ACT News

Mr Fluffy home owners will be forced to seal dwellings if they stay

People who want to stay in their Mr Fluffy homes beyond the first half of next year are likely to be forced to seal the homes to the point where they will not be able to use basic items including downlights, fans heating and cooling.

All light fittings will have to be sealed, along with light switches, door frames, vents, and heating and cooling systems, under a plan outlined by the Asbestos Taskforce. Owners will be forced to seal cavity sliding doors in the open position, affecting privacy.

They will have to seal access to their ceilings, and if essential services are located in the ceiling – including cables, hot water systems and pilot lights – they might even be forced to relocate them. They will have to seal all gaps in floorboards and in steps or decks exposed to the subfloor, and to seal storage areas, cellars, basements and even garages where they access the subfloor. 

They will be forced to inform every person who enters their home of its status and condition.

The extraordinary list of restrictions, to be made mandatory in 2015, will be at the owners' expense. They will significantly affect the functionality and liveability of homes, the taskforce says in its detailed plan for the Mr Fluffy clean-up. "For example, sealing all ceiling penetrations will result in limited air flow which could result in condensation, damp, mould and increased risk of termite activity. Homes would also need to be subject to ongoing monitoring for risks to health and safety."

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The rules will no doubt discourage owners from staying, in line with the Government's preference to get people out and get on with the job of demolishing the homes as soon as possible and within five years.

The first homes to be demolished will be three of the five Mr Fluffy public housing homes, Taskforce head Andrew Kefford said. They would be demolished in a pilot program to test the process. That was unlikely to happen before January, with other demolitions to follow in tranches of 30 to 50 by suburb or area, he said. Neighbours would be told when Fluffy homes were due to be demolished in the street, and would be assured the system was safe.

Chief Minister Katy Gallagher says she wants the buy-back of the 1021 asbestos-contaminated homes to remain voluntary to avoid undermining confidence in the territory's leasehold system of land ownership. But it comes with conditions so stringent it might as well be compulsory.

Owners who don't opt in by June 2015 will become responsible for all asbestos removal, remediation and demolition costs, the taskforce says. As well as planning to introduce such strict laws about sealing off lights, doors cracks and heating that living in the homes will become untenable, the Government has reserved its right to compulsorily acquire homes from anyone who doesn't go voluntarily.

Ms Gallagher said on Wednesday while her intention was not to forcibly evict anyone, she wanted "every one of these houses demolished over time and the sooner the better".

"The scheme is being established as a voluntary buyback scheme, however we will need to consider options if people refuse to vacate their homes," she told the Assembly.

Slater and Gordon land acquisition specialist, Manisha Blencowe points out that the Government does have the right to acquire land compulsorily under its Land Acquisition Act, but if it followed that route it would face a range of compensation payments it is not offering under the voluntary scheme.

The Government is offering market value, based on the average of two valuations (as though houses were not contaminated), and no compensation for furnishings. If it acquired the properties under the Land Acquisition Act, the Government would have to compensate owners for a range of "disturbance losses" and expenses such as removal costs, and there was provision for a lump sum payment for the emotional impact. Compulsory acquisition took into account valuations obtained by the home owners, and compensated owners for professional advice. None of these payments are offered under the Government's voluntary scheme, other than a $1000 payment towards the cost of legal advice.

But Ms Blencowe cautioned owners against holding out for compulsory acquisition in the hope it would bring more compensation. She pointed out that not only could the Government change the compulsory acquisition laws, it was also possible it would not seek to acquire land compulsorily, leaving owners with their Fluffy homes.

"If people were turning down the voluntary scheme in the hope of getting a better offer under a compulsory scheme ... they would be exposing themselves to some risk that they might never get compensation," she said, stressing that Mr Fluffy homeowners were in a better position than they were before this week's announcement, when it had been difficult to identify any easy claim they could make against the government.

The ACT Government had entered unchartered waters with the biggest residential acquisition scheme in Australian history, she said. 

Mr Kefford said voluntary surrender of land allowed the scheme to move much more quickly than compulsory acquisition.

"The compulsory acquisition process is a defined and long process," he said. "It's not necessarily the case that we won't come back to that ... but what we are looking for is a process that allows people to get out of their contaminated homes quickly."