A prominent lawyer has said there needs to be a thorough investigation into the transfer of assets from an Aboriginal housing company which will result in 37 properties going under the hammer in Toowoomba on Saturday.
Senior partner at Levitt Robinson Solicitors, Stewart Levitt said the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) should – in conjunction with the Queensland Police– immediately get involved in investigating title transfers to the Downs Housing Company.
“There is prima facie concern about the probity of what has occurred over a period of several years,” he said. Mr Levitt told NITV News the sale of the 37 properties at auction on Saturday should also be delayed.
“There should be a freeze on the sale and the assets should be preserved, and the right of the mortgagee to proceed should be immediately the subject of a restraining order that ASIC or the Queensland Government should approach the court to obtain, as a matter of urgency,” he said.
Around 100 Aboriginal tenants, many of them living with serious health concerns and disability, are currently faced with a May eviction from their homes. Some of the families have lived on the properties for over 40 years.
The houses were originally owned by the Downs Aborigines and Islanders Company Ltd, set up in 1983.
In April 2016, after a chequered 30-year history, the company transferred its remaining 37 properties to a new company, Downs Housing.
Two directors – Michael McCarthy and Lesley Suey– from a board of seven directors for the Downs Aborigines and Islanders Company Ltd signed off on the transfer of the properties to the new company. NITV News understands that no minutes of the boards resolution for the transfer has been made available to ASIC.
The new Downs Housing Company Pty Ltd was registered eight-months earlier on 14 August 2015 with the solicitor William “Bill” Redmond listed as its sole director and secretary, and the Downs Aborigines and Islanders Company named as its sole shareholder.
By December, Mr Redmond was replaced as sole director and secretary by Geoffrey John Hirning.
In March 2016, Hirning also became Downs Housings’ sole shareholder.
Documents provided to NITV News indicate that on 27 April 2016, the Downs Aborigines and Islanders Company owned 37 properties valued at over $6.2 million. The next day, those 37 properties were transferred to the Downs Housing Company.
Eighteen months later, Geoffrey John Hirning had a creditors petition filed against him on 13 October 2017.
On 17 October 2017, the Downs Housing Company began to take out multiple mortgage loans on the properties. The credit leveraging and multiple transfers of these mortgages continued until October 2018.
Mr Levitt said the initial transfer of the properties from the Downs Aborigines and Islanders Company to the Downs Housing Company raised some serious questions.
“There doesn’t appear to have been – as there ordinarily would’ve been – an extraordinary general meeting or a special meeting to get a 75 per cent majority as the corporations act would ordinarily require to approve of the divestiture of virtually the entire asset base of the housing cooperative,” he said.
Mr Levitt also said the relevant documentation indicated only one of the two transfer signatures was witnessed.
At the time of publication, Geoffrey John Hirning declined to respond to questions put to him by NITV News regarding the details of the transfer of the 37 properties, or the approximately $3,861,480 mortgaged over them.
Former board member for the Downs Aborigines and Islanders housing company, James Boney, said there are “disturbing” questions about how the houses recently came to be owned by a private company. He told NITV News the local community is struggling to gain an understanding of what has happened.
“The tenants and members would not have went down that track. They would never ever have wanted it to go to a private company,” he said.
NITV also contacted Queensland deputy premier and treasurer Jackie Trad and Queensland Housing Minister Mike de Brenni for comment regarding the transfer documents. Our inquiry was deferred to the housing department.
A departmental spokesperson said in a written statement: “Both these companies (Downs Aborigines & Islanders Company and Downs Housing) are privately owned and there has been no state involvement in them, including funding, therefore we were not aware of, or involved in, the transfer in 2016.”
Tenants have been paying the rent but the mortgages of the homes have reportedly not been paid.
Only days before Christmas last month, real estate agents acting on behalf of the company told residents to vacate their homes by May. Many claimed the notice left them with few options.
In mid-January, the effected tenants met with representatives from the real estate agents and Queensland’s Department of Housing and Public Works. Several options were presented, including offers of support from the department to enter the private rental market.
Referrals for Home loans via Indigenous Business Australia was another option made available to them.
Greens member for the Brisbane seat of Maiwar, Michael Berkman, urged the QLD government to intervene and secure the housing for the tenants.
“The options that are being presented at that meeting in Toowoomba just neglect the reality for these people. There’s a risk that we’ll see quite literally hundreds … left without somewhere safe to live,” he said.
“There is no room for delay. These people need urgent attention and they need the state to step in and buy these properties as social housing stock so they’re not left without somewhere safe to live.”
However, the QLD minister for housing said rushing to buy the properties isn’t the right move and doesn’t take into account the individual needs of the families.
For more information tune into The Point tonight at 8.30pm AEST on NITV, channel 34 free to air.