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University of Auckland (Image: Getty, design The Spinoff)

SocietyApril 19, 2024

Auckland uni students threaten rent strike over rising accommodation fees

Towers of coins next to the university clocktower
University of Auckland (Image: Getty, design The Spinoff)

Residents of University of Auckland halls are being urged to withhold their accommodation fees from May 1, in a bid to force the university to take student concerns over rent hikes seriously.

The University of Auckland is facing a strike from students over the cost of on-campus accommodation. 

The Students for Fair Rent group will formally announce the strike at an event later today, encouraging students in university halls of residence not to pay weekly accommodation fees beginning May 1.

The group was launched in August last year after the university revealed it was planning an 8% rent hike in 2024. A petition with 1,500 student signatures was sent to the university, but Students for Fair Rent founder Matthew Lee told The Spinoff the tertiary institute didn’t engage in good faith. 

“It didn’t go well at all, it wasn’t constructive,” Lee said of the meeting, which he attended alongside Auckland Central MP Chlöe Swarbrick. “They [the university] started yelling at some of us which we thought was crazy. That signalled to us that the university is never going to acknowledge this as a real problem unless we take more drastic measures.”

Following publication, the University of Auckland approached The Spinoff to deny this claim.

Matthew Lee of Students for Fair Rent at their October rally outside the vice-chancellor's office.
Matthew Lee of Students for Fair Rent at a previous rally (Photo: The Spinoff)

International student Gauri, who didn’t want her last name used, isn’t in university accommodation currently, so can’t take part in the strike. But she told The Spinoff she was supporting the cause because rent costs had pushed her out of the halls of residence. “It was very helpful to come into the halls and have a community to support me. I would have loved to continue,” she told The Spinoff.

Gauri was in the O’Rorke Hall in 2020 and said the cost was around $380 a week, which included food. For her second year, she was hoping to move into the uncatered Carlaw accommodation, which was going to be $300. Instead, she opted to flat in central Auckland with several other students as this was $175 a week, including utilities. 

“I don’t think [the hall] was worth double the rent,” she said. “Make it like $250 [a week]… but most of the second year halls are more like $350.”

O’Rorke is one of five catered residences at the University of Auckland. Its current weekly rate is advertised as $470 – nearly $100 more than Gauri paid to stay there in 2020. A hall like O’Rorke typically provides students with a small single bedroom and shared bathroom, three canteen-style meals a day and access to student support through residential advisors (RAs), who themselves have complained about growing costs. The University of Auckland also has four self-catered residences, typically reserved for older students. Arguably the biggest advantage for students is the proximity of university-run accommodation to the campus itself.

Now studying for her masters in economics, Gauri said she currently lives alone. But, with her family in a different country, her preference would be to live at the university. “My friends are my support system,” she said. “I would love to be in the halls but it’s too expensive.”

According to Students for Fair Rent, many full-time students have been forced to take on part-time work, sometimes as much as 30 hours every week, just to pay for accommodation. Gauri said this was unreasonable. “It’s not fair to put that on the students when there could be a solution to this without putting the burden on students themselves.”

Photo: Getty Images

While students can access an accommodation support benefit as part of their loan, this amounts to only $60 per week. A student allowance is also available – about $315 a week for a single, under-24-year-old not living at home – though this is not available to everyone and is intended to cover all living expenses, and can decrease depending on parental income.

Lee said that the cost of staying in university accommodation should be more in line with the average rent in the city, which is $230 a week. His current accommodation at Carlaw Hall costs $350. “That difference is $120 and that’s just not acceptable at all. Anywhere nearer to that average rate is a lot more fair,” he said. According to Tenancy Services, that $230 figure is the market rate for a “boarding house”, while the average one-bedroom flat would be $413.

Students for Fair Rent doesn’t know how many students will actually participate in the strike when it starts next month, but Lee told The Spinoff his goal is to have around 1,000 withholding their accommodation fees from day one. He’s not worried about possible retaliation, but does believe the university will threaten to kick students who do not pay out. “The university is fully within their right to take action like eviction,” he said. “As for whether or not I think they’ll do it, personally, no.”

In a statement, a university spokesperson told The Spinoff that students sign a residential agreement when they move into university accommodation, which included details of the full cost for the academic year. “The section on unpaid fees in this agreement clearly outlines the steps the university can take if students default,” they said. These include restricting access to the university, withholding examination results, referring the debt to a debt collection agency, and taking legal action to recover the debt and associated costs.

In 2020, students at Wellington’s Victoria University launched a similar campaign after the institute told residents at halls to keep paying for their rooms despite the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown. A few weeks later, the university backtracked on the move. That same year, a series of student protests in the UK city of Manchester were launched over similar concerns. The university offered a rent cut in response to the protests, while other UK university students tried to emulate the strike action.

Lee pointed to these two examples as evidence that students were prepared to put themselves on the line over unfair living conditions – and that universities have sometimes bowed to the pressure.

The planned strike also has the backing of Green Party co-leader Chlöe Swarbrick, who will speak at this afternoon’s event at the university campus. Swarbrick told The Spinoff she had supported Students for Fair Rent since its inception. “Higher rental costs means less money for kai. Higher rental costs means students are working more and studying less. Higher rental costs means our future doctors, teachers, mental health workers, scientists, nurses and researchers aren’t in conditions conducive to get the best education they’re paying for,” she said.

“As our prime minister sells our tertiary education to an overseas audience this week, we’re hearing gut-wrenching stories from students struggling to survive here at home.”

Last year at a University of Auckland election debate, Swarbrick said that student accommodation wasn’t covered by the Residential Tenancies Act, meaning it could rise far more quickly than other rent, increases to which are limited to once every 12 months. She told The Spinoff she would continue to work with students across the country to “flex their power for system change”.

* This story has been updated with additional comment from the University of Auckland.

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