‘It’s cruel, it’s intolerable’: Residents hit with huge bills for extra safety works

Key points

  • Residents who had flammable cladding removed from their homes have been told to fund new, expensive safety works.
  • The building regulator has identified more than 30 fire safety faults on some buildings.
  • Residents of one South Yarra apartment took their case to the appeals board, but it was rejected.
  • Former premier Ted Baillieu has called for IBAC to investigate. 

Residents who have had flammable cladding removed from their apartments under a Victorian government program say they have been left broke and unable to sell their homes after the building regulator demanded they pay for expensive additional works.

Kevin and Jennifer Opie’s apartment building on Williams Road in South Yarra was one of the first in the state to be identified as containing the dangerous aluminium cladding, which had been used for decades on thousands of Australian buildings.

Jennifer and Kevin Opie say they will be “financially crippled” after the building authority identified up to 30 additional fire risks in their building after the flammable cladding was removed.Credit:Simon Schluter

In 2019, the retired teachers, aged in their 80s, were hit with a $92,000 bill to remove the cladding after a state-wide review. But months later, after several high-profile building fires, the Andrews government announced it would pay to remove combustible cladding on buildings across Victoria with a $600 million repair fund.

Then-planning minister Richard Wynne called the Opies personally to say their nightmare was over. But it was only just beginning.

While the cladding was removed successfully, the Victorian Building Authority has since identified more than 30 fire safety faults at the Williams Road building, all to be rectified at the owners’ expense. This is despite the building receiving a “fit for occupancy” certificate when it was completed in 2011.

“We thought the problem was the cladding, not other things that they have found, and some of those things that they have found are very, very expensive,” Jennifer, 81, said.

“We are not looking at a few dollars. Some [faults that need fixing] are up to $100,000, and we have to meet those bills ourselves … it’s going to cripple us – financially cripple us.”

The 18 apartment owners in the Opie’s building have already taken out a half-a-million-dollar loan to cover the costs of most of the rectification work, which they are paying interest on. The body corporate fees have quadrupled as a result.

The building authority’s latest demand is that sprinklers be installed throughout the entire building at an estimated cost of $200,000 despite a Fire Rescue Victoria report only encouraging the owners to consider installing a sprinkler system.

The residents took the matter to the Building Appeals Board in February, with former Liberal premier Ted Baillieu attending the hearing in support.

A 280-page engineers’ report was presented to the board suggesting more cost-effective fire safety measures. No one objected to the recommendations at that hearing and the residents thought the matter was finally resolved.

But a few weeks later, the board backflipped. The engineers’ report was now deemed by the board to contain “significant methodological errors” and was rejected.

Baillieu, who was an architect before he was a politician and spearheaded a 2017 taskforce to identify buildings with combustible cladding, said the Independent Broad-based Anti-corruption Commission (IBAC) should investigate the appeals board.

“They [the residents] have been persecuted. It’s cruel, it’s intolerable … and if the government is not prepared to intervene and do something about this, then this is … a matter for IBAC,” he said.

Combustible cladding on London’s Grenfell Tower exacerbated a fire that claimed 72 lives in 2017.Credit:AP

“Somebody has made secret representations to the BAB after the process has all been concluded. Why have they done that? I don’t know.”

A revised version of the engineers’ report was submitted but the board rejected that too.

“We feel demoralised. You just think, what else can go wrong? We don’t sleep at night,” Jennifer said.

The Opies said that to be included in the government’s cladding removal program, they had to sign a document saying they would not speak to the media. They are defying that gag order now because they feel they have nothing left to lose.

The couple desperately wants to sell, but with the regulator’s orders in place, there is little to no chance of that. And with all the outstanding work, the value of the property has reduced significantly.

After Jennifer had a serious back operation and the osteoporosis in 88-year-old Kevin’s knees worsened, the couple say they can hardly get up and down the stairs in their apartment.

They had wanted to be living in a nursing home by now.

“That seems … to be a pipe dream because we can’t sell,” Kevin said.

They say they feel persecuted by the VBA and let down by the appeals board.

“It’s just gone on for so long, and our financial resources have been drained … you hoped you’d planned financially for the end of your life, but this, of course, just destroys any plan you have,” Kevin said.

A Victorian Building Authority spokesperson said the main fire safety issue with the Williams Road building was the timber framing.

“These issues are complex and challenging for owners and occupiers of affected buildings,” the spokesperson said.

The VBA spokesperson said action had been taken against the surveyor who initially inspected the building for issuing occupancy permits when the building was non-compliant. The surveyor has taken the matter to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.

The appeals board did not respond to a request for comment.

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