City Futures Blog

News and research in housing and urban policy, from Australia’s leading urban policy research centre.

City Futures Blog random header image

The informal lodging sector in NSW: a regulatory blind spot

Posted by on September 14th, 2015 · Affordability, Marginal rental

Originally published in Parity magazine (Council to Homeless Persons).


Fifty-eight beds, in 19 makeshift rooms, in a three-bedroom house. Ten people lodging in a single bedroom. Beds installed on apartment balconies, in bathrooms and laundries and, in one case, a pantry. A shower installed in a hall.

These are some of the housing arrangements uncovered by officers of the City of Sydney in the course of recent investigations into illegal accommodation in the City. They represent some of the worst and most extreme examples of accommodation offered by an extensive, informal sector of our housing system, that provides lodgings in shared residential spaces, such as otherwise ordinary houses and apartments. And despite the response of the City of Sydney in these cases, the present regulation of the sector is unsatisfactory.

The extent of the informal lodging sector is not precisely measured, but it is extensive: a 2014 review by the Tenants’ Union of NSW of ‘roomshare’ advertisements on Gumtree found, on average, about 1 400 such arrangements in greater Sydney advertised each week. We can add to that figure the lodging arrangements advertised on other websites and flyers on telegraph poles, and by word of mouth, to get a rough impression of the scale of the sector.

Similarly, there are no precise measures of the characteristics of the sector’s clientele, but the strong impression given by the advertisements, and supported by tenants advocates, student representatives and local government officers, is that the sector accommodates large numbers of international students, and also local students and low-income workers (international and local), who are excluded from the mainstream private rental sector.

This is a vulnerable group, and lodging in shared residential spaces provides them with a form of shelter ­that is occasionally unsafe and exploitative, but which in other circumstances may be tolerable as a relatively short-term arrangement for persons at particular stages in life (for example, while studying or traveling), even if it falls short of ‘housing’ and ‘home’ for the wider community. The vulnerability of the clientele and the risks of shared space justify regulation of the sector, but presently the relevant regulatory regimes ­– in particular, the specific regime of the Boarding Houses Act 2012 (NSW), and local government’s regime of planning and related land use powers – while notionally applicable, have little real purchase on the sector.

Both these regimes define boarding premises by their use: that is, as premises wholly or partly let in lodgings and providing lodgers with a place of residence (Boarding Houses Act 2012 (NSW), section 4; Standard Instrument – Principal Local Environmental Plan (NSW) (the Standard LEP), Dictionary). Under the Boarding Houses Act (NSW) the definition of ‘general boarding houses’, which is the larger class of boarding premises regulated by the Act, also has a five-resident threshold. The Tenants’ Union’s analysis of Gumtree roomshare ads indicates that a substantial proportion of the informal lodging sector fits that definition: 44 per cent ‘may’ be general boarding houses, and 26 per cent are ‘very likely’. The definition in the Standard LEP does not have such a threshold, but instead has a criterion that the premises are the lodgers’ principal place of residence for three months or more, and is subject to the proviso from case law that the premises are also not in fact ‘occupied in much the same way as by a family group in the ordinary way of life’ (Council for the Municipality of Ashfield v Australian College of Physical Education [1992] NSWLEC 42). Many, if not most, premises in the informal lodging sector would fit that definition too.

This means that these premises are required, under the Boarding Houses Act 2012 (NSW) to

  • provide accommodation subject to occupancy agreements (Part 3 and Schedule 1);
  • be registered with NSW Fair Trading as a boarding house (section 9); and
  • be inspected the local council for compliance with building and fire safety standards (section 16);

and are also required, under the planning system and local government regulations, to

  • have sought and received development consent for use as boarding premises from the local council; and
  • comply with the standards for places of shared accommodation under the Local Government (General) Regulation 2005 (NSW) (clause 83 of the Regulation, as amended by the Boarding Houses Act 2012 (NSW)).

The requirement of development consent in turn means that the premises will be required to meet the standards set out in the Building Code of Australia with respect class 1b and class 3 buildings (the BCA’s two categories of boarding houses, corresponding to small detached houses and large institutional building respectively) and the provisions of the council’s Development Control Plan.

In practice, an ordinary apartment let in lodgings will never satisfy these requirements.

Similarly, some of the standards for places of shared accommodation will never be complied with by an apartment let in lodgings: for example, the requirement that ‘a sign indicating the permissible maximum length of time during which a person may board or lodge in the premises must be conspicuously displayed to public view outside the premises’ (Local Government (General) Regulation 2005 (NSW), Schedule 2, clause 2(1)), and the requirement that every bedroom be numbered, and a schedule of the numbers ‘conspicuously displayed’ (Schedule 2, clause 2(2) and (3)).

Predictably, operators of informal lodging arrangements do not apply for development consents that they cannot get. Nor do they comply with the requirement to register as a boarding house, when that will attract an inspection by the local council for non-compliance with requirements they cannot meet. (Of the premises assessed to be ‘very likely’ or ‘may be’ registrable boarding houses by the Tenants’ Union, just two per cent were actually registered.)

The resulting problem is not just one of ‘non-compliance’ by operators. The regulatory requirements also construct an image of their object – an image of the traditional boarding house – in the minds of regulators, and consequently in the routines of their work; meanwhile the informal lodging sector remains, except for the most egregious cases, in a blind spot. The difficulty of reconciling the regulatory regimes to the diversity of the sector is evident in the comments of local government officers interviewed in recent research by AHURI on rooming and boarding houses:

Once upon a time you had a building that was being occupied by persons who were living there three or more months and it would be advertised as a boarding house and that was simple. Now you have places that people say are ‘apartments’ or ‘student houses’ or ‘private dwellings…’

We need to reform the regulation of marginal rental accommodation, to more definitely draw a line between arrangements that are exploitative, unsafe and unacceptable, and those that are tolerable for their specific purpose of relatively short-term, accessible accommodation. Such a reform would probably mean relaxing the requirements regarding development consent and related prescriptions that currently notionally apply – but in so doing could put the informal lodging sector more clearly on the radar of regulators.

No Comments so far ↓

There are no comments yet...Kick things off by filling out the form below.

Leave a Comment