(Image: Archi Banal).
(Image: Archi Banal).

SocietyApril 19, 2022

Student housing isn’t as bad as you think – it’s worse

(Image: Archi Banal).
(Image: Archi Banal).

It’s well known that New Zealand has substandard housing stock, but new research from the University of Otago shows that tertiary students are receiving the worst of the worst. 

“The house was so cold, my fingers couldn’t type.” 

Megan Goodrich was a student at the University of Canterbury, and she’s describing her experiences renting in Christchurch. The flat in question had “mould in almost every room”, and the extraction fan was broken. The carpet in Goodrich’s room was lifting off the floor, and a plant grew through the cracks. She says the conditions affected her ability to work and study, as well as her mental health. 

Goodrich had moved into the flat because she was “desperate” for a place to live – the academic year had started, and she needed a place that was affordable and close to campus. Her experience with student housing isn’t uncommon. Anecdotally, it’s well known that student housing is cold, damp and mouldy. Now, a study from the University of Otago’s Pōneke campus has provided empirical evidence that student living conditions across the motu are, in fact, the pits.  

The plant that grew out of the cracks in Goodrich’s Christchurch flat. (Image: Supplied).

The survey was completed by 522 students nationally, and it found that tertiary students were more than twice as likely as the general population to be living in damp and mouldy homes. According to a survey conducted by StatsNZ in 2020, around 16.7% of houses in New Zealand had mould larger than A4 size, and 20% of homes were damp. Among tertiary students, those figures more than doubled – 34.9% of students had mould in their home larger than an A4 size, and around half lived in a damp home. Additionally, while 20% of the general population reported living in homes that were too cold in winter, 65.3% of students reported always feeling cold in their homes during the winter months. Māori students and students with long-term disabilities or health problems were particularly vulnerable, and were even more likely to live in damp, cold and/or mouldy houses than the general cohort of tertiary students.  

These results indicate that the majority of respondents lived in homes that weren’t up to recommended standards, which may exacerbate energy poverty. Energy poverty occurs when households are unable to power their homes to sufficient standards, such as the World Health Organisation-recommended minimum indoor temperature of 18°C. Energy poverty is influenced by the energy efficiency of housing stock, which in New Zealand tends to be piss poor, to use the technical term. Around a quarter of New Zealanders are estimated to live in energy poverty, which has been linked to poor housing regulation and a historic lack of incentives on landlords to improve their rental properties. The survey found tertiary students were at increased risk of experiencing energy poverty, with 74.1% of students reporting forgoing heating due to concerns over energy bills. One student reported avoiding food and other necessities to ensure they could afford power; their statement was reflected in the finding that tertiary students had their power disconnected due to late payments at six times the national rate. 

Poor housing and energy poverty has been linked to poor health outcomes, with cold, damp and mould being linked to respiratory illness. Unsurprisingly, the survey found tertiary students had poorer subjective health than the adult population, with a quarter of tertiary students in the survey self-reporting “fair” or “poor” health in comparison to 10% of the adult population. The study also found significant impacts in the mental health of tertiary students in substandard housing. 

If you’re a student, or know students, these stats won’t come as any surprise. Just last year, in my final year of university, the roof of my flat caved in during an Auckland downpour. In Dunedin, every flat I lived in was at least a little damp, and some were mouldy. But I had a comparatively positive experience. 

Cara Allen, a recently graduated architecture student, describes her first Auckland flat as a “classic, early 2000s, monoclad, the-timber-wasn’t-treated, leaky home”. 

“Every time it would rain, all of my belongings would get wet. My shoes would get mouldy. They would get wet, and there was no way for me to dry them. There was no heating – there was supposed to be a gas fire, but it never eventuated. There was mould on everything and the dehumidifier did nothing.” 

Allen developed a lung infection from her stint in the Mount Eden property, which she describes as “devastating”. Says Allen: “I would pass out just from walking, the pain was so bad… when I breathed in, it would feel like stabbing where my lungs were at the back.” Although Allen’s since recovered, she says the ordeal has taken its toll on her body as well as her studies. “I don’t know what happened to my immune system, but I just developed allergies to everything,” she says – including the cold. “My entire body comes out in hives.”

Respiratory ailments are common testimonies among tertiary student renters. Sherry Zhang suspects she developed bronchitis from her damp flat in the Auckland suburb of Sandringham. Like Goodrich, Zhang says the cold made it hard for her to concentrate, and it was difficult for her to recover from bronchitis when she had to constantly be in the environment that triggered it. 

Inside Zhang’s potentially bronchitis-inducing flat. (Image: Supplied).

Although poor rental housing was once treated as a “rite of passage” for tertiary students, it’s becoming clear that substandard housing can have permanent health repercussions, even for those who manage to eventually leave the rental market. And as Allen points out, increasing proportions of the population aren’t achieving home ownership. In the 2013 census, just under half the New Zealand population were renters, and that’s likely to have increased due to rising living costs

The stats look bad for renters in general, notes Allen, but her suspicion is that students often end up “at the bottom of the metaphorical heap” in the housing market. Following her stint in the damp Mount Eden home, Allen says she often chose cold flats that weren’t damp, as she’d rather deal with the cold than another respiratory infection. When asked why she couldn’t just rent a home that was up to scratch, she points out that “time, money, resources are at an all-time low” when you’re a student. In a competitive housing market like Auckland, landlords aren’t renting quality homes to students, if they have a quality home in the first place. According to StatsNZ’s 2020 report, rental properties are more likely to need maintenance and have damp, cold and mould issues compared to homes that are owner-occupied.

Allen voices the common refrain among all renters: “there’s a huge power imbalance” between landlords and renters. Until adequate housing becomes treated like a human right instead of an investment portfolio, renters, and especially student renters, may continue to damage their health and wellbeing in exchange for a roof overhead. The study from the University of Otago highlights the need for meaningful support for students. Following its release, the Green Party has launched an inquiry into student wellbeing in partnership with student unions across Aotearoa. 

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