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2050.0.55.002 - Position Paper - ABS Review of Counting the Homeless Methodology, Aug 2011  
Latest ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 05/08/2011  First Issue
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Contents >> Contents >> Key issues: Overcrowding



  • Overcrowding is a component of marginal housing that does not meet 'minimum expectations' of housing.
  • There is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes an overcrowded household. The ABS uses the Canadian National Occupancy Standard (CNOS), and applied this to the Census of Population and Housing data to classify people who are living in overcrowded conditions based on the Census question: 'number of bedrooms' in the dwelling and the composition of the household.
  • The nature of overcrowding may contribute to inaccurate reporting of usual address information in the Census, particularly for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, newly arrived migrants and international students. Nevertheless, in the 2006 Census data there are relatively high proportions of these populations living in a dwelling that requires at least one extra bedroom.
  • ABS Census activities for 2011 aim to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and newly arrived people are enumerated in the Census. These activities may help to ensure that overcrowding is identified more completely than in previous Censuses.
  • The ABS will present estimates of overcrowding, along with estimates both for other marginally housed populations in the Census and for estimates of homelessness.


Overcrowded housing is a component of marginal housing that does not meet 'minimum expectations' of housing, however it is discussed in its own right for a number of reasons. Overcrowding can both prevent homelessness (i.e. all the people in the dwelling at least have a dwelling in which to live) and act as a catalyst into homelessness, particularly if overcrowded conditions lead to household breakdown or eviction due to lease violations (Birdsall-Jones, Corunna, Turner & Shaw 2010). It may also mask people who may in fact be homeless, including visitors to the dwelling, for whom a usual address elsewhere is reported.

Many submissions received in the Review highlighted the importance, particularly in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander households, of working to improve identification of those people living in overcrowded households who were homeless. Some submissions argued that all people living in overcrowded households should be considered as homeless. In estimates of homelessness in Counting the Homeless, 2006 (ABS cat. no. 2050.0), those living in overcrowded dwellings whose characteristics fell outside the ordinary rules for homelessness measurement were not considered to be in the homeless population. However some of those populations that are identified as homeless will have been staying in overcrowded dwellings - boarding houses, staying with other households etc.

In considering whether overcrowding is homelessness, how it fits within the cultural definition of homelessness needs to be considered. While there is a clear argument that being in an overcrowded dwelling constitutes inadequate housing according to community standards, the cultural definition does not take account of the composition of the household (e.g. ratio of number of persons to number of bedrooms) in its minimum community standard. It is also important to note that what constitutes being overcrowded, as with 'homelessness' and 'inadequate housing', is dependent on a particular community standard at a given historical period.


Although there is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes an overcrowded household, the ABS utilises the Canadian National Occupancy Standard (CNOS) based on the Census question 'number of bedrooms' and the reported relationships between residents of the dwelling. The CNOS (see below) specifies who can reasonably be expected to share bedrooms, taking into account the age and sex of household members. It is sensitive to both household size and composition. For any persons who were not enumerated in the Census whilst in overcrowded dwellings, their homeless status can not be determined. However analysis using the CNOS can assess people who were in overcrowded dwelling, including reported for specific population groups such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, international students and new migrants. Each of these populations are discussed later in this Chapter.

The CNOS assesses the bedroom requirements of a household by specifying that:
  • there should be no more than two persons per bedroom
  • children less than 5 years of age of different sexes may reasonably share a bedroom
  • children less than 18 years of age and of the same sex may reasonably share a bedroom
  • single household members aged 18 years and over should have a separate bedroom, as should parents or couples
  • a lone person household may reasonably occupy a bed sitter.
The output is the number of extra bedrooms needed, no extra bedrooms needed or number of bedrooms spare.


The ABS will need to consider whether to adjust the definition of overcrowding when presenting it alongside homelessness. For example, the CNOS definition excludes visitors to the household, however for understanding overcrowding and homelessness on Census night, visitors may need to be considered. For example, visitors may be staying in the dwelling for some period of time, and especially so if the visitors are homeless. In addition, should overcrowding be identified as those dwellings that require one or more extra bedrooms, or only those which require two or more bedrooms? How should 'not stated' or 'not applicable' responses be treated in the calculation?

While these questions have not been fully considered, for the purpose of the analysis below, the CNOS definitions were used but extended to include visitors on Census night in the calculation. It is not surprising that there are higher levels of overcrowding for households when it includes people in them who do not usually live in the household because the dwelling is not designed to accommodate them on an ongoing basis.

The overcrowding estimates presented below may include dwellings that have been determined as being boarding houses under the homelessness rules, or have people who may have no usual address and were identified as being homeless and visiting other households. In addition, some of those in overcrowded dwellings may also be marginal residents of caravan parks.

Other issues include the lack of relationship information for visitors which is required for the CNOS definition to be applied in full. In the analysis below it is assumed that an adult visitor would need their own room. This may overstate overcrowding for adult visitors.

The figures noted below will need refinement before they are fit to be presented alongside homeless estimates.


As outlined in Discussion Paper: Methodological Review of Counting the Homeless, 2006 (ABS cat. no. 2050.0.55.001), at the time of the 2006 Census, about one in seven Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander households (14%) were living in dwellings that required at least one extra bedroom, compared with 3% of other households. In terms of the people living in those households, 27% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people lived in overcrowded conditions, compared with 6% of non-Indigenous people. If visitors were taken into account in the measure of overcrowding for Census night 2006, the proportion of people living in overcrowded conditions would increase from 27% to 31% for Indigenous people and from 6% to 7% for non-Indigenous people.

Using the modified CNOS, and including visitors, 57% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians who were visitors staying with other households (excluding visitor only households) on Census night were in dwellings where one or more extra bedrooms were needed. In contrast, for non-Indigenous people, 30% of visitors to households (excluding visitor only households) on Census night were in a dwelling that required at least one more bedroom.

Of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who reported being at home and had visitors staying with them on Census night, 65% required additional bedrooms. In contrast, for those Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians without any visitors, about a quarter required one or more bedrooms (27%). For non-Indigenous persons, the respective figures were 33% and 6%.

When taking overcrowding into consideration for identifying those who are homeless, there are challenges in attempting to identify which people in these dwellings are likely to be homeless. The complexity in differentiating visitors with a usual residence elsewhere from homeless people in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities is recognised as being problematic (Birdsall-Jones et al., 2010). There are many reasons a person may be visiting on Census night, and many of the persons visiting with a usual address elsewhere would not meet the definition of homelessness.


Overcrowding that is associated with housing mobility in search of better and more appropriate accommodation for new migrants and refugees may be largely hidden. VandenHeuvel and Wooden (1999) found that nearly nine out of ten immigrants lived in shared accommodation with either relatives or friends when they first arrived in Australia, before moving into other forms of accommodation.

For the following analysis, new migrants are defined to be people who reported arriving in Australia in 2006 (excluding overseas visitors). Most new migrants (95%) were usual residents who reported being 'at home' on Census night.

However, over a quarter (26%) of new migrants (including visitors) were in a dwelling which required at least one more bedroom (26,053 people) in 2006. This compares to only 8% for the total population (excluding overseas visitors).

It is not possible for the ABS to determine whether there was an undercount of new migrants in households, and therefore whether overcrowding is actually higher for this group than as identified in the Census. Cultural complexities that challenge the ability to enumerate culturally and linguistically diverse communities, including fear of government authorities, will contribute to potential underestimates of overcrowding for this sub-population. However, the Census clearly shows that new migrants were much more likely than the total population to be in dwellings where at least one more extra bedroom was required.


International students, defined for this analysis to be full-time students, who were not born in Australia and were aged between 17 and 25 years. This analysis will include students who may have lived in Australia for a number of years and may be permanent residents, or are living with their family.

When visitors are taken into account, international students were identified as having high levels of overcrowding (27% of people) in 2006, in line with 'New migrants'. There were 49,149 students in overcrowded conditions (including visitors) in 2006.

For full-time students who were born in Australia and aged between 17 and 25 years, a smaller proportion were in dwellings requiring extra bedrooms (11%), slightly higher than for the total population (8%).


The ABS Census activities for 2011 aim to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and newly arrived people are enumerated in the Census. These activities may help to ensure that overcrowding is better identified.

The ABS will present overcrowding, along with other marginally housed populations in the Census and estimates of homelessness.

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