Deadly boarding house fire highlights a serious housing problem

May 4, 2022
The aftermath of the destructive boarding house fire that led to three deaths, in Newtown, Sydney. Photo: Peter Boyle

A ferocious fire in a neglected boarding house in the inner city suburb of Newtown on March 15 has led to renewed calls for tenants’ rights and greater government regulation of these often neglected places.

The explosion which led to the fire was so intense that an 80-year-old man, Ronnie, was forced to jump from a two-storey window of the 14-room Vajda House. He had a heart attack on his way to hospital and was lucky to survive. Three people died.

Boarding houses are mostly inhabited by single men, often older and living with illness, mental health issues or disabilities. In a fairer society, many older residents would live in a home or hospice setting.

Residents share a kitchen and living space, rarely have their own bathroom, and for these reasons are technically considered homeless by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Shelter New South Wales chief executive John Angler said: “Boarding houses are at the end of the day only ever an option B. They’re better than the alternative, rough sleeping, but they’re not an [option] A.”

Boarding house residents can be easily evicted, so most never ask for basic improvements.

The NSW government brought in a compulsory register of boarding houses in 2012, under which the Vajda House was listed. But Newtown Neighbourhood Centre (NNC) CEO Liz Yeo said many are still not registered. NNC has been campaigning for greater rights for boarding house tenants.

The Boarding House Act includes “promoting the sustainability of, and continuous improvements in, the provision of services at registrable boarding houses”. Local governments are required to inspect boarding houses (under a 1993 act) for building and fire safety, but Homelessness NSW chief executive Katherine McKernan said it is not enforced.

She told The Guardian on March 20: “Local councils are responsible for regulating but any fines etc go to the state government. What that means is local government have to invest a lot to regulate and they don’t get any recompense for that. What we’re then relying on is the goodwill … of the councils.”

NNC’s Paul Adabie supports a licencing or accreditation scheme to regulate who can operate boarding houses. The centre said many residents are relatively satisfied with their boarding house rooms.

A 2019 survey of boarding houses in central and southern Sydney, by the City Futures Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, found that of the estimated 6000 boarding rooms approved, around half were deemed operational. It also found that the “profile” of occupants was “much closer” to typical renters than to transitional boarding house occupants or social housing waitlists.

It said new boarding houses “do not offer a significantly more affordable housing option”, compared to others in the private rental market.

“Yet, most residents (64%) were on low incomes (< $800 per week), nearly all (90%) of whom were paying more than a third of income on rent, and so classified as being in rental stress. Overall, at least two thirds (and potentially as high as four fifths) of occupants were in rental stress. This suggests that this form of accommodation is not suitable for most current occupants over the longer term. This form of accommodation is also not suitable for those identified as in need of affordable housing — such as those on social housing waitlists, those excluded from mainstream rental markets or those seeking transitional housing.”

A quick check online for boarding house rooms came up with $680 a month for a furnished room in Annandale and $800 a month for similar, with a shared kitchen and laundry, in Paddington. The old age pension is $744 a fortnight, which means after paying rent, boarding house residents have $170–260 a week for bills and food.

As the wait list for social housing in NSW is so huge — 50,000 applications representing more than 100,000 people — and many more in need of affordable housing, it is little wonder that people are opting for boarding house accommodation.

In response to the Newtown fire, Greens MP and housing spokesperson Jenny Leong said the NSW government must investigate acquiring privately-owned boarding houses to bring them up to a liveable standard and run them as safe, secure, affordable and publicly-owned social housing.

“Over-crowding and poor living conditions inside boarding houses are a symptom of Sydney’s chronic shortage of social and affordable housing,” Leong said on March 18.

“The reason there is such demand for boarding houses in the inner city is because the public housing waitlist is so long, the private rental market is completely unaffordable and there are vulnerable people who need access to social services and support, who aren’t able to get that support.”

Changes made in January require that new boarding house accommodation be “affordable” and run by community housing providers for 10 years, Leong said. But the regulation is not retrospective, which is why she wants the government to buy the properties.

The solution is publicly-owned and run, or not-for-profit, safe and secure housing for people, not private boarding houses, Leong said.

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