Rooming house rights: Mark’s story

The Council to Homeless Persons recently released its ‘The state of rooming house reform in Victoria’ report, which looks at the progress that’s been made in improving the standards of rooming houses since the 2009 Rooming House Reform Taskforce was formed.    

Mark Towler is one of our current Peer Education Support Program (PESP) members who has lived in a number of rooming houses over the last 8 years. Recently, with the support of the Tenants Union of Victoria, Mark took successful legal action against one operator for breaching the Rooming House standards that were introduced in 2013.

Mark spent six months in a rooming house in the leafy suburb of Glen Iris, that housed up to 30 people who shared one kitchen and three toilets.

 “Just metres away were multi-million dollar homes, but the conditions I lived in were worlds away,” he says.

“For $140 a week I got a bottom bunk in a room with four people. The place was filthy, doors and locks were often broken, smoke detectors were faulty and rats and cockroaches were rife.”

Despite their differences, Mark said the one thing all tenants had in common was that none of them would have lived there if they had a viable alternative. Yet in a city where just one in every 200 one-bedroom apartments is affordable to someone who is unemployed, it’s often a choice between a poorly run rooming house and sleeping on the street.

For Mark, it was unemployment that pushed him into homelessness. 

“My whole life I’d had steady employment,” he says.

“But after losing my job eight years ago, and going through a dark period of my life with family breakdown and problems with drugs and alcohol, I struggled to find other work, nor anywhere affordable to rent.”

Soon Mark found himself homeless and “desperate to avoid the street,”  so he moved through rooming houses and temporary accommodation.

“I remember going to a homelessness agency and asking what accommodation was available for me,” Mark recalls.

“They said there was one room left in all of Melbourne that they could place me, so I found my way to the rooming house in Glen Iris.”

With the median rent in Melbourne at $285 per week, and 35,000 people waiting for public housing, homelessness agencies are doing the best they can to house the hundreds of people who turn up at their doors every day. 

But with services in such high demand, rooming houses are often the only option. Although there are many well-run rooming houses, including some excellent community managed facilities, there are always more people wanting beds than there are beds available.

Mark strongly believes that more affordable housing needs to be made available and that rooming houses shouldn’t be the only option. However, he also believes that they can serve an important function for people experiencing homelessness, if they’re managed well. 

“There needs to be greater enforcement of the rooming house minimum standards that were introduced last year, so it doesn’t get to the point where people are living in squalor, like I was,” he says.

Increasing other forms of affordable housing is also a vital piece in the puzzle. Boosting the amount of subsidised rentals for people on low incomes would cut dodgy rooming house operators off at the knees. Without the demand, rooming house landlords could no longer charge excessive rents for very basic accommodation.

Earlier this year, with the support of the Tenants Union of Victoria, Mark took the operator of the Glen Iris rooming house to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) – and won.

“The operator was ordered to pay me compensation,” Mark says.

“It was only a moderate financial win, but the true Victory was for the rights of rooming house residents everywhere.

Mark wants to make rooming house residents more aware of their rights.

“You have rights, and there are places you can go if your rights are being breached,” he said.

Of course rooming house reform won’t happen overnight, but we owe it to people  living in rooming houses to make a start. Greater enforcement of existing standards will lift living conditions, but a real strategy for increasing affordable housing is the clincher for long-term change.

Since being placed in public housing, Mark’s life has turned around.

“I’m incredibly fortunate to have secured public housing in Preston, close to my family which has allowed me to re-establish my ties with them and get things back on track,” he says.

“I’m volunteering at the Tenants Union of Victoria, and also an active member of PESP, which sees me doing lots of public speaking and media work to raise understanding of homelessness in our community.” 

For information and advice on your rights as a rooming house resident contact  the Tenants Union Of Victoria