Fifty-eight people squashed into a 3-bed house, tenants crammed into laundries and bathrooms, makeshift showers created in any available space: these are some of the appalling conditions that a City of Sydney Council investigation squad has found during a recent council crackdown on the city’s illegal accommodation scammers.
The Unauthorised Accommodation Investigation Team tasked with dealing with the problem is not to be trifled with. The operation is headed by former Scotland Yard senior detective and organised crime specialist Roy Cottam, former police officers with skills in counter-terrorism and forensic evidence, and Australian military police and the NSW Police.
With Sydney rents still rising exponentially and backpacker hostel rates in a multi-bed dorm in the city standing at around $30 to $35 for a night, most of the victims of these shonky landlords are overseas students and backpackers desperate to save money on rent.
The City of Sydney Council has also been running an educational program in tandem with the clampdown, primarily aimed at students at universities and colleges to advise them about safe rental options.
The elite investigation team, which was formed in March this year, has executed more than 20 search warrants in the past six weeks and currently has 38 open investigations underway.
The calibre and specialist nature of the investigation team is a response to the fact that Illegal accommodation networks have become increasingly better organised over the past year and landlords have been blocking access to council staff trying to investigate properties. This has driven the necessity of gathering evidence in order to apply for search warrants and collecting witness statements with the help of NSW Police.
Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore said the City’s new specialist team was focussed on disrupting share-accommodation providers operating a network of rental properties, which are illegally subdivided, unsafe and overcrowded.
“Some of the complaints we received were new territory for council staff because they involved organised syndicates operating illegal accommodation networks. In the past, our staff who have attended inspections have been verbally threatened and abused,” Ms Moore said.
“Evidence we’ve recently collected suggests multiple offences are taking place, some of which are outside councils’ powers and responsibilities. This means a multi-agency approach is the best way to disrupt operations and deter new operators from entering this illegal market.
“Because of the highly organised nature of some of these operations – and their level of deception – the City felt a dedicated team with specialist investigative skills was required to crack down on this practice that is putting the safety of vulnerable young people at risk.”
Detective Cottam said unauthorised short-term accommodation was a growing issue across the Sydney metropolitan region and other global cities.
“The issue of unauthorised accommodation use is complex and ranges from technical breaches, through to more high-risk fire safety and building-code violations where illegal building works have been undertaken to facilitate overcrowding,” Mr Cottam said.
“Properties that are significantly overcrowded – with unauthorised building works and fire safety defects – are our investigative priority and the area where we’ll take immediate action due to the higher safety risks and negative impact on other residents.
“We will also focus our resources on those who take advantage of vulnerable people by setting up networks of unauthorised share accommodation for large-scale financial gain.
“We want to send out the strong message – we are coming after you.”
The City is the first NSW council to establish a specialist investigations team using a multi-agency approach to investigate reports of illegal use of property. Other agencies involved include the NSW Police Force, Fire and Rescue NSW, NSW Fair Trading, the Australian Tax Office.
The City is also liaising with councils experiencing similar issues and formed closer working relationships with key state and federal government agencies.
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