'Devastated' residents facing huge fines and eviction over cladding chaos
Residents of one of the first buildings in Victoria to be audited for cladding claim they received threats of huge fines and eviction by the regulator if they didn't remove it.
Pensioners Jennifer and Kevin Opie bought an apartment at 247 Williams Street in South Yarra seven years ago, which was all signed off by the proper authorities.
"We trusted building regulations at that point but now we don't," Mr Opie told Today.
"We were just leading a normal life, we just retired, we just had enough savings to the end of our lives when this absolute terrible nightmare has befallen us."
Their apartment block was audited by the Victorian Building Authority (VBA) just over a year ago. It was found to have the same combustible cladding found in the Grenfell Tower inferno and the Neo200 fire on Spencer Street earlier this year.
The VBA then hit the 78- and 84-year-old couple with a massive bill to remove it.
"We opened up our computer and saw that we owed $92,000... we were absolutely panic-stricken, we were devastated, we couldn't believe it," Mrs Opie said.
"I worked to 77. Everyone knows teachers don't get a huge wage. We have enough to get us by, we have not got $100,000."
But there was more bad news from the VBA to follow.
They were told if they didn't come up with the cash in three months to remove the cladding, they would be fined over $20,000 or evicted.
It resulted in Mrs Opie being placed on anxiety medication.
"I find sleep rather difficult most nights, it's never far from your mind" said Mr Opie.
The couple says the VBA advised them to get a loan to pay for the cladding removal but, as pensioners, they would never be able to get a loan for that amount of money or pay it back.
"We've been left high and dry with this debt over our heads," Mr Opie said.
Jessica Howsey and Ryan Silvagni also live in the apartment block - it's the newly engaged couple's first home.
"I can't even fathom what this feels like for others, but for us this is devastating financially," Ms Howsey told Today.
The young couple were hit with a $90,000 bill from the VBA to remove the cladding, and also told they would be fined or evicted if they didn't remove it in three months.
"We are first home owners, we are young professionals. There are people here who are retired, there are single mums in this building, I mean it is almost a joke," Ms Howsey said.
The VBA gave residents an extension but the bill to remove the cladding still hangs over their heads.
"We have to come up with $90,000 to replace cladding that wasn't disclosed on any documentation that was signed off by local councils and fire authorities, it's like a slap in the face to be honest," Mr Silvagni said.
Ms Howsey also said they have been advised by council to get a loan from their family, because other options are limited.
"There is a cladding rectification agreement loan that's being made available by the Government but there is only one council participating at the moment because it is optional," she said.
"You cannot create a scheme for optics and say, 'look how we are helping Australians', when you make it optional and you make it flawed - no one can access that scheme," said Ms Howsey.
Residents in the Williams Street building have already had to spend thousands of dollars to get smoke alarms and install other fire safety measures that were not completed by the builder.
They are also paying for a lawyer, but any possible action against the builder, GDM Constructions, is futile, because they have de-registered.
They will now likely emerge operating under a new name - a process known in the building industry as "phoenixing".
"It's a 'get out of jail free card'. They don't have any liabilities over warranty or insurances and they just spin up another company somewhere else," Mr Silvagni said.
Both couples say they have received no financial assistance from the government, even though they are facing financial ruin for a problem that was not theirs in the first place.
"I've got a message for Planning Minister (Richard) Wynne and his Government - they should take full responsibility for this disaster and come up with some financial assistance so we can get on with our lives," Mr Opie said.
Today contacted Minister Wynne for comment but he declined to be interviewed, instead referring us to the VBA.,
The VBA declined to be interviewed but released the following statement:
"Public safety is always the Victorian Building Authority's first priority.
"Combustible cladding needs to be removed from these buildings and the VBA will support owners through this difficult process.
"The Supreme Court of Victoria determined in December 2017, that after an occupancy permit is issued, the Victorian Building Authority cannot direct builders to fix non-compliant work.
"This means that owners are responsible for fixing their buildings. The VBA acknowledges the difficulty for owners and will help them navigate this complex task."
Close to 700 privately owned buildings have been identified with cladding in Victoria.
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