Here’s a biting and evidenced based defence of boarding houses, and more than a bit of impatience with the prejudicial angst against them.

Critics of boarding houses largely operate in the imaginary world of fear and misplaced assumption

I tend to agree with Dr Yulia Maleta that boarding houses should not be built in Blacktown, they should be built in places with more economic and social opportunity like the inner city, Eastern Suburbs and North Shore. I disagree with just about every other thing she said.

Critics of boarding houses largely operate in the imaginary world of fear and misplaced assumption. You hear a lot of, “our community does not need this accommodation”, “they will bring their problems here” and “all the car parking within everywhere will be sucked up”. 

The most interesting thing about all these fear-based assumption is that they are rarely tested, and no one goes back and looks at what happens when these alleged monstrosities get approved and built. Like the aliens, boarding houses have been living amongst us for some time.

There has been a rush in the boarding house industry in the past six months as the current planning cornerstone of the industry, the State Environmental Planning Policy Affordable Rental Housing (the Affordable Housing SEPP) is planned to be amended by the end of this year and its boarding house provisions downgraded. 

They were downgraded about two years ago when the then loose parking provisions were tightened up and greater restrictions placed on boarding houses in R2 Low Density Residential zone (I call this the Australian family zone, detached single family dwelling houses only please).  The current amendments hit a bit harder reducing the floor space bonus available to boarding houses, ouch…

The boys and girls in the local council hate that – the bonus.

So there has been a bit of rush on to get your boarding house Development Application in.  I’m getting a little of the general planning work and doing a lot of the social impact assessment work.

From Fairfield to Redfern, Randwick to Waverley boarding houses DAs are rushing into your local council. Some are for students, the public, and even one was planned for jockeys. I recommended appropriate signage for that one along the lines of “horses only in common areas”.  

Whatever the market the operators are looking to, these proposals have common themes in terms of their social impact – those impacts are all positive.

Firstly, local council’s now all ask for a social impact assessment for boarding houses which is odd as there is a state policy seeking to facilitate this type of accommodation and boarding houses are generally a permissible land uses in every residential zone.  And I might repeat that again, these are buildings that provide accommodation on residential land, isn’t that kind of the purpose of the zone. 

Without fail once you grind though the applicable ABS census data (big and small picture), look at the local crime statistics, place the locality in terms of its relative social and economic advantage and disadvantage, review the literature and read the local council’s housing strategy, a common truth emerges – small dwellings are needed.

The real social impact would be to not approve this sort of accommodation.

The Affordable Housing SEPP was brewed up in the 1990s (I worked on an early version of it as a disgruntled Department of Planning employee) and even then, the demographic trends were clear. 

The population of metropolitan Sydney was growing, and households were getting smaller. The old traditional boarding house stock that Sydney relied on was disappearing to gentrification.

This stock was the remanent of the post war housing crisis, where large inner-city terraces and houses had been cut up into lodger rooms. The stock was in terminal decline from the 1980s onwards, however the current Affordable Housing SEPP seems to have prompted some reinvestment in these old buildings and promoted growth in new stock.

The current boarding house industry is not about subdivided terrace houses with a share bathroom, and an old bloke draining the spaghetti in the sink without a colander.  They are purpose built multi dwelling buildings that are called “new generation boarding houses”.  

They really are residential flat buildings comprising studio apartments that cannot be subdivided. The dwellings tend to be self-contained, have an area of around 30 square metre and there are common areas and a manager for larger buildings. 

From my perspective the architecture is all pretty good without dropping too many names. I find the proponents tend to be established operators or successful developers that want a long-term cash flow asset. These are not built to sell developments, so there is a strong incentive to build a decent building.

Sydney is expensive and there is a growing spatial mismatch between where key workers live and work. Housing experts tend to point to the need for inclusionary zonings as the solution to this problem.

That is when you build a block of flats, and a certain percentage must be for rental of low-cost housing purposes.  It’s called built for rent. This planning mechanism does not exist in most of Sydney and the best alternatives are the boarding house and infill housing provision of the Affordable Housing SEPP.

(There are some new built-for-rent provisions, but I am not sure they have caught on yet.) I am a fan of the good over the perfect every time.

The basic demographic truth for every boarding house site in inner and middle ring Sydney is that there is a mismatch between the type of existing and emerging households and the dwelling stock available to them. Lone person households are growing more than any other type of household in most of Sydney. Households are getting smaller.

I find that a bit sad as I prefer living with other people. My personal housing preferences aside, the idea of developers responding to housing need is a sound basis to build something. That’s in the public interest.

Current boarding house planning controls require that larger premises (more than 12 rooms) must be on accessible land where residential flats are permissible.  So, this is land that is well located to public transport and change is expected.  Why the outrage?

Places like the eastern suburban and lower north shore are relatively advantaged and not disadvantaged. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has developed indexes, known as Socio Economic Indexes for Areas (SEIFA) which provide an indication of the socio-economic conditions of people living in an area, relative to other areas.  These indexes have been around for years, and they tell us what we all know in a real estate sense, some parts of Sydney are nicer than others (apologies to Morrisey).

The broadest index is the Index of Relative Socio-economic Advantage and Disadvantage (IRSAD) that summarises information about the economic and social conditions of people and households within an area, including both relative advantage and disadvantage measures.  The IRSAD map for Sydney is provided below.

Figure 1: Local Relative Socio-Economic Advantage and Disadvantage, ABS

The blue bits are advantaged and relatively not disadvantaged Sydney and the red bits disadvantaged and relatively not advantaged Sydney. I would be inclined to not support too much boarding house stock in Blacktown because you don’t get the uplift there for the new residents. All the boarding house projects I work on are in the blue bits and guess what? The existing residents don’t want to share their advantage. The whole point of getting there is closing the door behind you.

The real social impact issue with building boarding house accommodation in the blue bits is allowing as many households as possible to access these areas. Bringing more households to an advantaged and relatively not disadvantaged place, lifts those households. And it’s not just about lifting boarding house residents, it’s also about serving those existing privileged residents.

There has been detailed post-occupancy research done on who lives in New Generation Boarding house. These premises are generally run as studio units on residential leases (not on lodging agreements). The occupants of these premises reflect the style of tenure. They are the same people living in the private rental market. Overall, the occupants of New Generation Boarding houses were much closer in profile to typical renters than to traditional boarding house or social housing residents, while diverse, they were[1]:

Current research indicates that new generation boarding house occupants are aligned with the general profile for the private rental market. And from my naive perspective, they kind of look like a workforce. 

New Generation Boarding Houses perform an important function in our economy.  They provide flexible and accessible accommodation for key workers.  Key workers get to access economic opportunities and the locals get services.  That seems like a good transaction that a responsible planning authority would broker.

The boarding house residents that the existing residents claim are needy or likely to be anti-social are more likely to be assisting them in the adjoining hospital, cleaning their house or serving them a meal in a local restaurant.  Resident fear of boarding houses is counter-productive to their real socio-economic interests.

The sad story about opposition to boarding house development in Sydney is that it fits into a broad even sadder disconnect of local planning from socio-economic need. 

Local land use decisions should be about managing change to serve our community. However, in most of established Sydney these decisions have been hijacked by out-of-date land use zones and locaal planning authorities that seem to think resident fear of change is a real social impact and should get priority in land use decisions.

The haters of boarding houses in practice are advocating an approach to housing where no one gets divorced, or their partner dies, and they find themselves a lone person household. No one moves around by themselves or seeks out educational or work opportunities, and lone travel is frowned upon. Basically, it’s a hillbilly social structure. Stay put and live in an extended family group for ever and marry your cousin.

Philip Bull, Civic Assessment

Philip Bull is the principal of Civic Assessment a development consulting business, focused on development and social impact assessment. He has worked in the planning departments of Woollahra, Botany, South Sydney, Randwick, the City of Sydney and Waverley Councils. More by Philip Bull, Civic Assessment

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  1. This article avoids the key issue on boarding houses: they are justified as affordable housing for the less well off. On this basis, they are allowed to bypass the planning rules that all other developments have to pass. Yes, they offer an option for singles and transitional accommodation. But affordable – no. In my area, they advertise as “luxury studios”. It’s a great money-making machine to cram these into an area, not having to follow the rules that everybody else has to. These are nothing like the old boarding houses that somebody on Centrelink could afford. For the government, it’s one more way to look like you’re providing affordable housing, when that sector is generally going backward.

  2. Philip Bull, In actual fact, I never stated that boarding houses shouldn’t be built [in Blacktown]. Plus, it is rather disconcerting that you disagree with all of points, when most of the local community supports my position. My in-depth critique relates to NSW Judiciary officers, Senior Commissioner Susan Dixon, Judge Tim Moore and Chief Justice Brian Preston, supporting developers over Council’s legitimate twice refusal re. local policy violations, as well valid objections by the neighbouring Catholic Primary School and nearly 200 petitionary objections. We are right to refuse, and should not be ignored by the NSW Land and Environment Court. Adversarial over-developments, not compatible with the exiting land, environmental and infrastructure should be refused rather than unjustly accepted.

    1. Dear Sylvia,
      NSW Planning needs some serious re-planning, as it is not appropriate to place a 15-bedroom boarding house on the site of a current 3-bedroom house, whereby, in fact, such a proposal entails exploitation of the natural and social environment, thereby, not compatible with the existing land, environment and infrastructure. Regarding these points, what about the impact on neighbours who have to put up with that type of planning?

          1. I don’t know BrisVegas that well, a sweaty, hilly place with lotsa lawn mowers was my memory of my last extended stay there. It’s a more spread out city with a less well defined inner city. But presume similar issues may apply.