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Student accommodation houses over 100,000 people but isn't included in dwelling counts
Counting dwellings is harder than you think
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One of the fun games in housing debates is counting dwellings and people and then inferring your existing conclusions from whatever numbers you find.
This game is problematic at the best of times.
For those playing this game, let me add some new information.
A major component of Australia’s population growth is the international student cohort. There were 480,000 of them in 2019, pre-COVID, and in 2023 there are more than 400,000 and rising. That’s about 1.5% of the total Australian population. In some suburbs of Australia’s capital cities, international students can be easily more than 10% of the population.
In terms of the share of enrolments at universities, Australia has an enormous number of international students compared to the United States and the United Kingdom, as the below image shows. Even in Canada, these students are only about 14% of enrolments.
The property market has responded to this population and their unique needs with Purpose Built Student Accommodation (PBSA), where beds are rented in custom buildings with common kitchens, bathrooms, and lounge facilities.
Research by property consultants suggests in addition to the roughly 50,000 on-campus student housing beds, there are about 110,000 to 120,000 privately owned PBSA beds nationally (note that the growth rate of PBSA beds seems to have peaked).
Notably, these student accommodations are not included in any estimates of the dwelling stock in Australia. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) clarified for me by email the following way that these beds are treated when counting dwellings.
For Census purposes, student accommodations are classified as non-private dwellings; they are captured in categories 05 Boarding School, and 06 Residential college, hall of residence in the Type of non-private dwelling variable (NPDD). Data on the number of Bedrooms within a household is only counted for private dwellings, therefore the number of bedrooms in student accommodations is not counted in Census.
The trick here, however, is that the international students who reside in these PBSA beds are mostly counted in population statistics, as long as they reside in Australia for more than 12 months total over a 16-month period.
The students are counted in the estimates of the population of people, but their accommodation is not counted in the estimated population of dwellings.
In the suburbs where these PBSA buildings are common, this means that a growing wedge between dwelling counts and population counts does not necessarily reflect a shortage of dwellings, or that more people are being squeezed into each home.
Some of the difference will be because of this classification quirk, as a quarter of international students are housed in PBSA and not in private dwellings.
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