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 have gone viral on social media, but it has left many wondering who would rent such an apartment and how is it legal?

The listing for 4/201 O’Connell Street boasted an “outstanding location” and “easy, low maintenance lifestyle” but people online questioned whether it complied with building code regulations.

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

Under the state’s laws, all residential properties must meet minimum requirements such as having an oven and cooktop, bathroom facilities that provide adequate privacy, and toilet facilities that do not open directly into a kitchen.

If they don’t, rentals can be reported to a statewide register, and landlords can be slapped with rent-control measures to ensure tenants are not paying market price for a substandard property.

So, there are standards, but who is enforcing them?

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

“The word ‘reasonable’ appears in relation to the provision of some facilities … the code talks 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 isn’t necessarily transparent whether the dwelling violates a standard.

The listing for 4/201 O’Connell Street has since disappeared from the internet, despite Ray White North Adelaide insisting that the unit met all code requirements and was council approved.

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

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

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

What to do if your home doesn’t comply with the code?

With just three in 1,000 rentals available in Adelaide, the city has the lowest vacancy rates in the country.

Mr Dean said that might deter tenants from making complaints about substandard properties.

“Where the issue is structural, with facilities that simply don’t exist, it probably is worth attempting to have the house listed as substandard [with CBS],” he said.

“Alternatively, where there is a breach of the landlord’s obligation to maintain and repair facilities, if you can’t resolve that with your landlord, tenants do have rights that can be agitated before the Civil and Administrative Tribunal.”

A man in a suit stands in front of a book case, he wears classes.
Barrister Paris Dean says many of the building requirements listed in SA’s Housing Improvement Regulations Act were a matter of interpretation.(ABC: Sara Tomevska)

Inadequate protection for tenants

Despite clearly defined tenancy rights, there are limited legal protections for tenants who complain about their rental in South Australia.

“[South Australia’s] Residential Tenancies Act doesn’t contain protections for tenants who choose to make complaints or approach state government bodies or tribunals to vindicate the rights they have,” Mr Dean said.

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

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

“In the eastern states, they have a tenancy advocacy service that is subsidised by the interest accrued from rental bonds. That’d be huge innovation here in South Australia. We already have the model in place.”

Next week, the SA Greens will introduce legislation to parliament that seeks to limit rent increase to one per 24 months, and cap rent rises, in line with inflation.

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