Last week, the roof of our flat literally caved in. Ok, that’s dramatic. A portion of our roof caved in. No, wait—that doesn’t make it any better.
As we’re all aware, Auckland tends to be a wet place in winter. Over the last downpour, the pipes on our roof failed and we discovered two leaks—one in the bathroom, and one in my flatmate’s bedroom. The property manager dutifully came to look at the damage, put another pipe on the roof (I think, I didn’t actually see), and that was that.
A couple hours later the roof fell in. My flatmate’s room was littered in debris and soaked in excess water. The water had evidently collected in the roof and compromised its integrity. I laughed when I found it. Not because it was funny—he’s still out of a room, and our bathroom ceiling isn’t looking too hot either—I laughed because the whole situation was absurd.
In the immortal words of Jason Derulo, “when the roof caved in… I just didn’t know what to do.”
In my three years of flatting in Dunedin, where the houses are notoriously shitty, I’d never seen anything this bad. I’d dealt with cosmetic mould and some dampness, but nothing like a roof caving in. Last year, in Auckland, some friends of mine had to live without a back door for six weeks. I’m sure I don’t need to list the many ways in which that’s a major problem. In Dunedin, the worst I’d heard was my friend finding a whole mushroom in their bathroom, and discovering a big rat, which they named Percy. Or maybe my friend’s balcony half-collapsing; but in fairness, they’d had too many people out there.
Obviously, this isn’t shittiest-housing-conditions-wins-a-prize, but in Dunedin, although houses are damp, cold, dark and mouldy, students have a much larger presence and voice in the rental market. It’s no secret that houses there are bad, especially for students—in fact, it’s a national cultural joke.
The Wellington market is under fire too, with fast rising rents and high demand locking some students out of the market altogether.
That’s not to say that Aucklanders have it worse, or that these aren’t real problems—it’s to point out that no one is criticising or scrutinizing the Auckland market in the same way, especially not for students. And judging by your feedback on the Auckland market, this is a real issue.
Craccum conducted a survey about the Auckland housing market through a student lens. With 57 respondents (59 total; two were removed as they wrote in about university accommodation), the survey produced some interesting results.
Firstly, students who rent are likely to live closer to the CBD, with approximately half the respondents living in Grey Lynn, Central City, Epsom, and Mt Eden / Newmarket area. A whopping 91.5% of respondents experienced issues while flatting. Of those who experienced an issue while flatting, 48% reported that nothing was done, even after a complaint. Over half reported their issues occurring in houses. About a third reported issues in apartments, with the remainder reporting issues in units and townhouses.
In order, the most common issues were: dampness (65%); mould (60%); structural (walls, windows, construction) (50%); leaks (50%); chattels (44%); insulation (41%); landlord harassment (13%); and three people reported bug or rodent infestations.
Obviously this data isn’t perfect, and I’m not a statistician. A voluntary survey posted on social media is more likely to attract students that have beef with the market. Then again, 8.5% of people who took the survey reported no problems in their flats. Also, a high proportion of my friends helped me with this survey, so there’s probably less losers than in the general population. Sorry, I don’t make the rules. However, the survey does give us a ballpark to measure against national stats.
When comparing this survey to the report released by StatsNZ on housing in 2020 (available on the stats.govt.nz website), it becomes clear that students are occupying the lower end of the housing market in Auckland.
StatsNZ reports that “Around 1 in 4 occupied private dwellings in [the] Auckland region were damp, and over 1 in 5 were affected by mould.” That’s a 25% and 20% chance of living in a damp or mouldy home, respectively, in case you didn’t pay attention during math. But 65% of Craccum’s respondents reported living in at least one home that was damp, and 60% in a home that was mouldy. Translation: students are more likely to live in damp and mouldy homes.
That’s not a surprise. According to StatsNZ, low income and renting households were more likely to live in bad conditions. Households that rent were also more likely to need repairs. Auckland is the third dampest region in the country. As I’m sure we’ve heard before, poor living conditions have been linked to bad respiratory health. In fact, I’m typing this while my flatmate hacks her lungs out in her room. (Hope you’re ok boo!).
Crowding is also concentrated in Auckland. In New Zealand, “A home is considered to be ‘crowded’ if the people living there need one additional bedroom, and ‘severely crowded’ if they need at least two more bedrooms.” I had neglected to ask this on the survey, but the gears in my head turned as I thought back to the article I did on the cheapest rooms in Auckland. I had viewed a tiny two room apartment that had five people in it. Research shows crowding occurs to deal with increases in market price. I thought back to all the “rooms” I saw, which were really just partitioned living spaces. I smelt a hunch. It’s true that the highest rates of crowding occur in the Pasifika community, but I’m willing to bet that a significant portion of the 1 in 9 New Zealanders living in a crowded house are students.
In general, statistics for the Auckland market were shocking. Only 17% of homes are heated by heat pumps. We have the highest rate of houses with no heating at all. We’re more likely to report always feeling cold in our houses, compared to the rest of the country. So take that, people-who-make-fun-of-Jaffas-because-we’re-always-cold-even-though-it’s-warm-here; it was our housing crisis all along.
Wow, that’s pretty sad, actually.
But something else stuck out to me. Only one person reported taking their issue to the tribunal. Of course, the tribunal is set up against residents, as we’ve all heard. Of course, landlords put your name out, as we’ve all heard. “Landlords with too much power” or something to that effect was mentioned several times when I asked for overall thoughts on the market. It’s easy to feel powerless, and legislation changes are needed to change this dynamic.
UoA students Salene Schloffel-Armstrong and Ruby Colwell think so too. They both work with Renters United, having joined in the pandemic context last year. As a PhD candidate in Urban Geography, Salene is “interested in politics and power in urban space,” and began working in renters advocacy after seeing how COVID-19 exacerbated existing inequalities in Aotearoa. Similarly, Ruby Colwell wants to see a future where housing is treated like a right after experiencing (and seeing their friends experience) Auckland’s current housing market.
Ruby agrees that the current system gives landlords too much power. They say it’s “important that renters realise their experiences and situations don’t exist in isolation but are a direct result of this fact.”
Both Salene and Ruby believe that current legislation doesn’t adequately protect renters, as it ignores the reality of power imbalances. They stated “students in particular are likely to be exploited in this system, as they have pressures on their time, amount of money available to pay rent, and the proximity to a campus they have to live within.”
So no one is surprised–or even unaware–that students get a shit deal in the housing market. The best way to work around that is to be informed of renter’s rights. Although Salene and Ruby stress that this is “unnecessary labour in an unjust system,” they also believe that there is “building momentum” around renting in New Zealand. As students, we also have (relatively) more social and cultural capital compared to other demographics, not to mention the resources and networks we accrue from attending a tertiary institution. That means students are on the front-line for renter’s rights. Not just for us, but for the wider community, too.
It’s easy to forget the power we do hold, and the power we do have as students. But we are surrounded by resources. One of these is Salene’s fortnightly Monday Breakfast Show on 95bFM. It’s a Q & A format, and a great place to start for “strange little queries or concerns.” Other resources include the Aratohu Tenancy Advocacy, Community Law and Tenancy Services websites. Specific inquiries can be directed to the Tenant’s Protection Association Auckland.
If you have any shit flatting yarns to share, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org.