OPINION: High rents and short-term rentals are driving people to share rooms with strangers in order to live in the city. Room sharing outside a family environment is not uncommon in professions that involve shift work such as airline crew, nursing and seasonal workers. There are other precedents where this arrangement is not unusual: youth and backpacker hostels have traditionally offered room sharing as a budget option for travellers.
In the case of shift workers, the roomies are part of an organisation and are colleagues. This ensures some vetting has taken place and that their conduct is expected to be in keeping with their paid position and contract.
Youth hostels have management to handle complaints and to keep an eye on things. But what happens when you have found your roomie through a website? Who is in charge and how do you really know with whom you are sharing?
With city living costs at an unprecedented high, it’s harder than ever to afford your own bedroom to sleep in.
Various websites list hundreds of offers to share rooms in central Sydney. Beds are available from about $150 to over $230 a week. Room sharing also happens in high demand suburbs like Double Bay, Mosman and Marrickville.
A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald calculates that about 6,000 properties have been removed from the rental market and offered to higher-paying tourists through “sharing economy” sites like Airbnb. This has given us an indication of what potential tenants who can’t afford to rent a flat anymore are doing – they are room sharing. I estimate thousands of people are room sharing in the inner city right now.
Exceeding capacity causes many problems
Overcrowded apartments, beyond interfering with the amenity of strata owners, have a number of implications. One is that these packed living arrangements raise basic health concerns. Historically, 19th-century New York tenements come to mind. How are facilities like bathrooms and toilets – the health hardware – going to hold up when used by several times the number of occupants they were originally designed for?
In Australia today, we know relatively little about the extent of chronically overcrowded housing, but research has looked at its impact on Indigenous householders for whom it’s a fact of daily life. In some cases, up to five people share one bedroom and up to 30 people use the services of one house.
It’s not due to choice, but rather due to a shortage of houses that perform well. Product selection is not fit for purpose and goes hand in hand with a lack of maintenance. Award-winning research shows this makes it virtually impossible for these householders to carry out basic healthy living practices.
The research shows that this is not the fault of the residents and these well-documented issues are now being reproduced in dense urban settings.
Who is going to repair the cheap and non-compliant fixtures when they fail? The poor occupants? What kind of replacements can be expected? High-quality commercial fittings to suit the 500% higher use, or cheap replacements that will predictably fail again in due time?
Can a shared room be home?
Lack of personal space and privacy are also problems in crowded housing. The images on the websites clearly demonstrate the practical day-to-day concerns that these households would face: Where do you store your things? There is no existing furniture product category that meets the requirements of sharing with strangers.
A seasonal worker in the Snowy Mountains told me the workers left damp clothing lying on the floor between their bunks. But even if you can hang your things up somewhere, how do you ensure they are still there when you come home? Internal doors generally don’t have key locks and nor do cupboards. Tenants can’t even hang a picture, so how can they secure their space?
Ikea offers furnishings for small flats and some of their products are thoughtfully designed to make small spaces more effective. But they don’t have products for these room-share settings. Renting means you are not allowed to drill holes to install shelves or even hooks.
It appears that the precarious life of the roomie who lacks a sense of security, stability, privacy, safety and the ability to control their living space, meets the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) definition of homelessness. A bed alone does not make a home.