The end of the road: rooming housing in South Australia

29 May 2017

Shelter SA has been working on a project over the past year focussed on the operation of for-profit rooming houses. This is the first methodical study of the rooming house sector in South Australia since 2003.

The Shelter SA project was instigated in response to clear findings in the earlier research that provision of housing in this sector lacks sufficient or consistent regulation and is ill-suited to the diverse and often severely compromised health and personal circumstances of vulnerable residents.

Shelter SA has undertaken a targeted examination of for-profit rooming house provision in our state, evaluated research into practices here and in other jurisdictions, considered relevant legislative frameworks regulating the sector, and conducted a direct consultation with residents, landlords and service providers.

While there is variability in the quality of housing provided in this sector, and some landlords who endeavour to meet the needs of their residents, our study has identified that some rooming houses are well below accepted community standards.  Participants in our consultation cited various safety issues they have seen including unsafe stairs, faulty electrical wiring and leaking rooves.

The Shelter SA project also found that the congregate nature of rooming houses has meant that highly controlled approaches to management of vulnerable residents have become enshrined in the housing model. At their worst, rooming houses contravene the rights of residents to privacy, visitation from family and friends, control over bedroom space and the details of everyday life. For vulnerable citizens facing multiple health and personal issues, a monitored and restrictive environment does not support recovery or independence, with established research confirming such environments can undermine mental health. 

In their current form, rooming houses run on a for-profit basis in particular are not suitable for providing housing for people facing mental health illness, physical disabilities and living with multiple disadvantages and barriers to active participation in the workforce and society in general. Instead, they are accommodation of the last resort for some of our most vulnerable citizens who are left without necessary services and formalised assistance to transition into a home that is more affordable, private and safe.

Shelter SA believes that current government policy settings need to change, so that this last resort in housing is not further entrenched as the only option for some of our most vulnerable citizens. 

Key to this change is the need for better regulation. The current legislative framework governing this sector is inadequate; it is complex, inconsistent and denies rooming house residents the ability to understand or exercise their rights with regard to their tenancies. Inclusion in the Residential Tenancies Act (1995) affords broader protections to residents but does not comprehensively cover residents’ rights nor address the particular needs or limitations of the majority of those who reside in rooming houses.

There is growing recognition in interstate jurisdictions that the rooming house sector requires more robust regulation and closer scrutiny. Specific rooming house legislation was introduced in Queensland in 2002, New South Wales in 2012 and the Victorian Parliament has recently passed the Rooming House Operators Act (2016). These Acts establish registration or licensing schemes for rooming houses, minimum housing and operational standards and include ‘fit and proper’ person checks on potential proprietors.

Shelter SA has urged the state government to give serious consideration to creating distinct legislation in South Australia that will set a consistent standard in this sector and address the specific needs of vulnerable South Australian rooming house residents. The Supported Residential Facilities Act (1992) is suggested as a possible model for rooming house regulation - it has enabled vast improvements for vulnerable residents in a similar form of housing provision and successfully balanced the need for greater regulation with the ongoing viability of providers.

Remedying the limitations of current rooming houses will require collaboration, involvement of stakeholders and extensive commitment by government and service providers in order to make a real and lasting difference. Yet, there are also several changes that could be made in government procedures and policy to mitigate the immediate risks that are faced by rooming house residents and support more targeted intervention. The key recommendations are included in the report for consideration.

Shelter SA is determined that vulnerable residents of inadequate rooming houses are recognised in government policies and better served by government and community services. To achieve this, we need to challenge the false premise that rooming house residents are adequately ‘housed’ and therefore less in need of dedicated intervention, vital support services and priority placing in more appropriate housing.

Shelter SA has briefed a range of stakeholders including politicians, state government agencies and community leaders and peak bodies. In recognition of the range of agencies, systems and policies that are involved in rooming houses, Shelter SA is pleased to report that the state government will lead a stakeholder roundtable to respond to our recommendations.

For more information, please contact Dr. Alice Clark, Shelter SA Executive Director on 0425 060 649 or

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