RLC in the Media: Police blitz Sydney's illegal accommodation
Angela Lavoipierre, Mark Colvin
June 2015 - ABC PM
Mark Colvin: Fifty-eight people living in a three bedroom house; it sounds like the kind of overcrowding you’d get in a third world jail. But that was the set-up in one illegal boarding house raided in Sydney recently.
The City of Sydney is working with a dedicated police team to crack down on dodgy accommodation. The aim is to investigate unscrupulous landlords, and shut them down.
But critics say shutting down boarding houses won't address the main problem - a chronic shortage of affordable housing.
Angela Lavoipierre: Yngrid Cunha dos Santos is an international student from Brazil, studying in Sydney.
When she arrived, she was desperate for cheap accommodation and settled on a lodge in the CBD.
After moving in, she discovered she was sharing a two bedroom apartment with seven other people, along with roommates of a different kind.
Yngrid Cunha dos Santos: There were full of bed bugs and I'm allergic to it so I had really big marks on my body and they were full of cockroaches as well. The manger he calls himself Michael, but later I figured out that it isn't his name.
Angela Lavoipierre: After raising the issue with the man she knew as Michael and getting nowhere, she decided to leave.
But when she returned for her laptop and luggage, including her medication, the landlord had stolen them. He refused to return Yngrid's belongings, or her $400 bond.
Yngrid Cunha dos Santos: The police didn't care. I went to different police stations and nothing was done to help me.
Angela Lavoipierre: Thousands of people in need of cheap, short term accommodation live in conditions like these around Sydney.
Apart from being unfair, their situation can also be dangerous.
In July last year, 14 foreign students had to be rescued from their makeshift homes in Alexandria when a fire broke out - they were sleeping in old caravans and a shipping container.
Roy Cottam, a former detective with Scotland Yard, is heading up the police team investigating the problem in inner Sydney.
Roy Cottam: To date the team has executed 22 search warrants in our area over a two month period and obtained a great deal of evidence.
Angela Lavoipierre: He says they've already uncovered some extreme cases.
Roy Cottam: Some of the higher risk cases have been found to include a three bedroom house, 58 beds inside the house, 19 illegally constructed bedrooms. People sleeping in bathrooms and in one case, a pantry.
Angela Lavoipierre: Redfern Legal Centre deals with many of the victims of unscrupulous landlords, including the case of Yngrid Cunag dos Santos.
Lawyer Natalie Bradshaw says they're usually people who are excluded from mainstream accommodation in some way.
Natalie Bradshaw: If we take the example of international students, so they come into Australia, they come from a place of disadvantage in terms of not knowing what the law is, they also come on a practical level without a rental history.
So that's going to really close some doors in terms of approaching more traditional ways to accommodate yourself through a real estate agent, applying at an agency, dealing with an agency.
Angela Lavoipierre: Natalie Bradshaw applauds the city of Sydney's plan to make housing safer, but warns there's a desperate need of cheap accommodation, and the market isn't providing.
Natalie Bradshaw: We don't want to take away options from people who can't afford to stay and accommodate themselves in Sydney, especially a lot of these people are excluded from mainstream accommodation and they need to be able to rely on this type of cheaper accommodation.
Angela Lavoipierre: They're still working to find the landlord in Yngrid's case although a court has already decided in their favour.
Yngrid Cunha dos Santos says it's important that he is caught.
Yngrid Cunha dos Santos: Because I wanted him to pay for what he did to me, I don't want the other students to go through what I went through. I want him to pay and to stop doing this to people.
Angela Lavoipierre: Police say they're hoping to move to prosecute some of the people they've been investigating in the coming months.
We are recruiting for a dynamic person who enjoys working in a client facing role to assist people
experiencing disadvantage to navigate the legal assistance sector, and to train and mentor law
students in client intake. This is an identified role for an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person