Newcastle City Council has closed three boarding houses run by former councillor Aaron Buman after discovering unauthorised works it said had created fire “death traps”.
The council issued orders on Wednesday on a heritage-listed property in Bourke Street, Carrington, and boarding houses on two adjoining properties at Waratah Street, Mayfield. Residents will have to leave the properties within 14 days.
Mr Buman, whom the council did not identify in its media briefings, vehemently rejected the term “death trap” and said the council had not given him enough time to address the issues it had raised.
The council estimated that more than 60 men were living in the boarding houses, which it said were registered to house only 32 people.
Mr Buman said a total of about 100 residents aged from 16 to 82 were living on the properties.
Council chief executive officer Jeremy Bath said the council’s fire-safety engineer had identified an “extreme” fire risk at the boarding houses.
“We appreciate the gravity of the action we have taken,” he said. “The men living in these homes are often those who are only able to live in the community because of the availability of cheap accommodation.
“But, unfortunately, the owner of the properties has shown complete disregard for the safety of the men.”
Mr Buman, whose sometimes controversial time as a councillor included adding an illegal deck to his inner-city cafe and cutting down a tree for a ratepayer who was being ‘‘mucked around by the council’’, said it was “outrageous” to suggest his buildings were a fire hazard.
“One of the things I don’t cut corners on is fire. Not at all,” he said.
“I’m floored. Some of the stuff they’re saying is quite trivial. I don’t understand why I couldn’t be given 30 days to comply. Most of it’s just painting.
“I’m just very disappointed. I am the leading provider of accommodation for homeless men in the Hunter and Central Coast in terms of numbers.”
A council spokesperson said the Carrington property and one of the Mayfield premises were registered with NSW Fair Trading to accommodate 16 residents each.
The other Mayfield property has not registered with Fair Trading and would require development approval to operate as a boarding house.
Council staff had inspected 16 boarding houses since June and all had been found to have minor compliance issues.
“In each case we have been able to work with the owners to make the properties compliant,” the spokesperson said.
“Unfortunately, in the case of the properties at Mayfield and Carrington, the owner has not proved as cooperative.”
Mr Bath said the range of fire-safety issues at the properties was extensive.
“Due to unauthorised construction of more than 30 sole-occupancy units, these properties have inadequate fire-safety provisions, and it’s unacceptable to allow them to continue operating knowing the risks.
“Quite frankly, these properties are a death trap should they catch fire. While we don’t want to shut the two boarding houses down, their owner has left us with absolutely no choice.”
Mr Bath said the council was working with housing providers to find the men new accommodation.
Mr Buman said some of his residents had lived in the boarding houses for more than three years.
“I’m in panic mode. I have 33 tenants who have schizophrenia and seven with bipolar, and it’s blasted all over the f---ing news,” he said.
“I’ve got blokes on the edge. They’ve got nowhere to go. Housing can’t deal with 100 tenants.
“I’ve urged them to give me 30 days to get my engineers and compare apples with apples, and I will comply. I’ve got a process to go through, and I hope a bit of commonsense here plays out.”
Mr Buman said his insurance company inspected his properties every year and a private fire inspector reviewed them twice a year.
He said his council approval to run the boarding houses did not stipulate how many residents or rooms should be in the properties and it was “great” the council was formalising these issues in boarding houses across the city.
He was “really proud” of the service he offered to men who had nowhere else to live.
“I cannot morally put 100 blokes on the street. It is their home. It’s not a place where you just come and stay for a few days; it is a house.”
Mr Buman lodged a development application last year to formalise approvals for an expanded boarding house he owns at Adamstown.
“That’s what every boarding house operator in Newcastle is now doing, formalising their boarding houses to council records to bring them up to speed to where they should be, and that’s a really good outcome.
“The negative to that, of course, is that they’re not going to catch all the dodgy ones that I know are around town.”
Under the Boarding Houses Act 2012, councils are responsible for approving new boarding houses and enforcing building, safety and accommodation standards in existing boarding houses.