12 March 2024

'Risky': Unpaid Wagga tradies warn Tolland Renewal builders to be wary of Homes NSW projects

| Oliver Jacques
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people standing in front of signs

Tradies burnt by a previous Wagga public housing project are urging prospective builders to be wary of working with Homes NSW on Tolland Renewal. Photo: Shri Gayathirie Rajen.

Wagga tradies still unpaid for constructing public housing in 2022 have warned builders looking to work on the new Tolland Estate redevelopment to do their own checks to ensure they “don’t suffer like we did”.

The NSW Government’s Land and Housing Corporation (LAHC), now called Homes NSW, chose insolvent company Matrix Group Co to build four government units at 16 Spring Street in late 2020. When this company officially went into liquidation in October 2021, local tradespeople were left hundreds of thousands of dollars out of pocket.

Homes NSW has refused to compensate these small businesses directly, despite being urged to do so by Wagga MP Joe McGirr.

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Kevin Roben, who runs family-owned Wagga Glass and Aluminium, is still waiting to be paid $42,000 for the work he did to help build a dwelling Homes NSW now utilises to house tenants.

“Subbies will be very wary of upcoming risky [LAHC] projects,” he said.

“Never in a million years did I think a government project would be risky; I thought you had to be squeaky clean to be a contractor for public housing. But in the [Spring Street] case, it’s clear they [LAHC] didn’t do their checks.”

Amy Burns, whose small company Oasis Scaffolding and Bricklaying is still owed $90,000 from LAHC’s Spring Street project, expressed similar sentiment.

“I would be doing my own credit checks on any builders that LAHC employs,” she said.

“I hope LAHC has learnt from our experience and they review their vetting practices when they hire, so other subcontractors don’t have to suffer like we did.”

LAHC’s new Tolland Renewal project is slated to deliver 500 new social, affordable and private homes at the estate. The department is also proposing to renew 11 ageing properties in the vicinity of Duke of Kent Park.

Richard Foley, whose plastering business is owed $55,000, also said tradies needed to be “wary” of entering into such projects.

“LAHC neglected their duty of care to protect us. The minister, Rose Jackson has also washed her hands at this. It’s disgraceful.”

Richard Foley with arms crossed outside public housing dwelling.

Plasterer and councillor Richard Foley in front of the public housing project he worked on but wasn’t paid for. Photo: Oliver Jacques.

Channel Nine’s A Current Affair was also scathing of Homes NSW in an episode aired on Wednesday (6 March), questioning why the department chose an insolvent company to build public housing.

“What gets me the most is the government department [Homes NSW] was told nobody was getting paid, and nothing happened,” contractor debt recoverer Anthony Igra told the program.

LAHC claimed it did its “due diligence” on Matrix and its background checks did not indicate it was insolvent.

However, a Region investigation revealed the department made several glaring errors and omissions in its vetting processes.

LAHC/Homes NSW bureaucrats failed to see a public online notice revealing Matrix Group Co lost its insurance, and somehow also missed another public online notice indicating it was in liquidation – continuing its contract with the Sydney-based company after both of these events.

“Blind Freddy could have seen there were problems with Matrix, but LAHC missed so many things,” Ms Burns said.

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Homes NSW also says its contract was only with Matrix and it can’t pay subcontractors directly. But Wagga MP Joe McGirr has said Homes NSW has an “ethical if not actual legal” obligation to do so, given it chosen a main contractor who wasn’t insured.

Having lost its building insurance, Matrix was restricted by law to only working on contracts worth $20,000 or less. When Region asked LAHC why they engaged Matrix to work on the $1.5 million Spring Street development, LAHC said public sector agencies have an exemption that allows them to contract uninsured builders.

Region asked LAHC/Homes NSW if it would again employ uninsured builders for its Tolland Renewal project and if it would guarantee all subcontractors would be paid in the event of another LAHC principal contractor liquidation. It did not respond by our deadline.

Mr Foley, who is also a Wagga councillor, said his concern had now turned to those who could be left homeless by the Tolland Renewal construction work. While public housing tenants are being helped to find interim alternative accommodation, no such help has been forthcoming for private renters.

“Where the hell are these families going to go? We have no rental vacancies in Wagga. The bureaucrats in charge are on fat salaries and just don’t care about the little guy,” he said.

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