Leaving Home (Life Was Never Good to Us)

Fifteen minutes walk from the University of Sydney lies the Sydney Uni Student’s Housing co-operative, Stucco. At 193 Wilson Street, it is tucked away from the buzz of nearby King Street.

Hypnotically peaceful, as I walk down Wilson Street I encounter numerous parks, bikes whirring down towards the city and sleepy cafes. The crisp Autumn air, red tinged leaves and a lovely blue sky make it a pleasure to be alive this May morning.

As I arrive at Stucco, eighteen year old Political Economy, International Relations and Government student Llewie William-Brooks is about to leave for the day, but before doing so I am able to speak to him in a nearby park about how he came to live at Stucco, what living in one of only two Australian student housing co-ops is like, and the political and economic importance of housing co-ops in the era of student poverty.

In his first year at uni, William-Brooks has only been living at Stucco for a few months. Nonetheless, he believes that in this time he has grown through the experience, “I think that its greatest asset is its people, its always got really good people who are very open minded. I’ve definitely become more open minded.”

Sitting in the park, I’m struck by the vitality and optimism of William-Brooks. He has the energy and time necessary for a happy and successful youth, one in which he can involve himself in what is important to him and the community around him.

On a second visit to Stucco I’m met with the same sense of positivity and maturity by twenty year old science student Margot Law, who moved in a little over two years ago after coming up to Sydney from Kiama to start university. As we sit down in one of the apartments inside this former glass factory she tells me about Stucco’s collaborative culture where its day-to-day functioning is entirely independent of external supervision.

Fortnightly general meetings are held and responsibilities are delegated between four committees: finance, problems and administration, building and maintenance, and membership.

2012 is the United Nations decreed International Year of Co-operatives. Housing co-operatives are an incorporated type of housing model where all members pool their financial resources together so as to access property through increased buying power.

They operate with numerous members, generally far more than a share house. In this way they typically have a strong sense of community and share the administration of all tasks required for the co-op’s functioning and maintenance. Members of the co-op are selected to ensure they can contribute and enhance the co-operative’s collaborative culture.

Housing co-ops are also generally far cheaper than other options available, with the tenants of Stucco paying $73 a week rent. Margot tells me that “one of the most important things about Stucco is that you need to be committed to the cause, so it only works if everyone pulls their weight…. The reason why rent is so cheap is that it’s like having a little part time job.”

The affordability of housing co-ops is also mandated by legislation. Department of Community Housing policy provides that within any community housing establishment such as Stucco rent cannot be more than 25% of one’s income.

However 2012 also marks a period in which Australia’s rental crisis has reached perhaps an all time low. A statement released by Australians for Affordable Housing on April 30 stated that 20% of renters across Australia are in rental stress and that “the rental market is so dysfunctional that even working households can’t find anything affordable… less than one percent of rentals in Sydney, and two percent in Melbourne, were affordable and appropriate for single parents earning minimum wage.”

A prior statement by Australians for Affordable Housing declared that three out of four students receiving rent assistance face studying in poverty because of their housing costs.

A budget submission to the Federal Government to boost the Commonwealth Rent Assistance by between $16 and $25 per week was also made. However given the acuteness of many students’ financial stress, if this submission is upheld in the Federal budget even that may not be enough.

Sarah Frazier is someone who is well and truly aware of the difficult rental situation many students face.

I interview Sarah, the UNSW SRC Welfare Officer, in the Blockhouse one sunny Thursday afternoon at UNSW. Just like Llewie and Margot, she is receptive to my interview and helpful in answering all my questions, but doesn’t seem to have quite the same sense of time about her as they did, munching on broccoli throughout the interview and sometimes sighing or laughing with exasperation in her responses.

As the Welfare Officer, Frazier is the SRC contact for students who have difficulties with their housing or rental situations. She tells me that students are in a vulnerable position when they come to study at UNSW from outside of Sydney, without a rental history and disposable incomes equal to those they are competing against in the rental market.

From this vulnerability, exploitation inevitably arises. Frazier tells me that sometimes students don’t get their bond back upon leaving a rental premises, or that their bonds aren’t lodged with the Department of Fair Trading. Many problems are also reported to her in relation to the private firm Campus Living Villages (CLV), which operates UNSW Village.

Living there herself for over a year when she first came to UNSW, Frazier recites shockingly about some of the situations she encountered at Village, “I was there when students were asked to pay $800 each for a broken microwave in an eight bedroom apartment when they [Village] knew the person who did it and who was willing to pay for it.”

She also describes to me numerous other difficulties Village pose for its occupants, including an $80 non refundable application fee, the possibility for short notice price increases, the ability to enter apartments at all times and thereby intrude on occupants’ privacy, the requirement of paying rent over summer or if you decide to move out and on it goes.

Since moving out of Village, Frazier herself has lived in a private studio in Kensington and a share house in Kingsford. But she feels uncomfortable living in her current residence, its lower cost offset by safety issues.

She tells me that one evening she saw someone being arrested on the street out in front of her window, while there was also a recent report of a mugging on the very street in which she lives, just one evening after she was returning home late from the city herself in a similar situation to the victim of the mugging.

It is for this reason that Frazier argues the University should be doing more to help its students with accommodation issues, “there are 50,000 students here, that’s a state electorate, that’s a few suburbs.

We need to be recognising that students need somewhere to live and that the university’s responsibility doesn’t end when they walk off campus at night.” It is clear that the difficulties Frazier face are not just her own, rather they epitomise those of many UNSW students.

So what is the university actually doing to help its students in the accommodation market? Isabelle Creagh, General Manager of UNSW Residential Communities, informed me how her organisation is responding to the increased need for student housing.

Current developments include a 923-bed college facility on the previous site of Goldstein and Basser Colleges, up from 414 beds. Additionally at Gate 2 399 beds are going to be provided in 371 apartments.

This is an initiative which is aiming to cater for post-graduate students as a result of a 2010 UNSW Residential Communities survey which highlighted the lack of housing catering to the needs of post-grads as the number one problem with the university’s existing housing services.

Creagh also told me that UNSW Residential Communities has a pastoral and management role in its colleges, acting to provide them with support services that for example Village and share houses cannot, “we work with them around whatever issues they are experiencing, sometimes they are financial issues, sometimes they are personal issues…. we call in support services from CAPS, Equity and Diversity, the University Health Services etc.”

Colleges also differ from Village in that students only sign up for a 35 week period covering semester one and semester two and if they move out, they won’t be forced to pay the rent unless no one can be found to take their place.

For Frazier, the pastoral role the University plays in administering its colleges and the flexibility of such policies reflects the fact that “colleges do the best in a bad situation.”

The 2010 Survey conducted by UNSW Residential Communities rated affordability as the second most prominent concern students had about housing.

Creagh told me that at Barker, Malwaree and High Streets the university owns and operates apartments at $180 to $190 a week for a single room in a multishare, representing the cheapest accommodation available to students on campus.

It also provides scholarships for college students, with the university “looking to have twenty or thirty if possible in colleges when we finish [its current constructions].”

However given enrolments at UNSW have increased from approximately 40 000 students to 50 000 students from one year to the next, it remains to be seen whether these plans of the university are enough to protect its students in the accommodation market.

Frazier has her doubts, telling me “students are going to be placed in a lot worse situations, I think students are going to be taken advantage of… I know the university is building more colleges but I don’t think it’s really addressing that influx of students.”

She also believes that housing co-ops represent a good option in the future for the university, and that the greater the variety of housing options offered by the university the better, given the inevitably diverse needs of a student body as large as UNSW’s.

While Creagh confirmed to me that at this stage the university has no plans to develop housing co-ops for its students, earlier this year a co-op was founded at ANU.

Tom Stayner, a founding member and director of the Canberra Student Housing Cooperative told me that his organisation has secured two apartments for ANU students within Havelock House, part of a community housing association in the ACT.

Competing against other Group of Eight Universities in NSW and ACT which have co-ops and in light of the financial windfall the university has gained from the Federal Government tied to its increased enrolments this year, the onus is on the university to offer its students a greater diversity of housing options, including co-ops.

Similarly as recognised by the students I spoke to at the Canberra Student Housing Cooperative and Stucco, the onus is on students to struggle for access to equitable housing and to demand more from their university. It is through this struggle that change will inexorably come.

Cameron McPhedran

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