When it comes to building codes, requirements can be a matter of interpretation, lawyer says

Images of an Adelaide apartment with a toilet in the living room went viral on social media, but many wondered who would rent such an apartment and how is it legal?

The listing for 4/201 O’Connell Street boasted an “excellent location” and “easy, low-maintenance lifestyle,” but people online wondered if it met building codes.

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The 25 square meter “open plan” home features amenities such as a kitchen without a stove, a bathroom in the kitchen, and no laundry room.

State laws require all residences to meet minimum requirements, such as an oven and hob, bathroom facilities that provide adequate privacy, and toilet facilities that do not open directly into a kitchen.

If they don’t, rents can be reported to a statewide registry and landlords can be slapped with rent control measures to make sure tenants don’t pay a market price for a substandard property.

So there are standards, but who enforces them?

Tenancy law expert Paris Dean said many of the standards listed in South Australia’s Home Improvement Act are a matter of interpretation.

“The word ‘reasonable’ appears in connection with the provision of some facilities … the code speaks in terms of providing ‘adequate privacy,’” he said.

So when it comes to the “adequacy” of the bathroom at 4/201 O’Connell Street, it’s not necessarily transparent whether the residence is breaking a standard.

The listing for 4/201 O’Connell Street has since disappeared from the internet, despite Ray White North Adelaide’s insistence that the device met all code requirements and had been approved by the council.

There are about 800 properties on the Consumer and Business Services (CBS) SA “substandard property register” – but 201 O’Connell Street is not one of them.

The unit is one of seven similarly sized “apartments” in the 1892 heritage building, which was previously an Airbnb before being converted into residential homes.

While the ABC asked CBS SA if it had received any complaints about any of the units, it has yet to hear anything. The Adelaide City Council has also been contacted for comment.

What to do if your home does not comply with the code?

With just three in 1,000 available rental properties in Adelaide, the city has the lowest vacancy rate in the country.

Mr Dean said this could deter tenants from making complaints about substandard properties.

“If the problem is structural, with facilities that simply don’t exist, it’s probably worth trying to list the house as substandard.” [with CBS],” he said.

“Alternatively, if there is a violation of the landlord’s obligation to maintain and repair facilities, and you can’t resolve it with your landlord, tenants have rights that can be challenged in civil and administrative courts. “

A man in a suit stands in front of a bookcase, he carries lessons.
Barrister Paris Dean says many of the building requirements listed in SA’s Housing Improvement Act were a matter of interpretation.ABC: Sara Tomevska

Insufficient protection for tenants

Despite clearly defined tenancy rights, there is limited legal protection for tenants who complain about their rent in South Australia.

†[South Australia’s] The Housing Rental Act contains no protections for tenants who choose to file complaints or approach government agencies or tribunals to defend the rights they have,” Mr Dean said.

“So, landlords can evict them at the end of the lease without giving a reason.”

Without a framework that protects tenants from harm, Mr Dean argued, it would be difficult for people to exercise their rights.

“In the eastern states they have a tenancy law firm that is subsidized by the interest that is built up from rental bonds. That would be a huge innovation here in South Australia. We already have the model.”

Next week, the SA Greens will submit legislation to parliament that would limit rent increases to one every 24 months, and rent increases in line with inflation.

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