It’s time to punt the point scoring on Mascot Towers


It’s been almost four years since their homes in a crumbling apartment block were deemed uninhabitable. But if that wasn’t hard enough (while being occasionally kicked to the kerb by the odd government minister), the owners of apartments in Mascot Towers must be sick of being treated as a political football. 

The latest hopeful punts have come from the boots of Fair Trading minister de jour Victor Dominello and his opposition equivalent Courtney Houssos, each offering different solutions to the 100-plus families rendered homeless when the building seemed on the point of physical collapse almost four years ago.

There’s also a predictable Greens “Hail Mary” suggestion that falls into the “prerogative of the harlot” territory – influence without responsibility. 

Residents of the Mascot Towers building in Mascot, Sydney were evacuated from their homes on June 14, 2019, when serious cracking saw the whole block deemed unsafe for habitation.

Rapidly decanted from their flats, owner-occupiers, renters and eventually investors all received rental (or rent loss) assistance payments while the situation was resolved. 

Legal action against the developers of the adjoining site – allegedly for undermining the Mascot Towers foundations when digging out their own underground garage – was inconclusive and settled out of court, but not for anything like the amounts it would take to remediate the blighted block.

Meanwhile, investor confidence in the whole apartment building sector had taken a huge hit, resulting in part in the appointment of Building Commissioner David Chandler, who was assigned the Herculean task of cleaning out the high-rise building industry.

Confidence suffered another dent about this time last year, when then Fair Trading Minister Eleni Petinos announced that the rent assistance, which was due to run out, would end in June 2022.

“The NSW Government will be extending the package for a final time, allowing residents to finalise arrangements for alternative accommodation,” she told the media.

Panicked owners said they would be prepared to sign safety waivers if they were allowed to move back into their “unsafe” homes.  In any case, the decision to end rental support was overturned in May last year and it continues today. 

Fast forward to this, the eve of the NSW state election, and Mascot Towers has been dragged back into the limelight, with the Greens saying the next government should buy the units back from the owners.

In response, shadow minister Courtney Houssos says a Labor government would give them low-interest loans to fix up the building so they can move back in, guaranteeing rental support until they do. A buy-back, she rightly says, would only give them back a fraction of the original value.

Sound reasonable? Not according to Fair Trading Minister Victor Dominello who dumped on the Labor plan in a media release last weekend (Feb 11), saying offering loans and guarantees without fully understanding all the issues “beggars belief”.

 “I don’t see how blindly adding another few hundred thousand in debt on top for each and every one of them would help any of the owners who are financially and psychologically struggling already,” he said.

Instead he has asked Building Commissioner Chandler to set up a working group to establish what can be done to remediate the building (if at all), how to do it and how much it would cost.

Mr Chandler has at least two advantages over most politicians: people trust him and he will still be here after the election.  Mr Dominello is highly regarded but he’s retiring from politics and, realistically, the whole Liberal government could be history. Ms Houssas’ and her party’s future are yet to be decided by the voters of NSW.

So here’s a suggestion.  Let’s take Mascot Towers off the partisan politics table.

Let the government and opposition agree that Mr Chandler’s inquiry should go ahead and whoever wins the election will implement its findings and provide the finances to make them happen.

Forget the political football games – try working as a team and score a goal for logic, decency and common sense. 

How might it work? Create a corporation that would take responsibility for the block and buy back the flats for a reduced sum before renting them out long term as affordable housing to pay for the work done.

A way would be found for owners who didn’t want to sell to come along for the remediate-to-rent ride. The profitability and lost value numbers probably don’t stack up but then they never will for most individuals and entities involved.

But there are a lot of smart people involved in this and they could, if they tried, come up with better, more imaginative and socially responsible solutions than merely trying to score political points at the Mascot Towers residents’ expense.

A version of this column first appeared in the Australian Financial Review.

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      It’s been almost four years since their homes in a crumbling apartment block were deemed uninhabitable. But if that wasn’t hard enough (while being oc
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