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«Chris Chamberlain Centre for Applied Social Research RMIT University A paper presented at the Homelessness Research Conference, Melbourne, 19 – 20 ...»

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Counting Boarding Houses:

Reflections on Homelessness Research

in Australia

Chris Chamberlain

Centre for Applied Social Research

RMIT University

A paper presented at the Homelessness Research Conference,

Melbourne, 19 – 20 April, 2012

This research project was funded by the Australian Government Department of Families,

Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA). However, the views

expressed in the paper are those of the author and should not be attributed to FaHCSIA.

2 Counting Boarding Houses: Reflections on Homelessness Research in Australia Abstract In 2011, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) released census data showing that the boarding house population had fallen from 23,750 in 2001 to 16,830 in 2006, a decrease of 29 per cent. The ABS uses census collectors to identify boarding houses, but it is known that census collectors often make mistakes. This paper outlines an alternative method for counting boarding houses, using council records. The new approach was tested in metropolitan Melbourne in 2011. There are three main findings. First, the rooming house population in Melbourne increased from between 2,946 and 3,739 in 2006 to 12,568 in

2011. Second, the population has become more diverse, with a range of disadvantaged people now in boarding houses. Third, the national rooming house population is now about 70,000. The paper concludes that the ABS method of counting boarding houses is fundamentally flawed.

Introduction Traditionally, a boarding house provided long-term single room accommodation and also provided meals … A rooming house did not … Nowadays, the terms boarding house and rooming house are used interchangeably (Greenhalgh et al. 2004: 2).

This article is concerned with Victoria where the parliamentary legislation refers to ‘rooming houses’ rather than ‘boarding houses’. In other parts of Australia the terms ‘boarding house’ and ‘lodging house’ are in common usage (Department of Human Services 2011, p. 21). This paper uses the term ‘rooming house’ when referring to the Victorian legislation. Elsewhere in the article, the terms ‘boarding house’ and ‘rooming house’ are used interchangeably.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) (2011) employs the cultural definition of homelessness to enumerate the homeless population on census night (Chamberlain and MacKenzie 2003, 2008). This definition distinguishes between primary, secondary and tertiary homelessness. Tertiary homelessness refers to people who use boarding houses, both on a short-term and a long-term basis. The Australian Government endorsed the cultural definition in The Road Home, which specifically noted that ‘tertiary homelessness includes people living in boarding houses … both short and long-term’ (Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs 2008: 3).

There is widespread agreement that boarding houses have been declining rapidly. National Shelter (2000) reviewed the available evidence for the mid 1990s. They warned that it was not possible to provide an accurate figure for the number of rooming houses. Nonetheless, they

–  –  –

Others were more certain that boarding house numbers were declining. Anderson and

colleagues (2003: 11) undertook a study of boarding houses in Adelaide and found that:

[n]umerous studies in Australia have documented the decline of the number of boarding houses in key inner city areas... significant reductions in boarding house rooms have been documented in... Yarra and Port Phillip in Melbourne, in Adelaide and in Inner Sydney.

In 1988, Hefferan reported there were 1,540 people in boarding houses in Adelaide, but Anderson and colleagues (2003) found that this had fallen to 1,100 people by January 2002, a decrease of almost 30 per cent. In Melbourne, Jope (2000) found that rooming houses in the City of Yarra had declined by 50 per cent between 1992 and 1997. In Sydney, Davidson and colleagues (1998) estimated that boarding houses were declining at about seven to eight per cent per annum in the late 1990s. Greenhalgh and colleagues (2004: i) concluded that ‘there is clear evidence that, at least in the major metropolitan areas, the number of establishments and beds are declining’.

Table 1: Number of persons in boarding houses, Australia, 2001 and 2006

–  –  –

In 2011, the ABS released new figures on the boarding house population from the 2001 and 2006 Censuses (Table 1). The ABS reported that the national population had fallen from 23,750 in 2001 to 16,830 in 2006, a decrease of 29 per cent. In Victoria, the fall was ‘dramatic’. The number of people in boarding houses declined from 5,701 in 2001 to 3,355 in 2006, a decrease of 41 per cent (Table 1).

4 The ABS relies on census collectors to identify boarding houses, but it is known that census collectors often make mistakes. Chamberlain’s (1999) analysis of homelessness using 1996 Census data found that some census collectors misclassified boarding houses as hotels and staff quarters. Various conventions were developed to correct for these errors. In 2001, additional conventions were used to identify boarding houses that census collectors had misclassified as ‘other’ (Chamberlain and MacKenzie 2003). In 2006, more corrections were introduced to identify boarding houses that had been misclassified as ‘private dwellings’ (Chamberlain and MacKenzie 2008).

This paper outlines an alternative method for counting boarding houses, using council records. The new approach was tested in metropolitan Melbourne in 2011. First, the official definition of a rooming house is sketched, then five main sources of evidence are outlined.

After that the new approach is explained and the main findings are presented. The research identified 12,568 people in boarding houses in 2011, compared with 2,946 identified by the ABS in 2006. Next, an explanation is offered as to why census collectors often misclassify boarding houses. Finally, the national population is estimated.

Methodology Definition According to the Victorian Residential Tenancies Act 1997 and the Victorian Public Health and Wellbeing Regulations 2009, a rooming house is a building where ‘one or more rooms is available for rent and the total number of people who occupy those rooms is four or more’ (Department of Human Services 2011: 13).

The Building Regulations 2006 distinguish between small rooming houses which are known as Class 1b dwellings and larger rooming houses which are known as Class 3 dwellings. Class 1b rooming houses have up to 12 occupants and a total floor space of not more than 300 square metres. Class 3 rooming houses have more than 12 occupants and a floor space of more than 300 square metres.

All Class 1b and Class 3 dwellings ‘must have a hard-wired smoke alarm or a smoke detection system’ (Victorian Department of Human Services 2011: 20). However, Class 3 dwellings ‘must be equipped with additional safety measures which can include fire detection systems, evacuation plans, fire fighting equipment and automatic sprinkler systems’ (Department of Human Services 2011: 20).

A rooming house tenancy is not the same as a shared household in the private rental market. In a shared household, the persons living in the property will be joint parties to one tenancy agreement which gives them rights to the whole property. The persons on the lease 5 are likely to be friends, or in some other way connected, and the tenancy agreement will provide them with access to the entire building.

In a rooming house, the residents have exclusive access only to their own bedroom, and have shared access rights to communal areas such as bathrooms, kitchens and living areas.

Residents are typically not connected to each other through friendships, and they enter into the agreement with the rooming house owner independently of the other residents in the property. Residents are often isolated from one another and they may have difficulty sharing communal facilities such as kitchens and bathrooms.

The rooming house sector is diverse, but boarding houses usually have the following


• They provide single room accommodation.

• There is shared access to common facilities such as bathrooms, kitchens, laundries and living areas.

• Residents enter into a tenancy agreement with the boarding house operator on an individual basis.

• There are locks on bedroom doors.

• No formal support services are located on the premises.

Evidence Under section 67 of the Public Health and Wellbeing Act (2008) in Victoria, all rooming houses must be registered with local councils. As part of this process, councils inspect rooming houses to ensure that they meet the minimum standards set out in the Public Health and Wellbeing Act (2008) and the Building Act (1993). The Office of Housing collates this information on a central register.

At the time of the Census in August 2011, the central register was nearly a year out of date.

The best way of gaining up-to-date information was to approach local councils for current information about rooming houses in their municipality. Altogether, 30 out of the 31 councils supplied updated information.

Thirty-one council officers were interviewed. All had been involved in the inspection of rooming houses. These interviews produced high quality information about the characteristics of boarding houses.

Twenty-eight staff were interviewed at 15 agencies that provide direct support to homeless people. The agencies were spread across metropolitan Melbourne and all 15 services referred clients to rooming houses.

6 Some council officers reported that there were students living in rooming houses close to universities and TAFE colleges. Therefore 10 housing officers were interviewed from Melbourne’s eight universities and six welfare staff from TAFE colleges.

Finally, 250 field visits were undertaken to rooming houses. One purpose of these visits was to establish the range of buildings that are currently being used as rooming houses.

Another purpose was to investigate whether census collectors would recognise that these dwellings were boarding houses.

New approach Altogether, 97 per cent of councils (30 out of 31) provided updated figures on the number of rooming houses in their municipality. It is known that census collectors often classify dwellings incorrectly, but there can be no doubt that the dwellings recorded in the official records are rooming houses. As part of the registration process, each dwelling is inspected by council staff to see that the dwelling conforms to the relevant public health and planning legislation.

However, many council officials thought that there were unregistered rooming houses in their municipalities. Rooming houses have to come to a council’s attention before they can be registered. A minority of rooming house operators register their properties voluntarily.

These are usually rooming house operators who have a commitment to staying in the industry longer term and they often have a number of properties. However, ‘Mum and Dad’ operators are often unaware of the regulations.

Council officials also reported that there were ‘some operators who do not want to bring themselves to our attention’ (Environmental health officer, Eastern suburbs). Another council official (Inner Melbourne) said: ‘If the operator owns the dwelling he is more likely to be registered. Those who are renting places to make a quick buck are less likely to be registered’.

The most important reason for undercounting is that rooming houses often do not come to the council’s attention until there are complaints about the property. These complaints come from a number of sources, including former tenants who report grievances to Consumer Affairs Victoria or tenants who contact the Tenants Union of Victoria. However,

council officials reported that most complaints come from neighbours:

Neighbours complain about noise, or garbage, or something like that. Often new tenants will not know when the garbage is collected and they leave it out at inappropriate times … (Environmental health officer, South-eastern suburbs).

–  –  –

Another reason for undercounting is that a minority of councils keep inadequate records.

One council had only begun registering boarding houses a few weeks before the 2011 Census. Another council had ‘200 dwellings under investigation’. The council officer appeared to be doing a good job, but did not have the resources to keep up with the steady flood of notifications.

Another front-line official said that her council’s register was ‘a bit of a mess’ and that she had inspected lots of dwellings that could not be registered. These dwellings did not comply with the building regulations. However, these rooming houses had not been closed because ‘people would end up on the streets’. The council was turning a ‘blind eye’ to enforcing the regulations.

The 31 councils across metropolitan Melbourne reported 1,276 registered rooming houses.

Of course, the number of unregistered properties is unknown. Nonetheless, it is possible to identify some dwellings that were unregistered.

Interviews were carried out with 28 staff from 15 welfare agencies that provide support to homeless people across Melbourne. Some of those agencies had lists of rooming houses they were currently using. The North and West Homeless Network also compiled a list of boarding houses that were currently being used by services in the North and West of Melbourne. It was possible to check the addresses on the various lists against the addresses on the lists provided by the councils. Altogether, 175 unregistered rooming houses were identified, mainly in the North and West.

Overall, 1,451 boarding houses were identified across the 31 local councils in metropolitan Melbourne. Only one council had no boarding houses; 19 councils had between one and 49;

another eight had between 50 and 99; and three councils had more than 150.

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