Alternative Law Journal
The Olympic Games are being marketed as an unparalleled business opportunity for Sydney. But for vulnerable people such as boarding house residents, this event is exacerbating problems they already have in finding safe, secure and affordable accommodation.
Boarding houses provide a cheap form of supported accommodation. It is estimated that in 1995, almost 20,000 people in New South Wales lived in boarding house accommodation. Boarding house residents tend to be people who would have difficulty finding alternative accommodation or who gravitate towards this form of accommodation because they have special needs.
Boarding house residents are some of the most vulnerable members of our society. Many of them are unemployed, elderly; or suffering from a mental illness or disability; many are living on an extremely low income, with a high rate of dependence on pensions and benefits.
Further, boarding house residents enjoy little legal protection. Their accommodation agreements are excluded from the application of the Residential Tenancies Act 1987, so that they are denied access to the simple and affordable legal remedies available to other tenants in New South Wales when disputes arise concerning their accommodation.
These disadvantages have led to a significant disparity in bargaining power between residents and boarding house owners. There is no control over the rents and other fees that can be charged to these residents, and owners can impose any terms or conditions they wish on accommodation.
Boarding house residents can be evicted from their premises with little or no notice. The common law requires owners to obtain an order for possession from the Supreme Court before they can forcibly evict a boarding house resident. However, in practice this does not occur, and objecting residents are usually immediately removed by force, often with police assistance.
In 1994 a report commissioned by Shelter NSW predicted that the Olympics would lead to the conversion of boarding houses and other low cost accommodation to tourist accommodation, resulting in the displacement of low income tenants in Sydney. It also predicted an upward impact on rental prices generally in Sydney. Another report commissioned by Shelter NSW suggested this event will be analogous to other significant events such as Brisbane Expo 1988 where ‘13 of the 33 registered boarding houses in South Brisbane, Highgate Hill and West End were demolished and a further 22 rooming houses were converted to tourist uses, usually backpacker hostels’.
These predictions are now being realised through increases in existing and proposed rents, and the conversion of many previously low cost boarding houses into backpacker hostels, higher tariff rooms, or even serviced apartments.
Most residents who are evicted from such premises are given little or no notice of the eviction. This, coupled with their lack of income, inherent vulnerability and a tight inner city rental market, makes it difficult for many to avoid homelessness. Even though there may be breaches of the common law associated with these evictions, services such as the community legal centres and local tenancy advice services are finding it difficult to identify clients and mount any sort of legal challenge to the evictions prior to the departure of the residents.
A recent example of this trend was the closure of a boarding house in Camperdown which housed men suffering from alcoholism and mental illness for more than 20 years. The owners told the Sydney Morning Herald that they planned to upgrade the premises in time for the Olympics, resulting in a weekly rent increase of about 176% for each room. The existing residents were evicted.
This example is being repeated across the inner city, inner western and lower north shore suburbs of Sydney. Added pressure is expected from a rising rental market in anticipation of the Games. With diminishing sources of alternative cheap accommodation, this increases the likelihood that these people will be rendered homeless: a recent report found that the nature of such residents made them more likely to be left homeless if evicted from boarding house accommodation.
It appears that the NSW State government has either failed to anticipate the impact of the rental market on this sector, or does not consider these developments to be inappropriate. Whatever the reason, the State government has not adequately protected the rights of boarding house residents against the market demands associated with the Olympic Games.
As late as last year the State government was denying that the Olympic Games would have a significant impact on rental prices in Sydney. However the Department of Urban Affairs and Planning has very recently acknowledged that ‘major events’ (such as the Olympic Games) will lead to increased demand for tourist accommodation resulting in the further loss of affordable housing stock such as boarding house accommodation, and that residents of such accommodation are ‘amongst the most vulnerable groups in society’.
In mid-1999 the State government established a working party to review the need for ‘boarders and lodgers’ legislation in New South Wales. An Issues Paper was released by the working party last year and submissions were due by the end of August 1999. The working party is expected to report to the government by the end of February 2000.
It is hoped that the working party report will recommend the enactment of legislation establishing statutory rights for boarding house residents similar to those applying to other tenants. But even if legislation is recommended, it is not likely to be enacted before the end of 2000. Attempts by tenancy groups to hasten the enactment of legislation to provide protection for boarding house residents prior to the Olympics appear to have failed.
Following recent pressure from groups such as Rentwatchers, the Tenants’ Union, the NSW Council for Social Services and Shelter NSW, the State government also announced minor amendments to its State Environmental Planning Policy No 10 — Retention of Low Cost Rental Accommodation (SEPP 10). The amendment requires relevant Local Councils to consider, before approving an application for boarding house conversion:
• the extent to which the proposed conversion will affect the stock of low income residential accommodation in that area, and
• whether there is sufficient comparable accommodation in the locality to satisfy existing demand.
SEPP 10 is only a policy document, and does not establish legal enforceable rights for boarding house residents. Nonetheless the timing of the amendment is significant, and it remains to be seen what effect it will have on Local Council decision-making processes.
In the meantime, boarding house residents’ individual rights to accommodation remain unprotected. Unless urgent legislation is passed by the State government to protect these rights, a significant number of these residents are at risk of being left homeless due to Olympic ‘business opportunities’ which result in massive rent increases and/or evictions.
[*] Jane Lye is a solicitor employed by the Legal Aid Commission NSW, and a member of the Boarders and Lodgers Action Group.
The views expressed in this article are her own and do not necessarily reflect the published views of the Legal Aid Commission NSW.
 Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, ‘Australia’s Private Rental Housing Market: Processes and Policies’, Working Paper No 9, 1997, p.75.
 ‘Report of the Task Force on Private for Profit Hostels’, a report prepared for the Minister for Community Services, December 1993, p.91.
 ‘Report of the Task Force on Private for Profit Hostels’, above, p.32.
 Mowbray, R.C., Lost in the Law: Tenancy Law Reform for Boarders and Lodgers, 1989, p.18.
 Cox, G. and others, ‘The Olympics and Housing’, a report commissioned by Shelter NSW, September 1994.
 Cox, G., ‘Ready … Set … Go!’, Shelter NSW, 1999, p.67.
 ‘Charity Can No Longer Begin at Home’, Sydney Morning Herald, 14 January 2000, p.2.
 Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, above, p.68.
 Guidelines for State Environmental Planning Policy No 10 — Retention of Low Cost Rental Accommodation, Department of Urban Affairs and Planning, January 2000, pp.4-5.