Bed bugs and cockroaches: the legal battle over conditions in a Melbourne community housing block

<span>Jack Kramme is the lead plaintiff in a case about a community housing block in Melbourne that has been subject to a bedbug infestation since 2018.</span><span>Photograph: Ellen Smith/The Guardian</span>
Jack Kramme is the lead plaintiff in a case about a community housing block in Melbourne that has been subject to a bedbug infestation since 2018.Photograph: Ellen Smith/The Guardian

First, there were cockroaches. Then bed bugs. Then came the anger.

After years of battling pest infestations at a once-celebrated community housing block just outside Melbourne’s CBD, resident Jack Kramme says he’s had enough.

“Initially, I was so grateful to have a secure place to live so I really didn’t care what was going on,” he tells Guardian Australia.

“But, to be frank, I’m getting too old for this shit.”

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After a four-year battle, the 36-year-old has had a win in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (Vcat), where it was found his housing provider, Unison, breached its obligations to keep the Elizabeth Street apartment building in good repair.

His lawyer, Wallis Hamilton from the Inner Melbourne Community Legal (IMCL), says more needs to be done to improve the rights of community housing residents as the Victorian government embarks on a plan to redevelop public housing towers.

“With the proposal of demolishing the 44 public housing buildings, we still don’t know how many will be replaced by community housing,” she says.

“I absolutely believe that if residents are in community housing, then they will be worse off.”

Her firm is also leading a class action against on behalf of about 1,000 residents of the first three towers slated for demolition.

‘An epidemic’

Kramme has lived at Elizabeth Street Common Ground since it opened in 2010.

“I was just relieved after three years of homelessness,” Kramme says.

At the time, it was the first apartment block in Victoria designed and built to support people experiencing chronic homelessness and severe disadvantage, and offered on-site health services and employment assistance. The project was largely funded by the state government and run by non-profit organisations, in what is now known as “community housing”.

Community housing has proliferated across Victoria. As of 2022, it makes up 20% of the state’s total social housing stock.

For Anna*, who became a resident in 2013, the prospect of her own unit after several years couch-surfing and sleeping in hostels was “incredibly exciting”.

“When I saw the apartment I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve got my own kitchen and bathroom’,” she says.

But Anna and Kramme say as time went on, support services began to dry up and conditions began to deteriorate.

This included a cockroach infestation in 2019. That year, Unison was ordered by Vcat to carry out pest control, but it didn’t stop the outbreak.

“I would see them crawling out of my computer, they were all over my desk,” Kramme says. “Then, they were everywhere.”

It was at this time Kramme engaged IMCL, who took the matter to Vcat, and Unison were ordered to conduct further pest control.

But it was soon followed by bed bugs.

“It’s gotten to a point that no matter what I do, it doesn’t help,” Kramme says.

“I wake up in the middle of the night with bed bugs biting me. I get out of bed, spray everything, then get back in and hope to get a little bit of sleep before it happens again.

“I’m constantly covered in bites. They’re in my wheelchair. They’re everywhere.”

Anna says she has gone through four couches and several rugs as she’s also battled the infestation.

“I can’t even count how many mattresses I have had, how many times I have had to throw out my bedding,” she says.

Unison’s Pest Control Policy, from March 2020, states “in the first instance, pest control in a unit is the responsibility of the tenant” and “in general, tenants … are expected to treat the pests and bear the cost, where reasonable and practicable”.

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But in December, Vcat member Filip Gelev found the provider was in breach of its duty “to keep the resident’s room and the rooming house in good repair”.

He ordered Unison to temporarily relocate Jack for bed bug treatment and ordered that an independent pest company audit the building.

The result of the audit, seen by Guardian Australia, shows that of the 125 units inspected, bed bugs were found in 46. They were also found in common areas, including a “high presence” in the counselling room of level 1 and on level 3.

“It’s an epidemic,” Anna says.

The results of the audit prompted Gelev to order Unison to begin treatment for bed bugs in all other affected units and common areas.

The matter has been adjourned until 27 May to allow for two rounds of treatment, while Guardian Australia understands Unison also recently changed its pest policy.

Having a clear oversight across the whole system … would benefit policymakers and benefit tenants

Sarah Toohey

While the organisation is unable to disclose information about its tenants due to privacy requirements, a Unison spokesperson says it has a “comprehensive approach” to pest concerns at the property and denies it has taken four years for them to take action.

“This includes regular cleaning and preventative pest control measures in common areas, including monthly inspections and treatments by professional contractors,” they say.

“Unison collaborates with residents and where applicable their support service providers to develop personalised pest control plans when needed.”

They also say that where bed bugs have been found, “a series of repeated treatments will be undertaken with the renter’s cooperation” and monthly inspections may occur.

An unreleased report

Anna is now looking into entering the private rental market with support from her family, while Kramme says he will have to go back on the public housing waitlist.

According to Hamilton, who represents 12 residents in the building, including Kramme and Anna, there are records of complaints about bed bugs as early as 2018.

She says the policies that guide the day-to-day operation of community housing fall “well short” of those of the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing, which oversees public housing.

She says community housing residents also have less access to transferring to alternate properties when required and pay more than public housing residents.

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In 2021, the government undertook an independent review into the regulation of the social housing sector – the umbrella term for public and community housing. An interim report made a series of recommendations for reform, including introducing minimum housing standards, a shared complaints body and legislation to protect tenants’ interests .

The final report was delivered to the former housing minister in May 2022, but hasn’t been made public.

Sarah Toohey, chief executive of the Community Housing Industry Association Victoria, hopes the review provides greater clarity to industry and tenants.

“People on the waiting list are waiting for public and community housing … It’s two very similar products operating in the one system,” she said.

“Having a clear oversight across the whole system … would benefit policymakers and benefit tenants.”

A government spokesperson said community housing providers play a “crucial part” in delivering new homes to people in need and tenants have “the same rights” as those in public housing.

They said the government was actively considering the recommendations in the review’s final report.

*Not her real name