by Jackie Keast
Brecht Vanheusden is hardly the first to take a punt on a new life in ‘the lucky country’.
Back in his hometown of Hasselt, Belgium, Brecht had been unemployed for over a year. Prospects were grey and life was monotonous. It was 2011 and Europe was struggling under the weight of the recession.
Often he’d daydream of Sydney, a city he’d visited six years earlier and whose blue skies held fond memories. He’d always wanted to live there and unlike Europe, he’d heard jobs were plentiful. At 30, he was still just young enough to apply for a working holiday visa. He took a chance.
But things weren’t as easy as he’d hoped. He couldn’t find anywhere to live; compared to Belgium, rent was expensive. After weeks searching online, he found a room advertised for $170 a week in Pyrmont. Eight people shared three bedrooms and another slept on the enclosed balcony. All were travellers like himself, most from Europe but also South America and Asia. It wasn’t ideal, but it was cheap.
He had no key of his own to the apartment, instead having to buzz on the intercom to be let inside. Sometimes he’d be stuck waiting for over an hour when no one was home. He shared a bedroom with a snoring Italian who kept odd hours. His bed was two foam mattresses.
Beer bottles and piles of dirty dishes constantly littered the kitchen and every surface of the living room, even the pool table. The smell of old Chinese food refused to go away.
Parties were frequent. After one particularly raucous occasion, the landlord had the building manager shut down the flat’s electricity and gas for 12 hours as punishment.
The apartment itself was plagued with insects. German cockroaches lived in the fridge, the squashed remains of mosquitoes covered the walls and ceiling of his bedroom. In summer the landlord refused fans due to electricity costs, so they slept every night with open windows, waking red and itchy from mozzie bites. When one girl moved bed bugs in with her, every housemate’s mattress had to be piled in the living room for an exterminator.
“At the start I was disgusted, but I got used to it. After a while you don’t care anymore,” Brecht says. “Sydney had always been a dream. But yeah, in reality it came with a price.”
His story is typical of many young people traveling to Sydney on working-holiday or student visas. With no rental history and unable to work in permanent positions, leases are hard to come by. The idea of furnishing a house is financially crippling. Hostels are cheap, but rarely cater for long-term stays.
Overcrowded apartments have become an alternative option. They are cheap and offer some stability while people search for jobs. They are a chance to meet other travelers in what can be a lonely city. They are also illegal. Owners or sub-letting tenants are taking residential buildings and converting them into unregistered backpacker or student accommodation, often in keeping them in shocking conditions.
Since 2006, in an effort to combat overcrowding, the City of Sydney Council has limited the occupation of residential premises to two adults per room. However, this has proved difficult to regulate.
The Council says it can take action where there is evidence of illegal building works such as partition walls or tampering or obstruction of fire safety systems but its officers cannot enter residential properties without a search warrant or unless it is agreed to.
As of July 5 this year, the NSW Government has put in place new legislation loosening the criteria of what may constitute evidence of such dwellings. For example, suspicious advertising on telegraph poles or on websites such as Gumtree may now potentially be used as evidence for a search warrant.
The Backpacker Operators Association of NSW hopes this legislation will help it in its quest to thwart such properties. It argues that the rise of illegal boarding houses is costing the tourist industry millions of dollars annually. Businesses are struggling to compete with the low costs illegal operators can provide by cramming as many people into a property as possible.
“There is a huge underground network of operators delivering these services to backpackers illegally. It’s essentially organised crime,” says Matt Clay, vice-president of the Backpacker Operators Association. He names high-rises in the CBD, Haymarket and Pyrmont as particularly rife with problems.
“Garages are bedrooms. Dining rooms are sectioned up. It’s not right,” he says.
Unprotected by the Residential Tenancies Act, young travelers are considered lodgers and have virtually no protection against eviction. Bonds paid to landlords are usually not lodged with the Rental Bond Board. This means that legally they do not have to be returned, even if tenants leave the property undamaged.
“I would urge every single backpacker to stay in registered accommodation. Rather than price, you want to look for quality. You can lose a lot of money in these properties in the long run if something goes wrong and your experience of Australia will be soured forever,” Matt Clay says.
The Backpacker Operators Association encourages backpackers and international students alike to dob in illegal properties anonymously on their website.
Glaswegian Stuart Ferguson, 29, lives in a Pyrmont apartment with eight people. He’s been there for three years and enjoys the convenient location, the affordability and the social life.
He admits he’s been lucky with his landlord, yet he still has some concerns.
“I don’t know how many stories I’ve heard of men just coming in, chucking everybody out, going mad and never giving back the bond,” he says. “ But I think everybody realise before they move into this house that at the end of the day you have fucking rights. You have to just take the loss and know you haven’t got a leg to stand on.”
But for Brecht Vanheusden, 10 months living in cramped and tenuous conditions was enough.
“I got so fed up with it, I started looking for another flat. I couldn’t take the mosquitoes, the lack of privacy, my annoying Italian roommate having sex in the middle of the night when I had to get up for work. I couldn’t take it anymore,” he says.
He has since left his apartment in Pyrmont, moving to World Square. He now pays $300 a week for his own room that is divided into a lounge room by a thin partitioning.
Despite it not being a ‘real’ room, Brecht is happier. It’s private. It’s clean. He’s been sponsored by his employer and will get to live in Australia for another three years. He still gets to live in the centre of the city, but only has to share the apartment with two others.
“I don’t meet a lot of people anymore but I don’t mind. I’ve had it with sharing.”