Not students, that’s for sure
“So, the University is your landlord,” began a conversation that I once had after moving into O’Rorke hall. It may be true that somehow, through assistant vice chancellors and assistant assistant chancellors that UoA employs, the University runs each of its 12 halls of residence like any old landlord: it provides the space and you pay the rent. The reality is more complex. Student accommodation is exempt under section 5B of the Residential Tenancies Act, and your rights and remedies differ vastly from private flats.
Because in a private residence, if a tenant has a problem with the landlord, notice can be given, and if they’re not happy with the resolution, it can be escalated to the tenancy tribunal. In a University Hall, you start by reporting it to the RA. They’ll escalate to the RM, who’ll pass it to a different RM, and then the HO, and then you can fill out an online form to report it further.
It’s a streamlined process that looks nice on a flowchart for appraisers but moulds into a headache while navigating. A student, spoke to me about how after various individuals were involved, including those removed from their own hall, it came down to their word against someone else’s. And the resident manager was left to play judge, jury, and executioner. This kind of system leaves much room for individual biases.
Unlike the tenancy tribunal, you can not ask for financial compensation. If you were not provided with a fridge in your flat, but it was in the contract, and were forced to adjust, there is no reimbursement (as one group that I have spoken to may attest to) and merely a wait. The hostel reserves the right to levy fines, however, on its tenants. And of course, one has to overcome the general distrust of Students that seems to pervade when something is damaged or missing.
And sometimes that may take days. Maintenance has to be contacted, has to confirm there is an issue, order parts, and then remedy the situation. The Code of Conduct states that it must be done in a “reasonable timeframe” but there is no measure of that. And again, unlike private flats, there’s no compensation for delays.
If you’re renting a house, there’s a requirement that landlords do not interfere with your space too often. As a tenant you are provided the ability to deny entry if it is undue. You may have guessed the theme of this article, the University does not have that restriction. Anyone authorised, from the residential manager to a contractor, can enter your apartment at any time without warning.
Beyond all of that, the University gives itself extra powers in relation to confiscating items like drugs and alcohol, preventing extra furniture from being added, charging 8 weeks extra rent for withdrawing early, or prohibiting access to your space due to illness. A myriad of extra powers that would never stand in a private contract. So why do they?
The University claims that the drug and alcohol policies are to “ensure a safe environment for all residents” and control noise levels. UniversitiesNZ adds that the withdrawal fee is present to give providers more stability when determining budgets. No evidence could be found of an exclusion on health grounds, and no enforcement of the prohibition on extra furniture seems to be in place. But the issue really is: UoA holds the power. The balance is tipped so far to their side that students lose out.
The various halls each give their own benefits for this loss: complicated catered meal plans, access to the rec centre, utilities included, and much more. One comprehensive bill, a short walk to campus, and most people are sold. With the first hall opening in 1949, it is a system that has functioned for over 80 years. There have been issues, disputes during Covid Isolation for reimbursement, a perpetrator of sexual assault given no penalty, but nothing it seems will move the University.
Currently the University provides 4,400 beds, and plan to reach 7,500 by 2026. Plans for the future include a demolition of Whittaker hall for a new building,a possible new wing at 44 Symonds St, and opportunities for turning 47 Symonds St into a new hall. This is all part of the University’s 10 Year plan to 2030, but much is unconfirmed. What is certain is that many people will be affected by the University’s policies: possibly up to 15% of the student body. It’s a large amount of sway to hold over the lives of so many people, many of whom pay above market rates for the convenience and services.
Various inquiries, both inside and outside the University sector have been commissioned over the last few years, but little has been done to reduce this power imbalance. Parliament’s inquiry in 2021 suggested giving the tenancy tribunal new powers that would give better protections to students. The process required to implement them was lengthy and new frameworks had to be drawn up, which is never a good buzzword for voters. Equally, parliament was much more focused on the pandemic at the time.
An election year might be the right moment for the parties to consider throwing their support behind reform, even if University Students are often neglected come budget and campaigning time. There’s no reason to suggest any political forces will attempt change, with the focus recently being heavily on primary education’s curriculum, appealing not so much to students but parents. Neither is there much sign that change will come from within, with University bodies appearing happy with the processes they’ve developed and certainly seeking to avoid outcomes that increase costs in the current climate.
And while residents are supposed to possess power through the floor representative and hall president systems, as many can attest to, it’s not a real power. They organise and put on events, send information up the chain if they’re ever informed and bother to turn up to the correct meeting, and otherwise just go about their day. But they have no formal training, no payment, and no real incentive to effect long term changes.
AUSA provides free advocacy and advice for tenancy issues and encourages those who feel mistreated by University policy or practice to contact them on their website. They have the ability to negotiate on your behalf with greater resources if given consent. And the complaints process, while long and tiring, does produce results for simple things and maintenance issues, so you should not shy away from it.
All in all, when considering student accommodation, it is important to be aware of the avenues that are not available when you choose to include all the extra amenities. Many will choose the convenience and assume they’ll never need to deal with the system. It’s a risk you take until the University makes changes.
On the upside, no black mold though.