remote community

For agencies providing social housing to Indigenous Australians it is important to be sensitive to cultural practices that may be at odds with, or even conflict with, norms of social housing operation and management. In particular this is the case where the cultural practice of ‘demand sharing’ can lead to households being seen as ‘crowded’ and in breach of their tenancy agreement.

The ABS National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey 2014–15 revealed that 18 per cent of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were living in a dwelling that was overcrowded (requiring at least one or more extra bedrooms), a much higher rate than that of 3.2 per cent for all Australian households.

In 2012, AHURI research developed a model of for policy-makers to better understand, measure and manage Aboriginal household overcrowding. For Australian agencies, including state housing authorities, a widely used guideline for determining overcrowding is the Canadian National Occupancy Standard (CNOS), which assesses the bedroom requirements of a household based on the following criteria:

Canadian National Occupancy Standard Criteria Bedroom requirements


No more than two people per bedroom.

Gender & Age

Children aged under 5, of the same or different genders, can share a bedroom.

Children aged over 5 and under 18, of the same gender, can share a bedroom.

Children aged over 5, of different genders, should not share a bedroom.

Relationship Status

Couples and their children should not share a bedroom.

A household of one unattached individual may occupy a bed-sit.

Single household members, aged over 18, should have their own bedroom.


Source: Memmott, P., Birdsall-Jones, C. and Greenop, K. (2012) Australian Indigenous house crowding, AHURI Final Report No. 194

The Standard is a measure of density (i.e. number of people per bedroom), and is based on thenorms’ of sleeping and living in a western nuclear family culture. State-owned and managed public housing authorities use this measure to determine the numbers of people that should be accommodated in a dwelling so as not to be considered overcrowded.

Overcrowding can lead to increased wear and tear on the infrastructure of the house, such as the hardware in bathrooms, laundries and kitchens. If these fittings are not built to a very standard with high-grade materials they will break due to constant use by larger numbers of people than they were designed to cater for. There are also possible health problems associated with overcrowded bathrooms in that rooms may not get a chance to properly dry out, which can lead to the growth of moulds that may cause respiratory problems in tenants.

...overcrowding stress is seen as both psychologically and culturally determined...for one individual having even one other person living in the home may be very stressful, whereas for another householder having ten family members living in the home is a great source of emotional comfort and support.

However, the number of people living in a house (density) and the psychological stress that causes are only mildly related. Indeed, overcrowding stress is seen as both psychologically and culturally determined. For example, for one individual having even one other person living in the home may be very stressful, whereas for another householder having ten family members living in the home is a great source of emotional comfort and support.

Maintaining a large, open household is a core obligation for many who have an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander identity. Although there are a large number of people living in the dwelling, as long as people are sharing the space in a culturally appropriate way it may not be psychologically stressful for the residents. It is for this reason that large Indigenous households can be referred to as crowded (rather than overcrowded).

In both metropolitan and regional areas, crowding occurs when family members (who may be quite distantly related to the householders) and close friends of the householder come to visit or live in the house (or its grounds) for a period of time—from a few days to years.

The process, known as ‘demand sharing’, means kinfolk can ask for accommodation because of the principle of reciprocal rights and obligations. The answer to the request may not be yes, but the right to ask is perfectly legitimate. However, if the request comes from a relative who is of appropriate status, the householder would find it very difficult to say no, even if the house is already full. In that case a person of lower status would be moved from their be  droom and into public space (such as the lounge room or onto the verandah).

The reasons for people coming and staying in the household include visiting to maintain important kin links (such as mothers and grandparents coming to stay); if they had lost their own home and were now homeless; unaffordable housing costs, fleeing domestic abuse; if they needed medical treatment they couldn't get in their home town; attending a funeral; attending a sporting event or local agricultural show; and wanting to go to shops that weren't in their local district.


More effective housing practises are sensitive to cultural practice and recognise the importance and obligations of social and kin ties for many Indigenous people, whether in urban or remote areas. Policies need to take into account that there are often frequent changes in Indigenous household composition, and that, in social housing, households are at risk of unintentional fraud (when visitors overstay) or rent arrears (when registered visitors leave).