Mounting garbage, sticky floors: Tower residents filthy over cleaning decline

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Safia Solleman has lived in the public housing tower on Wellington Street in Collingwood for eight years, but lately she’s taken on voluntary – but in her mind necessary – duties: mopping floors, emptying bins and disinfecting washing machines for the dozens of residents living on her level.

“I clean myself the washing machine, the floor, change the bins,” said the 40-year-old who has a permanent disability with an artificial leg.

Safia Solleman, a resident at the Wellington Street public high-rise flats in Collingwood.Credit: Luis Ascui

Solleman and other residents at the 20-storey tower are adamant that cleaning and maintenance have declined dramatically in the past two months. They complain of mounting garbage, sticky floors, vomit in the lifts and filth in common areas that they say used to be cleaned more regularly.

Liban Isse, who has lived in the Wellington Street tower for six years, has been washing his shoes in hot water each time he reaches his apartment door after walking through stickiness in the hallways and lifts.

“Previously they used to wash the [the floors with] chemicals and they used to remove [the filth], but not any more,” he said when The Sunday Age visited the tower on Friday.

The residents said they had pleaded with their building manager for more cleaning resources for public areas, but were told there is no budget.

Garbage left in hallways at the tower.

The residents – along with the Victorian Greens – are concerned there is now less urgency to deal with requests since the government announced in September that 44 public housing towers across Melbourne are to be razed and rebuilt over three decades.

The towers are home to about 10,000 public housing tenants and once redeveloped will house about 30,000 people –11,000 of which will be social housing tenants.

In October, the government revealed in parliament that the 6660 existing public housing units on the sites would be replaced by 7100 “social” homes – an increase of 440 units over 28 years.

Simon Newport, CEO of government agency Homes Victoria, that month said the first residents could start to be moved out of high rises in Flemington before Christmas into new developments nearby.

Isse said that in Collingwood, which is not among the first tranche of buildings marked for demolition, the fear was that cleaning and maintenance would be neglected now that demolition was locked in at some point.

“The buildings, maybe they come down in years to come, but we are concerned about the hygiene here for us now, and our health,” he said.

Isse showed The Sunday Age through the complex’s laundries, shared by 10 units on each level. He said several washing machines had been left broken for up to six months.

Local Greens MP Gabrielle De Vietri in late November wrote to Housing Minister Harriet Shing asking for a roster of five cleaners to be deployed in the building.

“Any apartment building would quickly turn dirty without regular communal cleaning. I understand that about one month ago, the cleaning budget was cut to leave just one cleaner per 20-floor building,” she said in the letter, which has been obtained by The Sunday Age.

“Children shouldn’t have to dodge piles of garbage and elderly residents shouldn’t have to walk up 20 floors of stairs because their lift smells too bad to use.”

But a spokesperson from the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing – which oversees the towers – said there had been no change to the cleaning budgets for any of Victoria’s public housing towers.

“High-traffic areas at high-rise towers like ground floor foyers, lifts and public toilets are cleaned daily,” they said. “All other non-ground areas are inspected daily to remove rubbish and offensive substances and cleaned on a fortnightly basis.”

Rubbish in the hallways at the Collingwood tower recently.

The company in charge of cleaning the Wellington Street tower is GJK Facility Services. It has held lucrative government contracts for most of the public housing towers across Melbourne’s west, north and south since 2007.

This masthead revealed in 2019 that the company continued to be awarded contracts worth tens of millions of dollars despite being fined multiple times by the Department of Housing for “negligent” service.

GJK’s most recent contract renewal is not listed on the Victorian government public tender register, more than a year after it was extended.

A company spokesperson said in a statement that it “faithfully delivers services as per our contractual obligations. We are regularly audited and consistently meet the benchmarks set”.

Solleman now cleans her floor’s laundry herself, fed up with what residents say is the infrequent and poor standard of cleaning.Credit: Luis Ascui

“Our resourcing varies to meet the specific requirements of each property, but we maintain high standards across all properties,” the statement said.

“Our team, deeply integrated into these communities, works diligently despite numerous challenges, but remains committed to excellence in all aspects of our work.”

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