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Sydney needs more boarding houses

Posted by on April 9th, 2018 · Construction, Government, Guest appearance, Housing, Housing conditions, Housing supply, Marginal rental, Private rental, Sydney

By Matthew Benson, UNSW Built Environment Masters candidate and town planning consultant. Originally published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

I was a town planner at the former City of South Sydney in the mid-nineties when brothels became legal. Brothel operators could apply to legalise brothels that had been operating for decades. I remember someone objecting to a “proposed” brothel in East Sydney, saying it would be a disaster for her neighbourhood if that use was to commence a few doors along. She seemed surprised to learn that it had been operating for several decades. Boarding houses seem to share a similar stigma – they are associated with apparently socially undesirable types deemed by some to be wholly unwelcome in the Hills District or on the Northern Beaches.

It seems a pity to have to explain that the boarding houses built under state affordable housing policies are usually self-contained flatettes with regular folks living in them who happen to form a single person household, or sometimes a couple.

And as with brothels, this type of use has been occurring across Sydney for decades – only not with approval and normally not in a self-contained arrangement. They are known as share-houses. Typically regarded as a bohemian rite-of-passage for students, they proliferate across Sydney. They often involve rooms let out by a non-resident landlord with unauthorised internal modifications. As with illegal brothels, illegal boarding houses can be unhygienic fire traps.

In 2009, the NSW government introduced a state affordable housing policy that freed up restrictions around granny flats and boarding houses along with some other forms of affordable housing.  Under those rules, boarding houses are allowed in low density areas if within 400 metres of a bus stop with frequent services.

The O’Farrell administration introduced the “character test” into the boarding house rules, meaning that a proposed boarding house has to be compatible with the character of its locality. That has prevented boarding houses being grossly out of character with their suburban setting.
I assisted with a boarding house proposal in Cromer that attracted over 800 objections. Many of those objectors expressed horror at the location of the proposed boarding house where children walk past it to go to school. They thought residents would be ex-criminals or other perceived socially undesirable types.

However, the proposal was for a single storey boarding house comprising eight rooms with a generously landscaped front yard and clearly was compatible with the character of its locality.
That boarding house has now been constructed and is operating. The surrounding residents are wondering what they were so worried about. You would hardly know it was there.

It is unfortunate that proper boarding houses are so maligned. Approved boarding houses provide a dignified option for people who don’t want to share their fridge and bathroom with strangers. It provides an option for people that might be in the wrong demographic for the typical share house situation and who suffer repeated rejections.  Approved boarding houses provide compliance with fire regulations and provide rooms for people with a disability. They also operate under a plan of management that helps keep potential disturbance to a minimum.

The NSW Minister for Planning, Anthony Roberts, has now announced an intention to increase parking rates for approved boarding houses to 0.5 parking spaces per boarding room. The current rate per room in an accessible area is 0.2 spaces per boarding room.

The proposed parking rates will effectively prohibit small-scale boarding houses in suburban areas. The only viable proposals will be on large, more isolated sites and will be large scale proposals. All that this will achieve will be to encourage illegal operators.

Sydney needs more single person accommodation that is properly built, including access for people with a disability and fire safety measures. It should be located in areas within a short walk of frequently operating public transport. Let’s hope the minister rethinks this matter.

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