With our Australian cities being home to some of the most expensive rental properties in the world, it is unsurprising that overcrowding can be a serious problem that many apartment communities face.
What is overcrowding?
What exactly do we mean by overcrowding?
You commonly see reports in the media describing situations along the lines of “ten people in a two-bed unit”, or “58 beds crammed into 19 dirty, makeshift rooms.”
Commonly used standards of overcrowding range from simple indicators such as persons per bedroom to more sophisticated indicators that consider family size and composition (age, gender and marital status).
In Australia, the accepted standard by which the dwelling size requirements of a given household are measured in Australia is the Canadian National Occupancy Standard, commonly referred to as CNOS.
CNOS specifies that:
- no more than 2 people shall share a bedroom
- parents or couples may share a bedroom
- children under 5 years, either of the same sex or opposite sex, may share a bedroom
- children under 18 years of the same sex may share a bedroom
- a child aged 5–17 should not share a bedroom with a child under 5 of the opposite sex
- single adults 18 years and over, and any unpaired children require a separate bedroom
For instance, in NSW, where overcrowding is a major problem, laws stipulate no more than two adults per-bedroom, per-apartment. This means in a one bedroom apartment, only two adults are allowed.
Why is overcrowded strata living an issue?
Overcrowded apartments can have serious consequences for strata schemes.
Overcrowding creates issues with fire safety, occupant health and the overuse of common property and services that are not meant to accommodate greater numbers than those approved.
For example, when apartments are overcrowded, it may be difficult for an evacuation to take place in the event of a fire.
Occupants of overcrowded apartments are also generally less likely to report issues such as leaky taps, blocked drains and overloaded electrical services because of the unwanted attention this may bring to their overcrowding.
Some investor owners can be of the mindset that “as long as the rent is being paid, I don’t care what happens in the property’.
However, savvy investors know why overcrowding must be stamped out …. because they can be personally liable. Here’s why and how overcrowding can hurt owners.
If there is a fire in an apartment you rent out and the investigation reveals that more people were occupying the property at the time than were allowed, insurances are likely not to be paid out.
A less severe but just as important consequence of overcrowding is property damage. There are many horror stories for investors where tenants have ripped down walls, or added their own walls to create more bedrooms to fit more people.
Carpets, walls, appliances etc. will get warn out much faster than regular properties with many people living on top of each other in cramped spaces.
What can you do about overcrowding?
So, what can you do to prevent overcrowding, and how can you tell from the outside if a property has too many occupants?
Your by-laws and building rules are your first point of reference. They apply to all owners and occupants equally. Owners or occupiers who ignore the strata committee’s warnings or are in breach of by-laws repeatedly can be issued fines and penalties from the state tribunal.
While strata by-laws can recommend the ideal number of occupants, it can be difficult to monitor and restrict adults from sharing rooms or discriminate between residents, their partners, caregivers or family members.
Laws in Queensland?
Overcrowding in apartments in QLD is handled by the body corporate through enforcement of by-laws and local councils.
However, the body corporate has limited powers and must give seven days written notice prior to entering a lot, except in the case of an emergency.
Under the Local Government Act 2009 (Qld) an authorised person can enter a property for circumstances such as to find out whether the conditions of approval have been complied with. The Body Corporate and Community Management Act gives the local government authorised under law to enter a lot, to also enter the common property.
Other things you can do to prevent overcrowding
Get a decent property manager
A competent property manager will never allow overcrowding to occur because they will be conducting regular routine inspections of your property.
With enough notice period prior to a routine inspection, an overcrowded property can be made to ‘appear’ it is not overcrowded, however savvy property managers will know to lookout for any evidence that the property is being occupied than more adults than those listed on the lease.
Tenant screening in the beginning
Ensure that the applicant(s) you choose to allow to rent your apartment to have been properly screened by your property manager.
If you have any doubts, it is appropriate to ask to see references and/or a tenant ledger history from your agent.
Local councils also investigate reports of overcrowding. If you suspect neighbouring apartments are overcrowding the rooms, it is best to report them.
Ask the neighbours
If you’re an owner but not an occupier it can be difficult to keep an eye on your property when you are not actually living there yourself. This comes back to having a good property manager on board. If there is suspicion that a property is overcrowded, ask your agent to check things such as:
- Neighbour observations. If neighbours notice lots of people regularly coming and going from the property, this could be an indicator.
- Rubbish share. If the property is a unit and is producing ridiculously high volumes of rubbish contribution to the shared bin areas, this is another indicator. With houses, asking neighbours on rubbish volumes is also a possibility.
Overcrowding is a serious issue for a body corporate. Knowing how to detect if it is happening in your property; what to do if it occurs, and the potential legal consequences of not doing anything about it is vital to a well-run strata community.