Anonymous letter reveals ugly side of state's building defects scandal

An elderly woman was advised not to return to her Charlestown apartment before her death on Sunday


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Warning: A sign on the door of an elderly woman's apartment at Charlestown's Landmark building from August, 2018 until February this year during work to repair long-standing and serious defects.

Warning: A sign on the door of an elderly woman's apartment at Charlestown's Landmark building from August, 2018 until February this year during work to repair long-standing and serious defects.

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An anonymous letter, an elderly woman's death and an unfolding state scandal.

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AN elderly woman found dead on Sunday in her penthouse apartment at Charlestown's Landmark building received an anonymous letter exposing one of the ugliest secrets in the state's apartment building crisis.

"Don't play the defenceless little old lady while you are stabbing everyone here in the heart. As if our and your levies are not high enough," said the letter in February, 2018 before the woman was forced to move out of her apartment in August for more than six months, while defects described as "dangerous and in need of urgent attention" were addressed.

The Landmark's 59 residential apartment owners were levied thousands of dollars each for the repairs and the cost of a $650 a week temporary unit where the woman lived until February when the work was completed.

She reluctantly returned after the letter warned "I'm living in hope that when you do move out you consider your options about coming back".

"If I was you I would use this time to look for another place to live. You are so not capable of adjusting to strata living," the letter said.

The woman, in her 70s, was found dead on Sunday after failing to answer phone calls or attend church. A cause of death is yet to be determined.

The letter and minutes of the Landmark's strata annual meeting in November, where residents discussed the issue and voted on a motion to condemn harassing, offensive or menacing letters, revealed the "terrible internal conflicts" when apartment residents are left with the bill for defective buildings, NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge said.

Submission: Landmark penthouse owner Aidan Ellis (left) with NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge in February. Mr Shoebridge will chair a parliamentary inquiry into building defects in NSW apartment buildings. Picture: Marina Neil.

Submission: Landmark penthouse owner Aidan Ellis (left) with NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge in February. Mr Shoebridge will chair a parliamentary inquiry into building defects in NSW apartment buildings. Picture: Marina Neil.

"Where there's no insurance because of government regulation and the developer has gone because of liquidated companies, the enormous financial pressures left with strata committees and residents can create terrible internal conflicts where people can suffer very real oppression," he said.

Mr Shoebridge included the operation of strata committees in terms of reference for a parliamentary inquiry he will chair after controversial building defect cases in Sydney, including residents of the new Opal Tower at Sydney's Olympic Park being forced to leave their units on Christmas Eve.

While the Sydney cases had grabbed the headlines, the Landmark represented the long-standing nature of problems facing apartment residents because of shoddy building and NSW laws that increasingly benefited developers and failed consumers, said Mr Shoebridge, who visited the Landmark in February.

The parliamentary inquiry will include examining how strata committees respond to building defects discovered in common property, including protections offered for all strata owners in disputes that impact only a minority of strata owners.

Mr Shoebridge said he included the strata question in the terms of reference because of the Landmark, and after meeting with penthouse unit owner Aidan Ellis, a neighbour of the elderly woman who died on Sunday.

Mr Shoebridge was shocked but not surprised by the anonymous letter to the woman after his office was overwhelmed by calls and emails from people wanting to make submissions to the inquiry.

Defects: A part of the elderly woman's apartment in February during work to repair significant defects. Picture: Marina Neil.

Defects: A part of the elderly woman's apartment in February during work to repair significant defects. Picture: Marina Neil.

"We're now at the end of a long cycle where the profits have been taken, developers have walked away, serious defects are apparent and strata committees and residents are forced to come together to clean up the mess," Mr Shoebridge said.

"A feature of this issue has been the conspiracy of silence by residents and strata committees because if someone blows the whistle, everybody's property values fall and the whistleblower is blamed."

Mr Ellis has been shunned and strongly criticised by some Landmark residents after first raising the building's long-standing and serious building defects with the Newcastle Herald in March, 2018, and attempting to have the strata committee removed. A NSW tribunal in February, 2018 found the strata committee had breached a section of legislation by failing to repair "clear" and "significant" defects, but it declined to replace the committee with a strata manager.

The anonymous letter to his elderly neighbour, one of two sent to her in 2018 that were tabled at the strata annual general meeting in November, greatly distressed the woman before she was forced to leave her home for repairs and after she returned.

"She was frightened about how she would be treated. It's like being sent to coventry. I can take it but it's very distressing to think about what she went through in the final months before she died, simply because the work that should have been done years ago was finally done," Mr Ellis said.

Minutes of the annual general meeting confirm the extent of the building's problems and the impact on residents, with $700,000 in special fees levied on residents for rectification work in June and December, 2017, and another $200,000 in early 2019.

The minutes show money spent so far only covers work on common areas and the two penthouse units, with further reports expected on "how to address the issues remaining in the building".

View: A builder works on repair works to one section of the Landmark. Residents have been told to expect further reports on more work needed to repair defects in other parts of the building. Picture: Marina Neil.

View: A builder works on repair works to one section of the Landmark. Residents have been told to expect further reports on more work needed to repair defects in other parts of the building. Picture: Marina Neil.

The minutes described the work on the penthouse level as "urgent".

"None of the doors and windows on this level meet Australian Standards, the James Hardie wall cladding is incorrectly installed allowing water ingress, standard insulation is lacking in walls and ceilings and the decks and balustrades have serious decay and corrosion issues," the minutes said in an explanatory note under the heading "Defects".

"All these issues have been deemed dangerous and in need of urgent attention by at least three different engineers.

"While they are not addressed there will continue to be insurance issues because the building is not considered 'structurally sound or watertight' and people trying to sell their units will continue to have difficulty because all these issues and their consequent special levies must be listed in any Strata Searches.

"Obviously it would be more efficient to complete all work on the areas on Level 9 simultaneously, however since the work has commenced with one unit at a time we suggest this method continue until all common areas are rectified."

In a statement to the Newcastle Herald in March, 2018 Landmark builder/developer Peter Durbin said he "participated in discussions with the owners" about repairs to the building that won a NSW Master Builders Association excellence in construction award in 2009 on completion.

But "the ambit of the claim being pressed by the owners was such that (his company) Nelson Bay Building could not continue to meet the expense associated with responding to it, and the company therefore entered into liquidation," Mr Durbin said.

Nelson Bay Building was wound up by Mr Durbin, as sole director, in October, 2017 and a liquidator was appointed. In his statement Mr Durbin confirmed the creditors were other companies owned by him that were owed $128,000.

"The owed monies are effectively to myself and companies I operate," he said.

He confirmed unit owners could not make home warranty insurance claims because the residential part of the Landmark building is above the three-storey minimum where apartments are not covered by the insurance under NSW legislation.

Newcastle Herald

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