John Engeler, Shelter NSW CEO, for Parity
Many of us who live in inner city Sydney are aware of the crumbling old mansions along the railway line from Central to Strathfield that seemed historically to house hundreds of disadvantaged people. This forms the basis of what most people understand about a boarding house. So what is a ‘new generation boarding house’, how can we shift the perception and offer this type of accommodation in a safe, sustainable and life-enhancing way?
What has most surprised you about boarding house discussion since you’ve been at Shelter NSW?
What’s been interesting is the extraordinary amount of both current information and background material, including well researched papers from Shelter NSW – that is around on boarding houses and the historic reforms that have already occurred. Given the stable size of the demographic that reside in boarding houses, and that their needs are relatively unchanged over the past 20 years, I’m surprised that there seems to be still so much discussion around the limitations of the physicality of the dwellings, yet new generation board houses present a whole new physical world of possibility.
The new generation boarding house responds well to, and indeed improves, the housing situation of the current boarding house user – spatially. A manifest difference to the boarding houses we know, new generation boarding houses, or ‘micro apartments’ provide private self-contained bathroom and kitchen facilities – giving residents autonomy and security and a life free from the basic reality of being unable to lock a bathroom door to fights about food in often filthy communal fridges.
What disappoints you about the broader discussion?
Different states’ definitions, confusing terminology and lack of ongoing awareness and education has allowed this important area of the housing system to remain needlessly complex for new players. Covid 19 has presented to opportunity to really look at this and solve some historic and systemic issues. I think the talk-fest needs to end and we need to start to drive and deliver solutions that are realistic and respond to consumer and community need – a recent example is Foyer by SGCH in Chippendale, which is an example of a New Generation Boarding House.
So what needs to be done to make sure New Generation Boarding Houses don’t repeat the mistakes of old?
We’re at a crossroads and we can see that we need the certainty of legislation and attitudinal change. Recent findings and recommendations from the Aged Care Royal Commission, which share many parallels with this area of housing market failure – are that you need both ‘carrot and stick’ drivers to ensure ongoing and sustainable improvements. We need to encourage and affirm good operators, including Community Housing Providers and draw closely on the experience of boarding house residents and the workers who deliver services to those people to get it right -continuously.
We need to land on a way of educating the broader community about the intent of the new generation boarding house. In my opinion, this means that we need to agree that new generation boarding houses, do not necessarily address housing affordability but nonetheless are an important part of the housing continuum.
What do you see as the role of Community Housing Providers in the delivery of new generation boarding houses (NGBH)?
I strongly support the community housing sector as the right group to manage all new generation boarding houses. Community Housing Providers (CHPs) have a strong history of providing housing and support. They are experienced in linking people to tailored support and working with communities to make sure their residents are included in and consulted about the type of housing that is most appropriate. They by definition also ensure an element of affordability – albeit coincidently, so as to maintain their PBI status, giving the product an at least 20% discount to a similar market product.
Tell me about New Generation Boarding houses, what’s different?
As said previously, they are micro apartments. The part that is ‘new’ is that they are self-contained. As part of a broader cultural response, it is now understood that people need secure private spaces. Along with agency over tenure, this is an important change to how boarding house accommodation can now be offered.
There’s a growing cohort for whom NGBH is an ideal solution and well regulated and managed they can form a growing and sustainable part of the bridge between social and affordable/market housing.
The great thing about the NGBH – and this is often overlooked – is that the resident is now a tenant they have agency and control over a particular address and the autonomy and protection of existing legislation that goes with that. This point is seldom made strongly enough – they could of course always be bigger, but offer an alternative to forced shared accommodation for single people.
To be able to close one’s door and have control over space, and privacy of an albeit small kitchen and bathroom, is a great solution. To write off NGBH simply on size is crazy, they are a viable and happy solution for many people who prefer a small space to a share house, for example.
At around $3500 per sqm to construct, requiring larger boarder house rooms will inhibit some entrants to the market, so we need to find the balance between minimum standards for size (most argue not less than 20sqm, even in inner city areas), optimising amenity of smaller spaces, and linking to affordability based on current income support subsidies, including Commonwealth Rent Assistance.
Best saved for another Parity issue – but worth stating here – we can’t keep focussing housing product that’s ‘affordable’ while we continue fruitless discussion and advocacy with government for a reasonable and equitable basic income support that includes a realistic housing subsidy!
How should we respond to community concerns about new generation boarding houses?
I’d like to answer this from a personal perspective. There are a group of people for whom new generation boarding houses are not only a great housing solution, but really the only housing solution. My ‘vulnerable’ nephew lived in an old style, unregulated boarding house in Sydney’s inner west, in a small unlockable room sharing a bathroom and kitchen with older men. It was a most horrifying response to his housing need. Visiting new generation boarding houses recently, I only wish this was around while he was alive. Having access to a very small private space, with support as and when he needed, would have enhanced, and indeed, extended Michael’s life.
You talked about the SGCH Foyer in Chippendale? Is this a good example of how a new generation boarding house can function?
Yes! I’d encourage people to look at this development. It’s in the middle of Sydney, close to transport, education, employment and health hubs. SGCH has purpose-built the Foyer as a new generation boarding house, to respond to two diverse user groups.
On one side of Foyer, is what we know as a Youth Foyer, designed to provide housing and support to 18-22 year olds exiting out of home care (foster care). Support is provided by Uniting Care, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The building also has 20 micro apartments for standard affordable housing. I went to a tenant barbeque last week and met some of the new residents. They’re from a range of backgrounds, local employed people, students who are working part time, shift workers, apprentices and young people who have moved from regional areas to study and work.
Overwhelmingly, the tenants were happy with their ‘tiny’ homes, enjoying all the proximity of their places of work and study, free from the worry of share housing. The six or so people I spoke to all said they were happy with a small space and enjoyed socialising together but not having to share bathrooms and kitchens as in traditional share houses or boarding houses. No parking of course!
How is what’s happening in the boarding house sector similar to what’s happening in other areas?
Prior to joining Shelter, I’d worked in aged care and the disability sectors. It’s my observation that there is a general trend towards private spaces and communal recreation opportunities. We see it in individual rooms in nursing homes through to the decreasing trend for dormitory style student accommodation. Unrelated people don’t share bedrooms any more, we certainly don’t share bathrooms, we look for spaces we can cook independently. Boarding houses will be viable into the future if they are not confined from this shift. New generation boarding houses are moving in that right direction.