A recent survey by Flatfish, a website specialising in renter rights, found that 79% of renters have lived in “crappy flats.” Housing continues to be a prominent issue for students, with many forced to live in mouldy, substandard flats with rents above what student allowance or living costs is able to cover.
Lucy McMaster (a Victoria University design graduate) and Emma Ross (an education student) told Salient about the flat they lived in last year. Both paid up to $180 per week each.
“My third year flat was particularly memorable with rat infestations that were apparently our responsibility to sort. Holes in the wall directly leading to the outside world were a chilling feature in our non-insulated flat. We did have a heat pump which provided heat in the kitchen/living room area, but even when we had that going full blast there was a serious problem with condensation and ventilation of our place during winter. Three out of the five rooms had a serious amount of mould.”
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Lucy went on to say how she was forced to work 15-20 hours per week on top of her studies in order to cover her cost of living. “I found it financially difficult to get by as a middle class New Zealander with a strong financial network, so therefore for people with no financial backing university could be, I imagine, on the brink of impossible sometimes. This shouldn’t be what tertiary education should be like.”
However, Emma’s situation was worse, while on education placement she was forced to take on work shifts on top of her 45 hours a week at schools. “Because my student allowance would not cover my basic living expenses for those six weeks [while on placement] I was working between 50-55 hours a week as well as doing lesson plans and organising for school in the afternoons and weekends at home,” Emma said.
These are just two examples of a varied and concerning increase in poor living standards for students. Lucy and Emma are not alone in their issues, and several political groups have identified substandard and overpriced rental properties as a serious issue.
Labour has stressed the need for affordable healthy homes for students. March saw Labour traveling around the country hearing stories and promoting ways to improve housing for all New Zealanders.
Wellington’s Housing Forum was held on March 7 with 75 people in attending. Grant Robertson, Wellington Central MP, relayed one of the key stories from the night, that of an Otago Medical School of Wellington student.
“He had moved here last year and he and four friends taken out rent on a five bedroom place for around $800 per week. The flat was beset with problems—leaks, draughts, and structural issues. They fought with the landlord who said these were all new problems and little was fixed before they moved out. As he said, his suspicion was that the problems were long-standing and that the landlord relied on having students only in there for a year and never fixed them up.”
There is currently a positive change on the horizon with amendments to the Residential Tenancies Act in the process of passing through Parliament. The new Residential Tenancies Amendment Bill includes provisions such as the requirement for smoke alarms in all residential rental properties from July 1, 2016; plus new requirements for ceiling and underfloor insulation in residential rental properties by July 1, 2019. The Bill will be introduced to Parliament by October and is currently being discussed in select committee.
However, Labour and local start up website Flatfish view the potential law change as just the start. Grant Robertson told Salient about the proposal Labour has suggested for warmer and more affordable housing for students. These include a rental warrant of fitness that includes requirements not only for ventilation and insulation, but also minimum heating and basic safety, a stronger regime to protect and enforce the rights of tenants, and more affordable housing to be built.
“We also want to have a focus on growing and improving state housing, supporting the WCC to maintain and upgrade their accommodation and providing adequate emergency housing so that we can end homelessness,” Robertson said.
Labour also wants to look into student allowance and living costs in relation to cost of housing. “We want to re-examine the adequacy of accommodation and living support for students, especially with a recognition of the costs in places like Auckland and Wellington.”
At a local grassroots level there has been movement on this issue. Flatfish is a website (about to be launched) that describes itself as a “start-up that helps students find quality flats… building a web platform that lets users search for available properties and filter them by the quality of the property and the landlord.”
Tim from Flatfish told Salient about the organisation’s goals to educate and elevate tenants’ rights, and develop communication between landlords and potential tenants. Flatfish aims to educate tenants about their rights and the warning signs of unhealthy properties which make it difficult to call out careless landlords.
“One of the biggest issues is that many flatters don’t know what they should look for when viewing flats. Water damage, black mould, lack of insulation—these are not obvious issues to someone who doesn’t know what to look for, and so landlords are able to get away with substandard care.”
Their website aims to be a hub, with information from past renters about properties that are advertised on the site. “Naturally, landlords, and sales agents are going to up talk their property, focus on its merits instead of its downfalls. This is why we ask current flatters, rather than the landlords, questions surrounding quality. Who better to get an honest perspective from than someone who has just lived where you are about to live?”
Flatfish aims to “use market forces to raise the bar on what is deemed an acceptable place to rent. By bringing to light the reality of pre-existing flats, and educating flatters on what suitable and healthy living standards are, we aim to elevate the overall quality of flats and landlords for New Zealanders in the long term.”
Like Labour, Flatfish see the solutions to the current housing crisis as multi-faceted. The crisis is linked to supply and demand issues as well as the lack of accountability of landlords by the government.
“Every year the number of tertiary students increases, but rental property numbers stay pretty much the same. Many landlords rent exclusively to professionals or families, intensifying the problem by reducing the number of available properties for students. Of the remaining students who can’t find a flat, many become desperate because of the lack of options available and end up moving into whatever property they can get their hands on, regardless of it’s quality. This in turn, allows the existence of grotty flats to continue, if not grow,” Tim stated.
Flatfish wants to see a rental warrant of fitness and stronger legislation surrounding rental properties is needed in order to improve the state of housing for students.
“The National government has decided not to embrace any real solution to the housing crisis, and while the Wellington council is trialling a warrant of fitness solution, it will be many years until we see any real improvement. The local and national legislation surrounding rental property quality is not adequate. The government considered rolling out a nationwide property warrant of fitness, which would have required all properties to be inspected, and potentially fine landlords that couldn’t get their properties up to standard. Although it was decided that it was too expensive and dubbed an extreme measure.”