Is everywhere better than here?
I thought I’d got lucky with my first flat viewing.
The house was small and cream and just off Mount Eden Road. There were three flatmates, two bunnies and a big garden that was, for the most part, well kept. In the tiny box of a room that could have been mine, sun poured through the windows. But it was still cold and musty.
Only one of the three tenants was home when I dropped in. She was also a young student, but, she explained, the other two flatmates were much older. This was not a student flat, she said. Everyone kept to themselves and had their own very different schedules. It was quiet.
I felt like this would be a solitary life. It wasn’t what I had expected flatting to be: living close to campus with all my uni friends, inviting mates over whenever I wanted. Instead, I would be going by someone else’s rules, living with strangers.
I am lucky. My family can afford to live in Auckland and for my first year of university, I lived at home, in Devonport. I balanced studying with working a part time job, as is the student tradition. I even saved some money.
If I had lived in a flat in a city where the average cost of a rental was $546 a week last year, I would have struggled to make ends meet. The average rent for a single room in Auckland is somwhere between $195 and $360 per week. For a bachelor of arts degree, annual fees start at $6000. Add approximately 38 weeks claiming living costs of $228.81 a week and you’ll be looking at a loan of close to $14,700 after just one year of study.
By the end of my first year I had a choice to make: continue to save by living at home, and spend a semester studying overseas? Or fly the nest and go flatting with friends?
How do you move on in life if you can’t move out of your parents’ home?
I’d become excited at the prospect of starting a life in the city, where uni and my new friends were. So, I began searching for a rental on TradeMe, obsessively sharing links with friends, imagining the fun of us all flatting together like my parents and their friends did when they were students.
But renting a house with your friends tends to cost more than looking for single rooms in a pre-established flat on TradeMe. In Auckland, each room will likely be at least $230 and there are the non-refundable letting fees that come with securing a place - usually one week’s rent plus GST. Soon, I became acquainted with grainy photos of grungy bathrooms in overpriced properties. The tiny rooms at the only places in a student’s price range were uninviting and emails went unanswered.
Trade Me’s flatmates wanted section is cheaper, because you can find grubby single rooms in flats with groups of strangers. Unless the flat has more than one room going, which they usually don’t, you’re on your own.
There’s a sense of loneliness that comes with going rogue into the world of flatting.
The listing on Trade Me for the Mt Eden Flat with the bunnies and the sprawling garden said the room was $140 a week. It seemed too good to be true and my instincts were right; weekly expenses were significant. A lot of heating was needed during the cold, damp Auckland winters and a chunk of the cost came from paying someone to mow the lawn, that was bigger than the house itself, each month.
Including expenses, I would’ve paid $200 a week to live there. I wouldn’t have been able to pay rent over the summer, as the $228.81 a week in living costs that students can add to their overall student loans is not available during uni break, and my part time job is only minimum wage.
Every dollar matters when you are studying, but our big cities are spreading students’ money thinner and thinner.
Across New Zealand rental properties are becoming harder to find, while the prices of those available are going up and up.
Nationwide, the number of available rentals has halved in the 12 months since December 2016, according to data from Trade Me. In Auckland, there were 35 percent fewer rental properties on the market than at the same time in 2016, while in Wellington, there were 70 percent fewer properties for rent.
The mean cost of a rental in Auckland was $555 last month, slightly down from $562 in December. In January, mean rent was $516 in Wellington, $381 in Christchurch, $392 in Dunedin, $384 in Hamilton and $332 in Palmerston North.
At one point during my father’s time at university in Wellington, he and a group of friends rented a stand-alone house in Karori for $20 each a week. They didn’t run into awful problems with pipes or leaking, they weren’t destined to freeze in the winter.
That was in the ‘70s, and although the wages from his part-time job were not as great as mine are now, they did match his living costs and he didn’t need a student loan because uni was free.
Fast forward to Auckland in 2018 what will that $555 a week get you? A one bedroom inner-city apartment? A three bedroom house a long commute from campus? Something smaller, colder and mouldier than what Dad paid just $20 for?
Where properties used to cost three times the average annual income, they now cost 10 times that much. It is estimated that, to meet living costs in Auckland, minimum wage should be $20 an hour. For students, it is now impossible to meet rent on a minimum wage part-time job, so adding up to $228.81 a week in living costs onto our student loans has become a necessity.
The amount that this adds to a student loan makes the idea of moving out seem completely unattainable for so many.
Students are, of course, not the only people bearing the brunt of the housing crisis. Between 2009 and 2017, the average weekly wages earned by Aucklanders increased by just under 25 percent, while the price of a house in Auckland climbed a whopping 110 percent. Over that period, mean rent increased 43 percent.
The new government might be trying to give more help, at least to students. The weekly figure of student loan living costs went up to $228.81 this year, when Labour allocated an extra $50. Last year, when $178.81 was the weekly maximum, some of my friends had to choose between paying rent and eating.
But since the increase was announced, many students have been sharing stories of landlords, especially in Wellington, putting up their weekly rent by $50.
Students who were struggling to make ends meet with $178.81 a week will continue to struggle, with the extra $50 covering a hike in rent and leading to a significantly larger student loan bill at the end of this year.
Sometimes it feels like it might be easier to move overseas than find a flat in Auckland.
‘I’VE HAD TOO MANY WEETBIX DINNERS’
Rachel Roberts, who flats in the Auckland suburb of Glen Innes, tells me that this year’s new student loan living cost payment of $228.81 each week is going to save her.
Despite opting to live further away from the city to find her cheaper $160 a week flat, she has still had to budget tightly over the last year.
“Now I know that I’ll have enough for groceries every week, not just sometimes. I’ve had too many Weetbix dinners over the last two years. And a few nights where I’ve had to have sleep for dinner.”
Catching a bus from Glen Innes to uni takes Rachel at least 40 minutes, or an hour during peak traffic. Her AT Hop Card costs $33 each week if she only comes in on weekdays, but she comes in on weekends too because she has to work, so she usually pays $45 a week.
But friends of mine who are flatting closer to the city are paying much higher prices.
Cara Allen is about to sign another 12 month tenancy agreement for her three bedroom villa in Ellerslie. She tells me that she pays $250 a week in rent and utilities. She’s hoping her landlord won’t have pushed her rent up for this year when she comes to sign the contract. “I couldn’t do more than $250.”
Cara says having fewer flatmates is better and my friend Laura Kvigstad, agrees. She lives in Beach Haven, one of the more affordable corners of Auckland’s North Shore (mean rent for the North Shore was $596 in January), and has just one other flatmate.
“We live in a two bedroom flat and it’s $446 split between us. We have it slightly discounted because we pay our water rate. That excludes expenses.”
But summer has been a stressful period for them, because student loan living costs can only be claimed during semester. Relying solely on their minimum wage jobs has made paying rent a struggle.
Another friend from Auckland university, Lucy Austin, has found it very hard to find another flat for this year. When we speak, classes are starting in less than a month and she is yet to find a place to stay.
Last year, Lucy’s rent was $259 a week for a flat in Parnell. That was on top of her international student tuition, which is vastly more expensive than domestic fees and makes her ineligible for a student loan.
CHEAP AND NOT-SO-CHEERFUL
Students from all over the country go to Dunedin to be in New Zealand’s student city, where flats have a grungy reputation.
One friend of mine, Nina Minogue, is studying law and marketing at Otago Uni.
“I'm flatting in north Dunedin. It's $140 a week, fully furnished but minus expenses,” she says.
For the student quarter, where parties often end in couch burning, $140 is a bit higher than usual.
“It's a lot nicer than the slummy ones, so we are happy.”
Nina went to several viewings before she found the flat. One flat was above a fish shop, so it was pretty pongy.
“We walked up a flight of stairs, which had a burning candle and diffusers all along it, in an attempt to mask the smell. The stench was near unbearable, as the door was right next to the big bins they put all the fish waste in. The smell was just too much.”
She would’ve had to pay $135 each week for that flat.
However, that viewing wasn’t as bad as one she went to on the corner of George Street and Granges Road. They arrived at the brick house and entered through a damp, dark and mouldy kitchen. The microwave sat on the floor next to a towering pile of dishes covered in mouldy porridge.
Down the hallway there were little brown pellets heaped on the carpet, and the trail of them didn’t stop. When a rabbit ran past Nina’s ankles, it became clear what the pellets were.
“The house was littered with rabbit poo… the real estate agent looked horrified.”
Nina guesses that the tenants had not been notified of the visit, because they were less than prepared.
“I walked into one of the bedrooms and there was a naked student lying on their bed in a marijuana-induced stupor. The bed had no sheets and another rabbit was fussing near their feet.
“I popped my head into the living room to see a weird array of couches and chairs squished in a circle with two big bongs sitting on the coffee table. Two more rabbits were hopping around on the couch cushions.”
AN ‘ALRIGHT’ FLAT IN A GOOD LOCATION
Not only is there a shortage, but a lot of what is available is inadequate.
A voluntary trial, organised by Wellington City Council six months ago, gave landlords the chance to receive an assessment of their property. The initiative gave landlords easy access to a Warrant of Fitness test to make sure their properties were up to scratch.
As of the January 26, only two properties had taken up the WOF trial. One was in Johnsonville, the other in Ngaio; neither of which are close to Victoria or Massey university campuses.
Vice-Chancellor of Victoria University, Grant Guilford, told RNZ there is now a trend of landlords auctioning leases for rental properties to students. When bidding wars over substandard accommodation happen, Guilford said, prices are driven up even higher.
The new government’s Healthy Homes Guarantee Act aims to set standards that will “require all rental properties to meet proper standards in: insulation, heating, ventilation, draught stopping, and drainage”. (http://www.labour.org.nz/housing )
By July next year, rental properties must be properly insulated, and grants of up to $2000 will be available for certain landlords to improve their properties. But until then, prices are high but standards may not be.
Anna Hall-Taylor is moving into a flat right by the Botanical Gardens, close to campus. Her rent is $210 a week, excluding expenses. “It’s a good location. The flat itself is just alright, I’m paying for the smallest room.”
One catch is that she’s had to pay rent over the summer.
Many students choose to go home at the end of each year, and move back into flats in February. But finding a good place at the same time as everyone else is not always easy. Some students started flat hunting six months ago, to make sure they found a place in time for university. It means that for many, paying rent over summer has become commonplace.
Ben Dickens will also be paying $210 before utilities this year - he’s moving into a flat just by The Terrace. He’s feeling nervous about it at the moment, because he’s just had to pay a bond and first week’s rent, which was $1000 all up. “It’s a bit of a setback, even though I worked a lot this summer and had saved a decent amount.”
Now he’s counting down until he can start getting his weekly student living costs to help him out.
Another group of friends secured a flat, also in Kelburn, a couple of months ago. Jack and Henry tell me they are paying $187 a week. “But that’s about to go up by $10 soon.”
ESCAPING THE BUBBLE
So what about doing a semester abroad? How much would it cost me? And how do those costs compare to flatting in Auckland?
Ruby Payne has just got back from a semester in London, studying English and film at King’s College.
She moved into a flat with her partner while she was over there.
“We were ready to say 'yes' to a place for £650 ($1245) per month, but it was five bedrooms shared between seven people, no living room, and much smaller bedroom than what we ended up with.”
Where they ended up was Zone 1 East London, which Ruby tells me is an amazing area.
“It was walking distance to Brick Lane, Shoreditch, and Spitalfields Market, which are all very cool areas with lots of good food and shopping. Being able to walk to heaps of places meant we spent not much on transport, only about £15-20 ($28-38) per week.”
They stayed in a two bedroom flat with another couple, who were great flatmates.
“We paid £856 ($1651) per month, excluding bills, which were about another £130 ($250).”
That’s just $412 split between Ruby and her partner each week, plus $60 a week for utilities for them both.
“We had a nice big living room and decent kitchen by London standards.”
London standards, Ruby explains to me, are very high prices for mouldy flats with no living rooms and small bedrooms. She says that the place they landed was a really great deal, and an experience that she absolutely loved.
The more I desperately check Trade Me for rentals, the easier it feels to make the decision to spend a semester overseas.
Auckland University’s 360 international department has more than 100 partner universities in all parts of the world. Students who have a suitable GPA can attend one of the partner universities for a semester, for the same cost of a semester at Auckland.
A lifelong dream to live in London and the rich options of politics papers at King’s College prompted me to look into spending a semester there.
Although I would not be allowed to work a part time job in London, I would be allowed to claim the same $228.81 living costs each week.
Because I would be paying the same fees I do at Auckland University each semester, and because my student loan living costs would cover my living in a self-catered student hall on campus, the only extra costs would be my airfare, food and other living expenses.
A lot of saving will go into this, and nothing will be left afterward, but it is feasible and very exciting.
Once I have done a semester abroad and I finish university, my student loan will be less than it would be if I go flatting in Auckland city now.
All my saving will be worth it when I start my six month journey in just under a year.
But what happens when I come home and the housing problem is still here?
*Homepage image by Dan Freeman.