The BulletinJune 5, 2024

Students end rent strike, but call for further action


Attention turns to the Residential Tenancies Act, a piece of legislation that does not cover student accommodation, writes Stewart Sowman-Lund in this extract from The Bulletin. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.

The end of the strike

Back in April, I reported on the start of a “rent strike” among some students in University of Auckland halls of residence. This morning, the group behind the strike, Students for Fair Rent, has announced an end to that action. In a statement, the group criticised undefined “intimidation tactics” by the University of Auckland which contributed to an “unsafe environment for students and strikers to fight for safe, secure, and affordable accommodation”. They said the university had not engaged with the campaign, and claimed the institution had bullied students refusing to pay rent. A spokesperson for the University of Auckland rejected this and told The Bulletin just 16 students had participated in the rent strike as of the end of May. However, while the strike is ending, the campaign for fair rent is not. The group is now turning its attention to the Residential Tenancies Act, a piece of legislation that does not cover halls of residence.

Why the strike was started in the first place

As reported at the time, the strike called for Auckland University students to stop paying weekly accommodation fees beginning on May 1. There are five catered residences for Auckland University students that charge around $470 a week, while self-catered properties (typically for older students) cost around $310-$325 a week. Leonard Powell at RNZ looked at the growing cost of accommodation earlier in the year. Students for Fair Rent spokesperson Matthew Lee told me in April that these costs were well above the average cost for living in Auckland City. In an interview with a rather combative Mike Hosking on Newstalk ZB last week, Lee said the strike was the only way to try and trigger change. “The university should be acknowledging that this is a real problem. We want to sit down with the university and find a solution that works for everyone,” he said. Green Party co-leader Chlöe Swarbrick backed the strike and has previously voiced support for updating the Residential Tenancies Act to include student accommodation. “Rent control is within the Residential Tenancies Act [through which] there is a limitation on how much you can increase rent by,” she said at a university debate last year. Penny Simmonds, the tertiary education minister, declined to comment to The Bulletin.

Was a strike the best course of action?

Writing for the Herald last week, Lachlan Rennie reported that some Auckland University students had had their key cards deactivated for participating in the strike, and some students had felt pressured to resume paying for accommodation. The university denied this and told The Bulletin that access cards stopped working “from time to time”. When reactivating a card, staff members would see a note highlighting any outstanding debt and may follow up on this. But, said a spokesperson: “Regardless of whether a student’s account is in arrears, their card is immediately reactivated, and the student again has access to their room.” Citizens Advice Bureau national advisor Sacha Green told the Herald that there was no “legal basis” for the rent strike given students had signed a residential agreement, and this was not protected by law. “The university has the right to decide to terminate the agreement,” said Green, who added that the institute was required to “act in good faith”. Previous student action at other universities has resulted in a backdown, such as at Wellington’s Victoria University during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Time for an update?

Swarbrick made updating the Residential Tenancies Act a key pillar of her reelection bid in Auckland Central last year, as this Newsroom report from the campaign trail examined. It also showed cross-party awareness of the issue of student accommodation, even if Swarbrick was alone in pledging change. Beyond just the issue of affordability, there have been public calls to include student accommodation in the Residential Tenancies Act. The Conversation looked at it in 2021, while this episode of The Detail from the same year honed in on a select committee inquiry into student accommodation prompted by the death of a student. Three years on, the decision to strike and to push for legislative change would suggest there’s more work to be done.

Keep going!