The Marrickville Legal Centre believes many of an estimated three to four hundred boarding houses in the Marrickville area are unregistered, leaving residents in legal limbo when disputes arise.
Legislation passed in 2012 established a boarding house register and gave occupancy rights to residents including access to the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
“Prior to that law being brought in, residents often faced arbitrary and immediate eviction,” said Martin Barker, tenant advocate at the centre.
“They wouldn’t be able to get their bonds back. They’d often have their goods taken by the proprietor.”
The Boarding House Act 2012 was the result of 40 years of law reform, he said. “So now there are some protections for people in boarding houses.”
There are 84 registered houses in the local government area. But there are concerns that residents in unregistered houses don’t have access to those means of redress.
Marrickville is sometimes known as “boarding house central” because it has a greater number of boarding houses than any other local government area. Close to a quarter of the state’s 700 registered houses are in the Marrickville local government area.
While the benefits of the act are beginning to take effect, many boarders feel marginalised and live in constant fear of eviction, even if they are in a registered residence.
Lloyd, who prefers to keep his surname private, lived in a boarding house in Petersham for four years until recently.
“It’s like being in a prison but there’s no warder there to protect you. Sometimes you don’t even want to open your own door because of some of the low lives that live there,” he said.
“I had a door that didn’t sit flush when you shut it and these rats used to come in under the door at night and I’m talking about rats that look like your local alley cat.”
A case worker from the Boarders and Lodgers Project at the Newtown Neighbourhood Centre arranged for 70-year-old Lloyd to leave the boarding house and move into community housing. The proprietor of the boarding house is refusing to give Lloyd his bond back, so he is about to go before the tribunal to dispute this matter.
“We can now get legal aid under this legislation to take them to court, before you’d appeal to them and you had no legislation there to protect you,” he said.
The Newtown Neighbourhood Centre provides a number of services for local boarding house residents. Paul Adabie, boarding house services manager at the centre, explained that the occupancy rights provided by the legislation don’t provide security.
“If they start to speak up too much they’re still very vulnerable. There’s no competence in occupants to actually utilize those rights that they have, which are minimal anyway,” he said.
“If you haven’t got an occupancy agreement and you want to go in to the tribunal to get one, chances are as soon as you approach the tribunal you get an eviction notice.”
Mr Adaibe described the life of a boarder as a cycle of poverty and marginalisation. There is a lack of social connections and food security, he said, while rents are on the rise.
Sylvie Ellsmore, co-chair of Marrickville Council’s Affordable Housing Committee, said that living in a boarding house is often only marginally cheaper than private rental.
“So you find the people living in boarding houses because…it’s their only option, and that means that they are open for exploitation,” she said.