Australia must stop overcrowding of apartments
15 August 2017
“The occupancy of many of the apartments appeared to be in excess of
what would normally be expected in a two-bedroom apartment and what a
two-bedroom apartment is designed for.”
So read the statement on page 34 of the Metropolitan Fire Brigade’s
post-incident report into the 2014 Lacrosse apartment building fire,
which spread from the sixth floor to the 21st floor in a matter of
Whilst combustible cladding grabbed the most attention in that
incident, overcrowding was also critical. During investigations, the
MBF stated, sleeping arrangements of between six and eight people had
been identified. That, it concluded, had led to greater volumes of
storage both within apartments and on balconies as well as the erection
of temporary structures around beds for privacy which may impede egress
and make it difficult for occupants to exit safely.
Lacrosse is not the only case. A City of Sydney investigation squad
uncovered one premises in 2015 where 58 beds were crammed into a
three-bedroom house in Ultimo, according to a report in the Sydney
Morning Herald that year. That same year in Melbourne, Fairfax Media
identified 25 apartment buildings in or around the CBD with rooms being
partitioned off and leased as bedrooms.
This raises questions about the prevalence of overcrowding in
inner-urban apartments, consequences when this occurs and what can be
done about it.
According to Christine Byrne, president and co-founder of the not-for
profit group Green Strata and a long-time strata resident who has
served on numerous executive committees, overcrowding is a growing
problem in Australia’s cities – particularly where buildings are not
well run or managed.
Byrne is aware of cases involving two-bedroom apartments holding as
many as 14 people. In these cases, she said, it was common to see
people partition off living areas and balconies. Often, she says, this
was organised by unscrupulous operators who use sites such as Gumtree
to take advantage of foreign students for whom English is not their
first language and who are not always aware of their rights.
In terms of fire danger, Byrne talks of occupants using open-flame
burners in tiny individual spaces for cooking, centrally wired sensors
being covered up, alarms being ignored during fire drills and
non-native English speakers finding evacuation diagrams confusing.
In terms of water consumption as well, Byrne said those in overcrowded
apartments not only use more water but are reluctant to report leaks
for fear of being discovered – a situation she says can add thousands
to water bills in large apartment buildings. In the case of those
living in Sydney, this is problematic for other owners as buildings
constructed prior to 2014 were not required to have separate water
meters. Add in additional wear and tear on common property such as
carpets and elevators and the cost to owners can be substantial.
Finally, there is security. Whilst under normal circumstances apartment
residents are issued a given number of security keys to access the
floor with clear records as to who has been given keys, Byrne said
overcrowding leads to key-copying and a loss of visibility as to how
who has keys and how many are in circulation.
“I think it’s a growing issue, particularly in the inner city,” Byrne
said when asked about the prevalence of apartment overcrowding. “It’s
not so much in buildings that are well managed or that have 24-hour
concierges. They pretty much keep on top of things like that
“(But,) in buildings which either don’t have building managers or only
have building managers there during the day, it’s a growing problem.”
Byrne is not alone. Sydney-based building manager Allan Hoy says
overcrowding has always been a problem but is now more prevalent
compared with the past.
Oftentimes, he says, the arrangement involves properties being leased
to non-resident primary tenants who then sublease rooms or beds only to
foreign students and pocket the difference.
Hoy agrees with Byrne about the consequences – especially those
associated with fire. He has frequently encountered situations where
smoke alarms have been covered, paths of travel have been blocked by
internal partitions, fire safety instructions and evacuations have been
ignored or not understood (as a result of many occupants being
transient in nature), difficulty in gaining cooperation from transient
tenants during fire drills and efforts to block or deny access during
annual fire safety inspections for fear of overcrowding being
Not all, however, agree that the problem is widespread.
Erik Adriaanse, National President of Strata Community Australia, says
there is little evidence of widespread problems associated with
overcrowding, although he acknowledges that overcrowding may be
occurring in isolated cases and stresses that it is problematic when it
According to Adriaanse, one area in which overcrowding might occur
revolves around short-term letting services such as Airbnb, and the
tendency on the part of some who use Airbnb to attempt to squeeze too
many people into apartments.
“I don’t think that there is any substantive proof that it’s
occurring,” he said. “I think that you might get the odd complaint that
somebody in a strata building might be experiencing an overcrowding
situation. With Airbnb, there is always a chance that somebody might
book a place and then put a lot of people in there.
“But I don’t think there is any direct evidence to say that more than
the required number of people living in an apartment is common.”
Furthermore, a spokesperson for property and financial services company
PICA described overcrowding as a ‘generally a rare occurrence’, which
was most prevalent in and around universities and education precincts.
In terms of what can be done, Byrne says much of the onus falls largely
back upon building managers, whom she says can utilise tools such as
CCTV as well as key audits and management to control this. Whilst some
building managers adopt a proactive stance and get on top of these
issues, Byrne says that others do not.
Universities, as well, could teach students about their rights in rental arrangements.
In New South Wales, Hoy says new strata legislation will help, by
limiting numbers of those permitted to occupy apartments to two adults
per room, as will moves to beef up penalties for those caught. Agents
and property managers should also adopt a vigilant approach and be
proactive in terms of conducting inspections, he said. In light of
their likely need to sublease beds or rooms to others in order to meet
rental commitments, agents should also be wary about cases where
students lease apartments, he added.
The PICA spokesperson said responsibility lays with several parties.
Local councils, for instance, often specify maximum occupant numbers as
part of the conditions of development approval. Residents, as well, can
raise concerns with building managers or the owners corporation upon
noticing large amounts of activity coming from one apartment. Owners
corporations, as well, could use bylaws to limit adult occupant numbers
on a per bedroom basis.
Overcrowding in apartment buildings is exploitative and dangerous. Australia must take strong action to eradicate this practice.
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