Illegal hostels – endangering lives and the economy

A pleasant street in Caulfield South, lined with autumn leaves and quaint houses, did not look to be the sort of street that was home to an illegally run backpackers hostel.

'Packed to the rafters': the Marriott street property was housing 20 backpackers up until a few weeks ago

An elderly couple pointed out the property. Number 30 Marriott Street looked like your ordinary, two-storey dwelling. But next door, a resident who would prefer to remain anonymous, revealed that during the month of March and part of April, she experienced an out of the ordinary neighbour!

The neighbour revealed the location of the illegal hostel identified by the Glen Eira Leader, in Caulfield North. It is located on Kinross avenue, a few doors down from where her sister lives. Illegal activity there is even more serious.

“Drug deals have happened on premises…my sister has seen pimps in their fancy cars regularly stop by the property,” says the neighbour.

Backpacking across a country has long been a part of traveling adventures. It is a low-cost, portable, easy travel option for tourists, particularly young tourists, worldwide. The Australian economy thrives on the backpacking industry. Backpackers annually contribute $2.3 million to the economy according to the Victorian Tourism Industry Council (VTIC).

 **‘International Visitors in Australia’; December 2010; Quarterly results of the International Visitor survey; Australian Government: Dept of Resources, Energy and Tourism Tourism Research Australian; All results are from visitors all aged 15 years and over; Results are specific to the beginning of 2006 until December 31 of 2010

There are around 80 to 100 registered hostels in Victoria, according to VTIC CEO, Todd Blake. Backpacker accommodation in Melbourne is in high demand. Homeowners in the municipality of Glen Eira are exploiting this: reports indicate there are an alleged thirty illegal hostels which the council is due to investigate.

Consumer Affairs Victoria uses a document, entitled ‘Rooming houses: An Operators Guide.’ Rooming houses have the same features as an illegal hostels – except they are legal! A rooming house is registered with the local council, which is exactly what the illegal hostel operators require before they try to accommodate others. Under the Residential Tenancies Act 1997 (RT Act), a rooming house has one or more rooms available for rent, with four or more occupying these rooms and sharing “communal facilities.” The document explains regulations for houses contain more or less than a certain number of people.

The Marriott street property housed about twenty backpackers The owners complied with the council and the backpackers have gone. “The owners of the Marriott street premises will face charges,” confirms Glen Eira Council spokesman, Paul Burke.

“The illegal hostels cram people in far beyond what the buildings are designed for…the buildings have no fire suppression systems, illegal electrical wiring, unhygienic bathroom and kitchen facilities…they are death traps,” says Mr Burke.

The Childers Palace Backpackers Hostel fire of 2000 killed 15 due to defective smoke alarms. Following the fire, changes were introduced to the Building Act 1975, the Fire and Rescue Service Act 1990 and the Local Government Act 1993, states the Queensland Government Department of Emergency Services. A backpacking hostel (legal or not) is classified as a type of budget accommodation. Owners of budget accommodation are “legally obligated to comply with the new fire safety legislation,” according to the QLD government.

“There is no one agency with primary responsibility for overseeing these type of institutions,” says Mr Burke. The Building Code of Australia, Building Act 1993, Building Regulations 2006, Metropolitan Fire Brigades Act 1958, Country Fire Authority Act 1958 and Health Regulations 2001, are all involved in regulating hostels, according to the ‘Rooming houses’ document.

“VTIC needs to have more clearly defined powers in policing these illegal hostels,” says Mr Blake.

Glen Eira Council does not have the authority to shut down an illegal hostel. They can inspect a property, but need to give owners 24 hours notice and go through several procedures to just be granted access to a property, says Mr Burke. After inspection, the council can order backpackers to leave or order the owner obtain a permit. If the owner refuses to do either, criminal charges are laid. “In a democracy, there are processes that need to be followed… those charged will be heard by a court and have the opportunity to put their case to a Magistrate,” says Mr Burke.

The council only grants this permit or licence if it is “satisfied that the premises has a development permit under the Integrated Planning Act 1997,” according to the Regulation and Risks of Illegal Backpacker Accommodation in Queensland. Accommodation has to be provided without risking health and safety, according to Section 7 of the Act. Section 9 outlines that council authority can impose conditions on the license, including limiting the number of persons for whom accommodation can be provided. This information is from the Queensland Government. Glen Eira Voice could not locate an equivalent document for Victoria.

Adam Carey, an Age journalist, investigated the Marriott street property by posing as a backpacker for a week. He described the squalid conditions; one toilet, one bathroom and enough bunk beds to accommodate up to thirty people.

The transient nature of backpackers’ stay is certainly a limitation on the enforcement of process and progression of complaints according to the RT Act. Nonetheless, the longer these places go unnoticed, the worse the increase. The police, the local council, along with both the state and federal government, must work to establish a transparent protocol relating specifically to illegal hostels. Our economy can survive the dangers caused by these hostels, but human life cannot.

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