the circumstances of Arthur's death or Pierre's account.

Arthur was afraid

When Background Briefing interviewed Arthur in 2019, he said he had asked Housing for disability access to his unit.

At the time he was hauling himself and his 14-kilogram wheelchair up a flight of stairs every day just to leave home.

"I have to get out of my wheelchair, literally climb from my bottom, lifting myself up on every step as we go along lifting my wheelchair as well," he said.

"As you can see it's not the greatest floor space. It's really dirty and … you can pick up all sorts of germs and some of the illnesses and stuff like that."

Arthur said he'd been lobbying Housing to get a ramp put in for about 12 months.

"It becomes too hard, it becomes costly, especially when you have a disability," he says.

"Putting in ramps and stuff like that can be phenomenally expensive."

Then, the Department of Communities and Justice said it was working closely with Arthur to find a new unit.

But three years on, he was still living there.

In all, Arthur was offered five different properties, including a ground-floor apartment at Northcott, but he declined the offers.

Ultimately, he rejected that unit because of security concerns, and because the bathroom couldn't be modified to meet his needs.

"What happened to the guy is just inexcusable," says another neighbour, also named Peter.

"It shouldn't happen, never ever, to anybody in our society."

Arthur's death shocked the tight-knit community inside the Northcott estate.

And they're not only upset about Arthur's death. They're angry at the system that allowed a vulnerable person to die with little dignity in a state government-maintained home.

NSW Government housing authorities pay for hundreds of thousands of maintenance orders every year. They say most of them are done swiftly. But some slip through the cracks, and others take years to complete.

And in ageing inner city blocks like Northcott they tend to be more expensive.

They also tend to have higher numbers of "complex needs" tenants.

Many have mental health disorders, disabilities or are elderly.

It wasn't always this way

When Charmaine moved in 27 years ago, she was the single mum of a six-year-old girl. She remembers distinctly that the block was well kept.

"I used to joke to people that it felt like living in a New York loft," says Charmaine.

"Maintenance was good, cleaning was good, all the services were localised and you knew who the contractors were."

There was a building manager and the rent office was downstairs. People would go down, pay their rent, and have a yarn. If there were any issues, then often the person in the rent office would arrange for a tradie to fix it.

But Charmaine says all that changed when the maintenance contracts were removed from local businesses, put out for tender, and snapped up by big companies.

She says nowadays, when it comes to maintenance and repairs, residents are frequently gaslit.

"We'll ring up and make a report and say, 'Well, this hasn't happened.' And they'll go, 'Oh, no, we've been told it's happened, it's done.'

"It's like, 'I'm looking at it right now. I can clearly tell you this has not happened.' 'Oh, well, we'll chase that up.'

"But that happens a lot," she says, emphasising the last two words.

As of September 2022, there are "no outstanding work orders" for the Northcott block.

But several residents have issues, and for tenants with disabilities, like Arthur, Charmaine says it's almost impossible to get necessary modifications done to their homes.

She relays the experience of a neighbour with multiple disabilities who has been waiting years for his front door lock to be lowered.

"He's got an intellectual disability; he's got a physical disability. He's also got no sternum and has had open heart surgery," says Charmaine. "But yet he's waiting so far over two years for that lock to be changed."

Charmaine says there have been a lot of promises about when her neighbour's modification will get done.

But even if local Housing officers chase the request up, Charmaine says they don't have much power anymore. Often, the ultimate decision-maker is the landlord, the Land and Housing Corporation of New South Wales (LAHC).

There are two primary agencies responsible for public housing.

One is Department of Communities and Justice Housing, which takes care of the property management, much like a real estate agent.

The other entity is the LAHC, which is the ultimate landlord.

DCJ Housing and LAHC used to sit within a single government department. But at some point, they were separated, and many people say that that separation has been a disaster.

"Ultimately, it's the tenants who suffer," says Charmaine.

"We're sitting there looking at the piles of rubbish, looking at the rats, running everywhere, looking at the state of decay … It feels like you're a second-class citizen."

'The scummiest landlord in the state'

"You hear a lot of stories about bad landlords in the private rental market," says Labor's Rose Jackson, the shadow minister for water, housing and homelessness.

"But it actually really saddens me that the scummiest landlord in New South Wales is the New South Wales Government."

Ms Jackson says that the current plight of public housing tenants has been brought on by years of underinvestment in maintenance and new stock by successive state governments and that it's now a crisis.

She admits her own Labor Party must shoulder some of the blame for this.

She lifts a half-centimetre thick wad of papers off the modest settee in her parliamentary office. Each page is marked "Sensitive: NSW Government" in red ink. The title on the royal blue cover page says "Incoming Minister Brief".

It was prepared by the Department of Planning and Environment soon after Dominic Perrottet became Premier.

Ms Jackson says the document fell off the back of a truck.

In it are candid admissions about the funding crisis faced by LAHC — the ultimate landlord for the state's public housing.

LAHC is responsible for maintenance and modifications on state managed properties.

Most maintenance is funded by rents collected from tenants.

And, if you're a public housing tenant, you only pay a fixed proportion of your income as rent.

So the less tenants earn, the less money goes into public housing coffers for repairs and maintenance.

That leaves LAHC reliant on asset sales, grants and cash injections from the state government to maintain its housing stock.

Ms Jackson begins to flick through the thick brief, pointing out lines that jump out at her.

"They say additional funding is urgently needed given the Land and Housing Corporation's unsustainable funding arrangements," she reads.

And "there are major operational risks driven by unsustainable financial arrangements, low growth in social housing stock, even with stimulus funding, an ageing portfolio and a mismatch of supply with tenant needs."

"That's very direct language. That's not the way that they talk normally at all in public about these issues," Ms Jackson says.

"When I read that, I was quite taken aback … I mean, pleased in a way that the department had really directly tried to put it on the minister and said, we need you to get serious about this."

In June 2022, the New South Wales state government invested $300 million to upgrade over 16,000 social housing properties across the state.

'There's gotta be some change'

When Background Briefing approached Natasha Maclaren-Jones, the minister for families, communities and disability services, about Arthur's story, she issued an unequivocal statement. "The wellbeing of tenants is a personal priority," she said.

"It's concerning to hear when tenants feel that more could be done for them," says Ms MacLaren-Jones. "I will always press the department to show care and compassion in dealing with people."

In another statement, a spokesperson for the New South Wales government said that tenants who raise concerns are listened to and acknowledged in a respectful way, and that DCJ Housing makes regular client service visits to discuss any concerns that tenants may have about their tenancy.

Pierre isn't satisfied with Housing's response to his concerns. "Look, we're not hoping that Housing are going to turn into a f***ing butterfly. We'd be happy with a moth," he says.

"But … there's gotta be some change."

Editor's note 20/10/2022: Since this article was published, the ABC learned the deceased tenant was of Indigenous heritage. References to the family name were removed as a result. In the original article, reference was made to a cause of death, which hadn't been confirmed before publication. The ABC apologises to the family for any distress this may have caused.

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