Legal rights for boarders and lodgers

18 November 2011 | Posted In: #117 Spring 2012, Boarding Houses, Housing Types and Issues, | Author: Holly Miller

By Holly Miller

Sydney’s boarding houses are home to a great number of people whose lives are being severely affected by the fact that as boarders and lodgers, they do not have any legal rights.

The launch of The Boarders and Lodgers Kit by Lord Mayor Clover Moore at Parliament House on the 4 August 2011 marks a clear response by the community to the lack of legal rights experienced by boarders in New South Wales.

Moore, who funded the Kit through her Lord Mayor Salary Trust, emphasised her commitment to the plight of boarders and tenants, and said that the conditions endured by people living in boarding houses are unacceptable.

The Kit provides an overview of the various laws that boarders and tenants can use in place of legislation that pertains directly to them. Jacqui Swinburne, Tenants Service Coordinator at Redfern Legal Centre said, “If someone has paid their rent but is being evicted with no notice, or they can’t get back their things or their bond, they need to try and rely on other types of consumer legislation and the common law. This makes their legal matters extremely complex and often unattainable due to the court costs involved”.

Boarders and lodgers – otherwise known as marginal renters – are distinguished as such by the very fact that they are not protected by the Residential Tenancies Act 2010 (NSW), which covers the legal rights of tenants.

The Act does not define people who inhabit premises such as motels and residential colleges as tenants. Nor does it recognise private agreements – a boarding agreement between a private home owner and an individual, for example – as tenancy agreements.

The social consequences tend to be dire for those defined as boarders and lodgers – many of whom have come directly from a life on the streets and are boarding simply because they have no other option.

Paul Adabie of Newtown Neighbourhood Centre believes that fear is the primary issue that the lack of legal rights causes for boarders.

“Boarders tend not to complain about the conditions of the home that they live in because more often than not, they live in fear of their landlords, who can evict them at any moment. The law does not say they can’t,” he said. “This means that people continue to live in squalid conditions, because their landlord has no obligation to them as they would in a tenancy agreement. We see people living in spaces that are mouldy and have holes in the walls and roof all the time. It’s not uncommon”.

Adabie said that without being regulated by law, boarding houses tend to perpetuate the cycle of poverty.

“Many of the people who live in boarding houses are there because at some point or other they encountered mental health issues, which forced them onto the street, or into a situation in which mainstream tenancy stopped being an option. Others are there because they are dependent on drugs and/or alcohol. This means that some boarders end up being in a situation where they are afraid of the other people they live with, who may become aggressive and violent as a result of substance abuse. This perpetuates the cycle of mental health issues for many boarders, who then find it difficult to extract themselves from the situation they are in”.

Adabie, who manages Newtown Neighbourhood Centre’s Boarding House Outreach Project, works with four project support workers to advocate for the rights of boarders and lodgers, and to help them better access community services, and work towards finding them social housing.

At the launch of The Boarders and Lodgers Kit, Jacqui Swinburne called for the new government of NSW to support Clover Moore’s Private Members Bill – legislation that would protect boarders.

She was joined by Sarah Bell, who has been a boarding house resident for 7 years.

Sarah Bell told the group that she had “experienced electric shocks coming through the switches in bathrooms because the wiring is all wrong”. Bell went on to say that in boarding houses, “lots of rooms are being sub divided. They are tiny and have no windows. I’ve known people who have come out of prison and they say these rooms are smaller than their cells in prison. But they have no other choice”.

Ms Bell has turned to the Redfern Legal Centre for support in her dealings with boarding houses. She said, “I need the law to be on my side to help support me and get back on my feet to feel safe. We need human rights to help us get back into society and not separate us. When boarding houses are run with no rules we feel like we are outcasts and that’s when things spiral downhill. We’re all equal and we need to be able to have our say. Just because we earn less shouldn’t give the right for boarding house owners to threaten us and say this is my house and you have no say”.

Originally published in Inner Sydney Voice, Issue 115, Summer 2011