St Kilda icon The George crumbles as war breaks out among owners over body corporate
The Age
Clay Lucas
17 March 2017

Almost half of the apartment owners in one of Melbourne's most beloved heritage hotels say the property has been allowed to deteriorate by a body corporate (condo corporation) functioning as a "personal fiefdom" serving the building's wealthier tenants, nightclubs and bars.

Poor security and easy access by outsiders to apartments at St Kilda's The George Hotel have led to regular problems for residents. These include drunk patrons from bars downstairs roaming the corridors, prostitutes servicing clients on stairwells and drug users injecting on fire escapes. In one notable incident last July a naked intruder walked the corridors knocking on doors and masturbating.

Residents of apartments at The George, Fifi Carbines, Antoinette Starkiewicz, Colin Dowzer, and Jonana Kowenzowski, are among those concerned about problems at the building.  Photo: Justin McManus

Of the building's 70-odd owners, 33 say the landmark building – which was turned into apartments two decades ago – has been badly mismanaged and is deteriorating as a result.

They says this has been done to the benefit of "a cabal" of richer owners and bar operators, while the company employed to run the owners corporation has done nothing.

A naked man roams the halls of St Kilda's The George apartments last July. Residents have long demanded that security doors be installed.  Photo: Supplied

The group has gone public with their complaints because previous attempts to address the problems have "resulted in threats of legal action, accusation of defamation and even threats of violence", they say in a statement by their lawyer given to Fairfax Media.

The drama at the 160-year-old building shines a light on the growing problem of poorly policed body corporates (or owners corporations) that now affect properties where 1.5 million Victorians live.

Consumer Affairs Victoria is running a review of the Owners Corporations Act to address problems in the industry.

The George's ballroom became famous from the 1970s, and many Australian musicians including Nick Cave and INXS performed there.

A drug user injects on the fire escape at The George.  Photo: Supplied

But so serious are problems with the historic ballroom that, in late 2015, Heritage Victoria wrote to an owner ordering them to carry out urgent repairs to fix unauthorised works to the historic ceiling.

And a growing number of apartment owners are furious that building issues such as water leaks, noise complaints and security issues have gone without repair or resolution for long periods.

Apartment owners are prevented from taking over the body corporate (Board of Directors) because their voting rights are limited in comparison to the commercial bar and venue operators on the lower floors.

There are also concerns about hundreds of thousands of dollars in borrowings by the body corporate to paint and repair the facade of the building, at an estimated cost of $1.04 million – with accusations owners were not properly informed of the plan.

The complaints from the group of owners, summarised in a statement from lawyer Roland Muller, include that the owner of one penthouse apartment inappropriately blocked access to the rooftop which was common property. That owner, St Kilda real estate agent Graeme Wilson, says this is not true.

Mr Wilson, who said he had run a valid ballot process to take the rooftop area from common ownership, went on to sell his property. The next owner enraged other owners further by installing a large jacuzzi and rooftop recreation area.

So sick of dealing with complaints and accusations of ineptitude or worse, Victoria Body Corporate Services – the state's biggest owners corporation (property management company)– recently resigned after more than a decade running the building.

"It just wasn't worth our while to continue to manage it," said Richard Eastwood, the general manager of Victoria Body Corporate Services. Minutes from the last body corporate meeting it chaired in December say the company had a total  of 11,434 incoming and outgoing emails over two years relating to The George.

"They've got water issues, they've got liquor control issues, they've got noise issues. It just wasn't worth it," said Mr Eastwood.

But one resident in the building, Fifi Carbines, said that the story of issues at The George were just "the tip of the iceberg" for problems with Australia's owners corporations.

"This story [should serve] as notice to others to stay vigilant about the activities of their Owners Corporation committees and managers, that effectively handle billions of dollars throughout Australia with such scant regulation," she said.

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