THE problem is … this is likely a skirmish …
IS the real battle happening elsewhere? Like in boardrooms and cabinet offices … about how efficiently can the public sector divest themselves of assets in the inner city suburbs, and justify saying they are spending the proceeds elsewhere?
DO we notice there’s no mention of people, social responsibility, community and reducing the backlog of the housing wait list?
The eccentric birdman who’s beating Australia’s biggest landlord
10 AUGUST 2019
Peter “Pierre” Gawronski, a public housing tenant, was summoned to a meeting with NSW housing officials last week. He arrived with Caesar, a rainforest parrot, on his shoulder.
- Peter Gawronski has won at least 10 cases at tribunal in the past three years
- Public housing blocks like his have recently been sold off in inner-city Sydney
- David Bott, another housing tenant, received an electric shock but had to wait 14 years for the problem to be fully fixed
*“It’s all right, he won’t bite you,” Mr Gawronski told the officials, trying to put everyone at ease.
*Caesar didn’t bite. Instead, he ambled across the table, up and onto the shoulders of one of the housing officials, and opened his peach-yellow beak and regurgitated his breakfast onto the hand of one of the men sitting opposite.
Mr Gawronski shuffled in his seat. “He actually likes you, it’s a term of endearment,” he said.
Recently, the so-called “birdman” has become known for more than just Caesar. He’s won at least 10 legal actions against the NSW Land and Housing Corporation in three years at the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
*Those orders include fixing a rat problem, cleaning up rubbish, mending gas leaks, repairing sewerage lines and, along the way, collecting more than $4,300 in compensation.
Listen to The Birdman of Surrey Hills on Background Briefing.
He accomplished this while representing himself, with no computer, no legal training, and armed only with a high school education.
“Tenants are very reluctant to actually say anything to housing, but because I walk around with Caesar on my shoulder everyone speaks to me — they fall in love with Caesar, he charms them and they’ll tell me everything,” he said.
His actions have resulted in real change for his neighbours. Earlier this year, the housing department was ordered to undertake a full review of the waste management on the site and is now considering overhauling garbage disposal at the 70-year-old buildings.
Prosecuting a case can prove costly for many public housing tenants, according to Leo Patterson Ross, a policy officer from the Tenants Union of NSW.
“A tenant in public housing is an individual going up against the largest landlord in Australia,” he said.
“The ability to address an issue in an adversarial legal context is clearly dampened by that, by that imbalance in resources.”
*Public housing tenants have had to take it upon themselves to mount lengthy legal battles to get simple repairs done.
Tenant electrified in his shower
*David Bott was standing naked in the shower of his public housing unit when his arm brushed against the metal handrail.
Next thing, he was catapulted across the room.
“It was like being hit with a two-by-four in the head,” he said.
When he woke up, he was confused and tangled in the shower curtain with a hole in his elbow. He’d received a severe electric shock.
Water leaks had touched live wires and electrified the handrail.
Mr Bott was furious. He had told his landlord about the water leaks and little had been done.
*It took the department another 14 years to finally fix the problem. In total, he said he complained around 20 times over those years, even taking his cases to NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal and getting orders against the department.
“Realistically it would have been far cheaper for me to pay a building crew to come in and fix my property,” he said.
*But even the tribunal orders failed to make the department fix the problem. Mr Bott eventually resorted to pursuing the department for contempt.
*In a 2017 preliminary hearing, the housing department was found to be in breach of tribunal orders and remained in breach, even during the tribunal hearings.
The tribunal found David Bott had shown “saintly restraint” over 14 years of making complaints.
*Following the hearing, Mr Bott said the department sprung into action. It completed most of the repairs, changed its internal processes and issued a lengthy apology to Mr Bott.
This was enough to convince the tribunal to “vacate” its decision on the contempt charges.
“To actually follow this process through takes hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of hours of detailed note-taking, of researching past cases: it’s just not something the average person can do.”
*These days Mr Bott passes on what he’s learned to others who decide to take on the housing department, including Pierre Gawronski.
Pierre’s grand plan
*Many people living in public housing have troubled pasts. He first entered housing more than 20 years ago, after a painful intestinal condition made him unable to work.
He said he doesn’t have much family and before his health issues, floated from job to job.
“I couldn’t breathe in captivity unfortunately and the closest I’m going to have to children or family are my birds,” he said.
He admitted he has had run-ins with the law including assault and drug charges from the 1980s and another assault charge just two years ago, after an argument with a neighbour.
He has also clashed with housing officials, receiving two warning letters, including one for threatening an officer — an allegation he denies.
“I’ve never been aggressive once, I’ve never ever threatened them,” he said.
Mr Gawronski’s biggest fear is that his home will be taken away from him. His estate, which sits in the inner-city Sydney suburb of Surry Hills, could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars in the hands of the right developer.
In recent years, the NSW Government has resorted to selling off ageing inner-city public housing to raise money and build new, modern, housing.
Earlier this year, the Sirius building — a former public housing block in The Rocks — was sold for $150 million. In the nearby waterfront suburb of Millers Point, 189 public housing properties have been sold for a combined $600 million.
The NSW Department of Communities and Justice, responsible for housing, insist there are no plans to sell Mr Gawronski’s estate.
Deputy Secretary Paul Vevers told the ABC his department is also open to speaking to Mr Gawronski about his concerns.
“We’re very willing to talk to him, we talk to him a great deal,” he said.
* “We don’t feel it is necessary for him to go through the tribunal to resolve some of the matters,”
Mr Gawronski hopes his efforts to force the department to keep the building in good condition will prevent the block from eventually being sold off.
“If they spend millions of dollars bringing it up to 21st-century standards, then there is no argument they can put forth for knocking these buildings down,” he said.
But his clashes with housing have left him feeling unwelcome.
“I don’t think they feel we are worthy to be on this land anymore,” he said.
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