Growing support for student accommodation inquiry after rent paid for empty rooms

The Greens say there's growing support in Parliament for an independent inquiry into student accommodation. It comes after months of issues with students paying rent for empty rooms during lockdown, and communications bungles.

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Many students haven’t been in their rooms during the Covid-19 lockdown. Source: 1 NEWS

This week AUT sent an email to students threatening to cut them off from student services if they didn't pay rent debt accrued during lockdown.

One AUT student told 1 NEWS she moved home at the start of lockdown as she knew she had 48 hours to decide where she would live, and made the call in lieu of information from AUT. 

That statement is backed up by an AUT resident advisor, who told 1 NEWS the university provided RAs with "no information whatsoever" about whether students could stay or go in the 48 hours prior to lockdown.

"There was no information passed to us about social distancing or hygiene or anything, we were just told to do a headcount of who was staying and who was leaving."

The student who left her accommodation says her parents' jobs were affected by the lockdown, so she had to pay $200 a week in board at home. 

That left her unable to pay the $550 a fortnight she usually pays for her room at AUT's Wellesley Student Apartments.

"I couldn't work because I usually do babysitting throughout the week, I wasn't receiving any income from that, I thought I wouldn't have to pay both rents considering I wasn't living at my [student] flat."

She says she emailed the university asking if she could pay back her rent in $100 installments, but was shocked to receive a response this week saying she had three days to pay $1780, or risk losing access to student services.

The email said if she didn't pay up, her access to things like her student account, email and library services would be suspended.

It also said she would be excluded from receiving her grades and from graduating.

"I was so shocked, I didn't think they'd bring my learning side of things into it considering I've already paid to learn and to study at AUT. I didn't think the living side of things would have anything to do with that."

Panicking, she says she sought financial help from family in order to pay off the $1780 immediately. 

Before she did that she went back to her university room to grab belongings, but her access card no longer worked.

AUT initially told 1 NEWS it knew nothing about the email, which it said was sent by property manager Campus Living Villages.

Campus Living Villages denied that, saying it doesn't have the authority to send such an email to students, and any emails the company does send to students is "under instruction from the university".

AUT then said a staff member did send the email, that it was a mistake and that it would be apologising to 24 students affected.

It said students would not be required to pay up or risk losing their educational access and services.

1 NEWS reported earlier this month that AUT had stopped paying rent for the Wellesley Student Apartments (WSA) which it said was part of "rent negotiations".

The university now says it's agreed on a rent rebate with the building property manager, which it says will be passed on to students, and details are being worked out.

Each of the 105 apartments at WSA is owned by an individual "mum and dad" investor.

University accommodation is managed differently across all eight of New Zealand's universities, with a mix of different owner and operator models.

Green Party tertiary education spokesperson Chlöe Swarbrick says the party has begun the process for a Select Committee inquiry into student accommodation.

"There's consensus at least across the Government benches that we need to move forward with a full blown inquiry into what is actually happening in student accommodation, where there needs to be greater regulation and where we can improve the next iteration of the pastoral care code of conduct."

Ms Swarbrick says the commercial model of some university student accommodation means there's little accountability for the wellbeing of students.

"That has kind of destabilised the education sector and has meant that students are treated as commodities as opposed to students seeking an education, there's been a perverse focus on extracting as much profit as possible from those students," she says.

"There is consistent passing of blame and ultimately the buck ends up stopping with students, who are footed with an exorbitant bill."

Universities NZ, which represents New Zealand's universities, says it would welcome an inquiry into student accommodation.

"Each university is autonomous and each has developed separate contracts with students and accommodation providers that often use the same terminology in slightly different ways," CEO Chris Whelan says.

"We appreciate that this can look complex and can seem impenetrable in places from the outside. We are not at all concerned if this is something the Select Committee would like to look at.

"We can't do much to reduce the complexity of ownership and contractual arrangements around student accommodation, but we can certainly show the committee what we are doing to ensure that accommodation is safe and healthy for all students."

University of Auckland asks students if they will move out

In another development today, University of Auckland students living at the Unilodge Whitaker accommodation building were sent an email asking if they would move out to make room for international students.

The email says universities have been planning for the return of international students to New Zealand, and one option to accommodate them would be to move current students into different accommodation.

"Like you these students have been studying remotely, but with additional restrictions to some of the learning tools and spaces you have available through your access to the university," the email said.

The email says it's a draft plan, which will need to be discussed with students.

"We hope that you would be willing to move and we would provide you with alternative university accommodation, help with moving costs, and do whatever else we could to minimise the impact on you. We certainly do not wish to make things easier for one group of students by making things more difficult for another."

Two students told 1 NEWS they were incensed over the "condescending" email.

"We've been paying full rent during the lockdown and we don't want to move out, why should we?" they said.

The pair, who didn't want to be named, but are also international students, said it felt like the university was "sacrificing" one group of students in order to bring in more money from another.

"It's like 'if you're a nice little student you'll shut up and do what we want'," they said.

"The reason we're here is because the rooms and the location is better than most of the other accommodation, why can't the new students be moved somewhere else?"

International students usually pay four to five times the domestic tuition fee, and don't have access to government support.

The University of Auckland told 1 NEWS the draft plan which was prepared for Auckland Council is still being worked on.

"Obviously this is in early stages and theoretical until a decision is made about when international students are able to return," the university says.

"This will also be dependent on the provision of student visas, which can take months to process."