“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 minutes.
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 (overcrowding).
“(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 discovered.
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 does occur.
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.