By Bella Craig
Auckland and Wellington university students say they're constantly getting sick from cold, damp and mouldy flats for which they are paying exorbitant rents.
With the start of the university year just weeks away, a shortage of rental accommodation means some have no choice but to move into dingy digs, sometimes far away from uni.
They are concerned about the effect it is having on their health and their studies.
One University of Auckland student spoken to by Checkpoint said it was not easy finding a mould-free flat.
"I would say like 70 of the places we viewed had some form of mould. One place even had grass or weeds going through the wall."
For the previous 12 months she lived with six others in damp and mouldy conditions in a flat in Grey Lynn, which cost her $247 a week.
"There's been heaps of mould issues and even though we did try and keep the place well-ventilated and our landlord did give us a dehumidifier, there was still just heaps of mould everywhere, and all of us have been sick a large portion of the year just because of that.
"Especially during winter when we couldn't have the windows open, there would just be a constant rotation between the six of us with someone being sick always."
Her story is far from unique. One Victoria University of Wellington student paid $230 a week for a room in a Kelburn flat which she shared with five others.
She and her flatmates were also on a never-ending rotation of illness due to the damp and mould permeating the building.
"I was sick every other weekend - vomiting, I had temperatures."
This impacted her studies and often prevented her from going to work.
There was also a constant battle with mould.
"I used to get quite a bit of mould on my curtains and on my roof. There was one time when I had to mop mould off my roof because it was really bad."
Like all the students Checkpoint spoke to, she wished to remain anonymous due to fear of being blacklisted by landlords.
She has since left the Kelburn flat and is now looking for new accommodation, but due to the price and huge demand for central Wellington rentals, she was having to look further afield.
"They're all, like in Brooklyn, Mount Vic, which is honestly a wee way away from Pipitea. I want to be somewhere closer."
Victoria University student Ollie said the flat he was currently living in would not be affordable if there were not couples sharing rooms.
"If you're relying on people to live in the same room to be able to afford a place, then that's not a great scenario."
And he had not been impressed by his landlord's conduct.
"There was mould build-up over the last year, which our landlord decided to paint over in the bathrooms because our ventilation is very poor," he said.
"Especially in winter [when] people have warm showers... the bathrooms don't vent properly and then mould does build up."
Auckland University Students' Association president Alan Shaker said the effects of bad housing were exacerbated by Covid-19.
"We're moving into a period of education where a lot of it is done at home, a lot of it is done online. If you don't have a warm, safe, adequate house, it makes it very, very difficult to watch your lectures. It makes it very, very difficult to sleep at night."
According to the Tenancy Tribunal, complaints about health standards made up nearly 30 percent of all disputes last year - up 4.5 percent from 2021.
Senior research fellow at the University of Otago's public health department, Dr Lucy Telfer-Barnard, said the health impacts of poor quality could not be overstated.
"Even before Covid we were seeing a lot of hospitalisations from poor housing conditions each year - around 54,000 adults and 28,000 children."
And the impacts were not only on physical health.
"We do see this mental health epidemic amongst young people and there is very strong evidence for association between poor housing and poor mental health," Telfer-Barnard said.
"The reality is that our housing stock is poor and there is a massive amount of work still required to be done to bring it up to the standard that we think it's reasonable for us to accept."
Renters United president Geordie Rogers said it was "embarrassing that we're letting people get away with this in New Zealand".
"But ultimately, the reality is the framework we have for managing these issues doesn't actually empower tenants to speak up."
He said most renters choose to stay quiet over fears they will not be able to find another place to live.
"This certainly is common and the Healthy Home Standards in theory were supposed to polish all of this. But unfortunately, while the framework for making our home healthy is there, the enforcement mechanisms haven't followed through.
"And so we're not seeing as much compliance as we originally would have hoped… I don't think I've spoken to a renter yet who believes it's going to get better for them. They don't see a future where they can own a home and they don't see rents coming down."