A Growing Accommodation Risk in Melbourne’s CBD?

The international students that come to Victoria to study get to experience an amazing and diverse range of academic and cultural opportunities, but living in rented accommodation in a new city can provide challenges of its own. Here’s why it’s so important that their issues are heard and addressed.

Peter arrived from India to Australian on a student visa in 2018 to do a business course in Melbourne. Coming here was a source of major pressure and pride for Peter. He and his family had made significant financial and personal sacrifices to come as far as he has.

Peter had to budget carefully – though he knew as a student he’d need to be careful with money, he was still surprised by how expensive accommodation was. It was also hard to know what a fair price was, and where was good to live, without having existing friends and connections.

That’s how it came to pass that Peter wound up sharing a room with two other men in a small Docklands apartment. In the next room were three young women – six people in all in a place designed for two people. It was cramped, hard to keep clean, hard for people to respect each others’ privacy and space, and nearly impossible to study. The person who ran the apartment let himself in whenever he liked to check people’s rooms, set arbitrary rules, and charge people ‘fines’ for when he thought things weren’t clean enough.

Peter finally found a place through friends that was less cramped and cheaper. But the person who he paid his rent and bond to in the Docklands apartment refused to give it back, and Peter soon found out he had never lodged it with the Victorian government like he was meant to. Peter has really struggled financially since. The bond was a lot of money to him, for food, transport, and course materials.

Victoria (and Melbourne in particular) have seen a huge influx of international students in the past 10 years. Students choose the state as a destination because of the wide range of study options, effective and easy public transport options, and a rich, active cultural life.

However, accommodation can be a more challenging area. It will be no surprise to readers that Melbourne is currently in a rental affordability crisis, which can be tough on people who have saved and made sacrifices to study and arrive in Australia with tight, careful budgets. When you factor in language barriers and the challenge of not knowing anyone in a new city, finding somewhere to live and pay rent can suddenly become a lot more difficult.

Young domestic students will often have a ready set of friends to share house with; a good idea about where is easiest to live to access their study, work and essential services; and a basic understanding of their rights and responsibilities as renters in Victoria.

Without this, some international students can be thrown into a range of situations that may be unstable, exploitative and unsafe. One of the most concerning of these is the escalating operation of some small CBD apartments as unregistered rooming houses. This happens when the apartments are used to house at least four people, each of whom separately pays rent to an operator. This may be done by using bunk beds in rooms, and even in some situations using curtains or temporary boarding to ‘partition’ already small rooms into smaller spaces.

In some cases, six or more students may be occupying premises that are really only suitable for couples. In these spaces, it is hard to enjoy privacy, dignity, hygiene, and find a quiet place to do one’s study. It goes without saying that exceeding maximum occupancy in such apartment buildings is fundamentally unsafe. These buildings are not designed to let so many people evacuate safely in the event of a fire or another emergency.

Added to this is the recent revelation that a number of Melbourne high-rises have used highly combustible aluminium composite cladding of the sort used in England’s 2017 Grenfell Tower disaster. Until something is done to fix this, overcrowding will be an even more pressing problem.

Apart from this danger, here are some common issues international students can face:

  • Failure to lodge and return bonds, often in excess of $1000.00;
  • The provision of dodgy rental contracts with unlawful terms;
  • Threats to unlawfully terminate and evict students from accommodation;
  •  Disruptions to quiet enjoyment of rented premises (for example, everyone having to get out because the property is being inspected and they may be unapproved subtenants);
  • The lack of clear legal options and remedies for licensees and co-tenants.

We should note that for most international students, living in Melbourne is a very positive experience. Even a bad situation while renting doesn’t take away from the many highlights and benefits they’ll enjoy. But this is why it’s so important that instances of unfair treatment and exploitation, where they arise, are identified and dealt with.

In conjunction with Study Melbourne, WEstjustice now runs an International Student’s Renting and Accommodation Service on Tuesdays and Fridays and Study Melbourne’s Student Centre in 17 Hardware Lane. You can see one of our lawyers on Tuesday or Friday mornings.

If you are an international student with a renting or accommodation issue (or if you are supporting an international student) please contact the team at Study Melbourne on info@studymelbourne.vic.gov.au or call 1800 056 449 (free call from landlines).

Credit Joseph Nunweek, Senior Lawyer, WEstjustice

For more information, please contact Caitlin Louth, Lawyer on caitlin@westjustice.org.au

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