Home > Latest News > Public Health and Wellbeing >

Less than a week to D-day for slumlords

August 23, 2017
Public Health and Wellbeing

It is supposed to be the day when the vice-like grip of slumlords on Victoria’s rooming house industry starts to break.

But Shahram fears that after next Thursday, a notorious network linked to two deaths, dozens of houses, and millions in profits , will continue with near impunity, charging more than $200 a week for dingy rooms in their dangerous properties.

The other scenario is hardly more comforting – that the impending crackdown works, the rooming houses linked to the syndicate are closed, and the hundreds of occupants are on the streets, joining a worsening homelessness crisis.

From Thursday, rooming house operators in the state must have a licence, which they will have to pass a fit and proper person test to obtain.

The new regime comes into effect after housing groups have long called for change to end the exploitation of vulnerable residents.

This exploitation is often linked to a dominant group of long-term friends with shady pasts who have maintained a presence in the sector for more than a decade.

Shahram has been lucky, having in recent weeks left one of the networks ’ illegal rooming houses, in Alvie Court, Westmeadows.

And he is supportive of the push to clean up the sector.

He hopes, however, that the new laws are matched with a renewed vigour for enforcement, helping to weed out the illegal operators and protect those who feel they have little choice but to live in their houses.

‘‘ The treatment from management was horrible, they only cared about rent and nothing else,’’ Shahram , who did not wish to be identified , said.

‘‘ They could not possibly be any worse and they have given me psychological scars from which I’m still suffering.’’

Shahram lived for more than two years in a house operated by the network. Tenancy advocates estimate the network control as many as 100 registered and unregistered properties across Melbourne.

Shahram says the four-bedroom property had six people in it when he left, all of whom were paying at least $200 a week for a room. The house had one toilet, a broken fridge in a small kitchen, and no laundry.

‘‘ I had been a victim of robbery (twice), burglary (endless times), violence, assaults resulting in an intervention order, constant drug abuse and drunkenness. I didn’t experience even one single day without some serious issue.’’

Operators and managers have had since April to apply for a licence under the new Rooming House Operators Act.

Anybody convicted or found guilty of serious criminal offences within the last 10 years will be refused a licence. The fit and proper person test is likely to rule out George Maatouk, who is one of the great survivors of the network despite a slew of past criminal convictions. But it appears his presence in the industry will continue, regardless of the new restrictions – he recently became the sole director of two companies suspected of supplying rooming houses. This time last year, he had only recently completed a prison term.

Mr Maatouk managed a Brunswick rooming house where two people died in a fire in 2006, and has repeatedly been linked to troubles within the sector since. Mr Maatouk and three friends were considered the tsars of a rooming house empire at the time of the fire , with control of as many as 150 properties through several different companies.

An inquest into the deaths was told the Brunswick rooming house was linked to a company which was earning $40,000 a week operating 60 properties. The multimilliondollar empire had reportedly grown to more than 220 properties by 2009.

Last August, Mr Maatouk was jailed for trafficking ecstasy, and possessing ice and a machete, while on bail. He had previously been sentenced to jail terms in 2006 and 2010, which were suspended or served via a corrections order. But, despite his criminal history, he became the sole director of DS Leasing and SLM Housing in April, company records show.

Tenancy advocates claim the group, through DS Leasing, is trying to circumvent the tightening of regulations in the sector by operating share houses, which are unregulated , rather than rooming houses.

Mr Maatouk does not appear on the public register of licensed operators , and it is unclear whether he has applied for a licence.

The Tenants Union of Victoria visited an unregistered rooming house property in June which they were referred to by a resident.

The man had been moved from one unregistered property, operated by DS Leasing, to another, owned by SLM Housing.

Signs posted in the second property incorrectly stated it was not a rooming house, the Tenants Union claimed, and residents indicated to them they may have had to sign joint leases to live there. The contact for the house was a man who had been replaced by Mr Maatouk as a director only weeks earlier.

Calls to Mr Maatouk’s lawyer were not returned.

A search of the rooming house public register reveals about 30 properties operated by companies linked to him or the network, but dozens more are suspected to be unregistered or not listed on the site.

Tenants Union of Victoria chief Mark O’Brien said criminal rooming house operators were running properties that were unsafe, insecure and unaffordable.

He said criminal operators continued running rooming houses even though the Rooming House Operators Act had been introduced to crack down on those who repeatedly dodged the law.

‘‘ We are hopeful that once fully implemented, the licensing requirements will capture unscrupulous operators who continue to profiteer from vulnerable residents,’’ he said.

Minister for Consumer Affairs Marlene Kairouz said the fit and proper person test was specifically designed to protect vulnerable rooming house residents from dodgy operators.

‘‘ Consumer Affairs Victoria will be out in force later this month inspecting every rooming house where the operator hasn’t applied for a licence and taking appropriate action.

A spokesman for Consumer Affairs Victoria said rooming house operators had been given ‘‘ ample time’ ’ to understand the new regime before the laws came into place in April.

The new laws will not overturn a continued point of conjecture within the sector: the enforcement of illegal houses and operators being the responsibility of local government, while the regulation of registered houses and licensed managers falls to Consumer Affairs. This has led to gaps in the system, critics say; councils that are rigorous in their pursuit of illegal rooming houses simply push unscrupulous operators into starting new enterprises elsewhere.

Published by:  The Age, August 20th 2017, page 15