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March 12, 2007 | by  | in Features |
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Homeward Bounds

Wellington’s Flatting Crisis

Walking along Wai-te-Ata Road, I was bemused to see a group of about thirty people loitering nervously outside an unopened front door. I didn’t know what on earth they were doing until I noticed that several were holding newspapers, while others held maps.

Second year film and philosophy student Brent was likely one of those students. Having come down to look for a flat about a month ago, he has visited over thirty properties. Unable to distinguish himself from the throng, Brent is still homeless. In fact, Brent is worse than homeless. For the last two weeks, and the foreseeable future, he has been occupying the office of a family friend in Tawa. “It’s got a bed and stuff,” he says, but the buzz of the computers keeps him awake at night. It’s lonely, it’s eerie, and, hell, it’s Tawa.

Most students who live in Tawa choose to do so for the home-cooked meals and magical laundry fairy that comes standard with their accommodation. For Brent, it is more about the dollars. Reliant on a weekly $150 from StudyLink as his main source of income, Brent’s Wellington city options are limited, and this year, anecdotal evidence suggests they are more limited than normal.

Pamela Wilson works for HomeAds, a rental broker whose mission she describes as to “help people find homes.” She admits her firm has not been “as successful” in finding flats for students this year, and gives one simple reason: “there are not enough properties.” This means students are being forced to drastically change their expectations about where they can live and how much it will cost them. HomeAds estimates the standard rent a student looking for a flat within twenty minutes of University can expect to pay is $150-$160 per room. Unable to justify this kind of expense, many students have been forced to look further a field. Students looking to pay around $120 a week are going “not as far as Naenae,” says Wilson, but several groups of students have been placed in Island Bay or Miramar.

The influx of students has always meant competition for spaces in flats as the university year begins, but this year it seems the invisible hand is giving students the finger. The undersupply of housing not only means landlords are comfortable inflating their prices, but that whatever prices are charged, there will always be some students left out in the Tawa cold. The best advice of HomeAds is to wait it out, and find some temporary accommodation to weather the storm. Price and availability is expected to return to normal levels by the end of April. Beware however; landlords will still likely expect a year-long lease.

It is hard to know how the flat shortage will affect the university ecosystem. It is quite possible that the student community will begin to lose its sense of connection, as students venture further afield to suburbs previously only visited for babysitting jobs. Because the cost of rent is rising, the imperative to work is becoming stronger, making the $150 per week provided on a student loan as ‘living costs’ more and more laughable. A student trying to top up the StudyLink contribution might get twelve weeks of summer holiday work, perhaps hospitality at $12/hour. While still having to pay their $150 rent over summer, and live on more than two-minute noodles, they will find themselves left with just $69/week cash in hand for each week in term time.

It’s not much better if you are receiving a student allowance. Each allowance recipient also receives an ‘Accommodation Supplement’,varied according regional differences in rent prices. A Wellington student receives $40/week, the same as a student in Auckland. That says something in itself, but of more note is the fact that, despite the notable increases in rent that Wellington students are experiencing, there has been no corresponding increase in the accommodation supplement. The StudyLink website notes that “rates are reviewed on 1 January each year” but at the time of print there was no information to suggest that the 2007 process would result in any increase to the supplement.

Victoria itself is well aware of the accommodation shortage. “It appears,” comments Accommodation Service Manager Nick Merrett, “that there have been fewer places available in the private market.” The implication is that Victoria hopes to cover the acknowledged shortfall with hostel accommodation. Witness the proposed new four hundred bed hostel to open at the beginning of 2009. It may allow the University to get more FCOM110 and POLS111 bums on lecture seats, but when asked whether the ‘hostelisation’ of students is likely make older students more inclined to flat, Merrett is unsure. “We would hope that we can provide hostel places for all those who want to live in hostels,” she says but recognises there is still something appealing about having your own flat. However, high density accommodation may be the only viable way to house students given the central city campus locations, which Merrett recognises as a challenge as well as a “great benefit” to students.

While the university strategy for high density development may sound like something out of SimCity, in the meantime the preference for flatting remains strong, and is costing students. Starting her third year of architecture, and having already done the hostel thing, Lisa signed a lease mid-January. It was the security of knowing she had something sorted, rather than the charms of the faded eighties décor that convinced her to take her current room at $160/week. Lisa is, of course, relatively lucky. She has a flat. There are plenty still looking. Robbie’s flat has a room to let, starting at the beginning of April. A commerce student surrounded by law, music and italian, he is the only one happy to advertise it as a double, when the room itself would probably better fit two M&Ms. Regardless of its $130 price tag, there is still a strong interest. With over twenty five responses to every advertisement Robbie places, the question for those still looking is – how do you differentiate yourself from the other twenty four?

Ben thinks he’s got the answer, and so he should. Coming down to Wellington at the same time as Brent, he beat forty-four other applicants to nab a reasonably sized place on Glenmore St. Having looked for a flat for four in 2006, Ben, a third-year student in arts and law, struggled to find the right place for his group last year, but said it was a lot easier when just looking for himself. “Still,” he says “you can’t afford to be too specific.” Falling just short of filming an infomercial or ringing snacks, Ben says you have to take the flatmate selection process seriously: “I treated it like an interview and was honest, and that paid dividends.”

There is a lot to the story of student accommodation and in the coming months there will be much higher-level consideration of it, given the recently announced plans for new hostels. It is important to remember the implications of the current shortage and how this affects real students. For Ben, it means being chosen over forty others. For Robbie, it means extra cash in the pocket. For Lisa, it reflects the need to get a higher paying summer job. And for Brent it means another night in Tawa.

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