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Investigator to probe Melbourne’s ‘sophisticated’ illegal rooming networks

June 30, 2015
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“Sophisticated” illegal rooming house networks will be targeted in a crackdown by Melbourne City Council, with a professional investigator to be hired to gather evidence against “unscrupulous” operators.                       

There is growing evidence that city apartments are being crowded with foreign workers, students and backpackers, who are charged excessive rent for tiny sleeping quarters including partitioned living rooms.

“We can see the problem is not improving itself and some serious action needs to be taken,” Councillor Richard Foster said.

The council has identified at least two “organised” groups renting out beds in a number of illegal rooming houses across the city. 

But Mr Foster said the council needed a professional investigator, with a law-enforcement background and good intelligence networks, to infiltrate these operations. The role is set to be filled within the coming weeks.

The appointment follows the City of Sydney’s creation of a specialist four-person investigation squad, headed by a former Scotland Yard detective, to shut down Sydney’s illegal accommodation providers.

It also comes after Fairfax Media identified more than two dozen buildings around Melbourne’s CBD where living rooms were being divided with curtains and rented out as bedrooms.

Many online classified advertisements are offering beds in the city’s high-rise apartments at a nightly rate, listing check-in and check-out times. Through a Chinese-language Facebook page, a double mattress in a living room at 220 Spencer Street is advertised for $25 a night, per person.

A young working tourist (who did not want to be named) told Fairfax Media he pays $160 a week for a cordoned-off space in an apartment at the UniLodge building opposite the State Library of Victoria.

The Canadian found the property advertised on Gumtree about a year ago. “They said it was a living room that was sectioned off by a wall, but when I got there it was just a curtain,” he said.

When he moved in, he paid a bond of about $600. By law the landlord should have lodged that money with the Residential Tenancies Bond Authority, but the tenant said he had never heard of the RTBA and doubted it had been handed over.

He shares the lounge room with another man, whose “room” is divided from the rest of the living space with a wooden frame covered with posters and clothes.

In total, four people live in the one-bedroom apartment. The arrangement likely breaches a law requiring the property to be registered as a rooming house, because more than three people have separate rent agreements to pay rent.

Since being alerted to the issue, Melbourne UniLodge managers have begun monitoring classified advertisements.

A spokeswoman for the student accommodation provider said the 339 Swanston Street property was “somewhat different” from other UniLodge apartment buildings because some of the units were privately owned.

She said regular inspections were carried out in the apartments controlled by UniLodge, as per the Residential Tenancies Act.

“We certainly wouldn’t permit anyone living in a living room nor excess parties living in a bedroom,” she said.

Illegal house rooming operators can face fines of up to $3033 under the Public Health and Wellbeing Act, or more than $18,000 under the Building Act.

Cr Foster said the council would make sure those who had been living in overcrowded homes were not left homeless as action was taken against illegal accommodation operators.

He said that support would be coupled with an “education campaign” for international students about their tenancy rights.