RESIDENTS of a Carrington boarding house ordered shut by Newcastle City Council over allegedly “extreme” fire risks say they feel absolutely safe where they are and have no intention of moving, or being moved.
Life at the former Carrington Inn in Bourke Street, Carrington, and in two adjoining houses in Waratah Street, Mayfield, was severely disrupted on Wednesday when council chief executive Jeremy Bath held a media conference to announce that the three establishments were being shut down over a range of compliance issues, with residents having 14 days to find new accommodation.
Former Newcastle councillor Aaron Buman, who operates the boarding houses, is incensed at the way the council has come after him, saying the first he knew of the fire safety allegations was when council officers turned up at 9.30am on Wednesday with the closure orders.
He said council inspectors looked at both boarding houses last month and wrote to him earlier this month with a list of issues they wanted fixed, but he says both letters gave him until the end of this month to respond to the issues raised, and that neither of them mentioned anything to do with fire risk or fire compliance.
“So I am really perplexed about why they are doing this the way they are,” Mr Buman said.
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Mr Buman says many of the alleged problems with the heritage-listed Carrington building are petty and pedantic, and that all he has done in reality is to improve the appearance inside and out of a building that was in much worse shape when he bought it than it is now.
But he says it’s the description of both boarding houses as “death traps” that has really hurt, given that both of them have extensive fire compliance systems and that most of the complaints, he says, are as much about the type of alarm, or the quality of the fire doors, as they are about an absence of safety measures.
“My fire engineer is furious about this,” Mr Buman says. “With his input we’ve gone to great lengths to make sure these buildings are safe. I would never let my blokes down. And to have the council describe them as ‘death traps’ is just completely, factually wrong.”
On two visits to the Carrington premises after the closure orders were issued, the Newcastle Herald found every resident firmly behind their landlord, and adamant that they were safe where they were and had no intention of leaving.
The Herald has not been to the Mayfield business but one Carrington resident, James, has lived at both and says the fire alarm system at Waratah Street is as complete and as obvious as it is at Carrington.
“There’s alarms in every room, there’s alarms in the stairwells, no-one smokes in their rooms and the smoking area in the common room is on a concrete floor in a brick building,” James said.
“There’s a fire station two minutes away in Carrington. If there was a fire, they’d get here pretty quickly you’d think.”
Mr Buman says he doubts there is much sympathy for him, given the work done without DAs and the reputation attached to boarding houses in general.
But he says he loves the work he is doing, and the various state government departments and agencies who use him as their “preferred accommodation provider” are also more than happy with the services he provides.
“They have their people come through and they don’t have a problem,” Mr Buman said.
The council says it’s on a sweep of the city’s boarding houses but Mr Buman said he felt as if he had been singled out for high-profile treatment to allow the council to “look tough”. The council denies this, and says the closure notices were based on reports of council officers “with no agenda to push”.
Many of Mr Buman’s tenants are either recently out of jail, unable find housing department accommodation, or recovering from mental health or drug issues, or a combination of all.
Carrington is a “dry” premises, with a preparedness to be breathalysed and to undertake random drug tests a condition of staying.
The rooms are either $155, $175 or $195 a week, depending on the person’s welfare status, with 37 people living at Carrington and 46 at the Mayfield premises.
Working with Matthew Talbot, the Hunter Tenants Advice & Advocacy Service, Family and Community Services and some of the other 60-odd boarding houses in Newcastle, the council says it has found accommodation for about half of the affected residents.
The council said its officers and staff from welfare and state government agencies had tried to talk to the residents but that the owner – it has not named Mr Buman in its statements – had been reluctant to allow access, meaning that “many of the boarders remain unaware of the matter and unable to access assistance”.
But Carrington resident Chris said “no-one’s appoached us, and anyway, we all want to stay”.
Asked whether he had hindered access to the boarding houses, Mr Buman said no-one had contacted him and he knew of no-one trying to visit the residents.
“Matthew Talbot has my number,” Mr Buman said.