Lodging Complaints22 September 2017
Although the 2018 QS benchmark places Melbourne as the fifth best city globally for international students to study, it appears that there are some students and advocacy groups who would disagree.
The Tenants Union of Victoria (TUV) and student legal services argue that international students are being charged unfair and illegal fees, leaving them under-informed when facing “unscrupulous housing providers”.
Chinese international student at the University of Melbourne, Cora, told Farrago that she has been living in a subdivided apartment in which the lounge room is rented out as a bedroom. Cora currently shares the two-bedroom apartment, a 15-minute walk from campus, with another two other female international students.
Cora found the accommodation via Weibo, a Twitter-like Chinese social media, two years ago. When she moved in, she signed a one-year contract with her landlord.
“[Then] my landlord didn’t mention the renewal of the lease, but so far I have still lived there [for two years] with no issues.”
International students living in Carlton had similar concerns. A student, who wishes to remain anonymous, has also experienced unacceptable living conditions in a Carlton shared terrace house. She claims her landlord refuses to repair facilities, and makes her feel uncomfortable with unexpected visits.
“[The landlord] will even come to the house at 7am without telling us,” she told Farrago.
She fears if the house’s conditions are improved, the accommodation would become unaffordable to her.
There are many more students who have similar stories.
Isabelle Butler from UMSU (University of Melbourne Student Union) Legal Service said the organisation have received complaints from international students including false house advertising, breach of tenancy agreements, poor living environments and female students being sexually assaulted by accommodation providers.
While many issues have been related to private landlords, the UMSU Legal Service has also heard of complaints about real estate agents, room and house operators as well as student-oriented commercial complexes.
Butler cites vulnerability as the main cause of exploitation, as international students are “less aware of how tenancy laws operate in Australia, and less aware of where to find information about what their tenancy rights are.”
She argues that complex residential tenancy laws mean that many international students do not understand how to defend their rights on housing in Australia.
Butler also says that, compared to domestic students, it is less likely for international students to raise complaints.
UMSU International President, John Hee, agrees with Butler.
“We do not believe that a majority of students move into accommodation knowing they will be exploited but do acknowledge that it does indeed happen.”
“This happens sometimes simply because of the lack of availability in accommodation, especially nearing the start of the semester, when most of the better accommodation has been taken.” It is not just private landlords exploiting international students.
UniLodge, one of Australia’s largest student accommodation providers, was fined $90,000 in March for providing misleading claims, providing misleading quotes and occupancy, and failing to meet rental bond holding requirements.
Residents’ bonds were not paid to the Bond Authority as required, and UniLodge was forced to pay back the interest it gained on holding onto the money.
UniLodge did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
So what can be done about the exploitation of international students?
President of Australian Federation of International Students (AFIS), Candy Tong, criticised the inadequate housing resources available for international students who may need assistance. AFIS has worked with the TUV to run housing workshops that provide information on international students’ housing rights in Australia.
“There are only a few workshops that invite professionals and thus students often have little chance of seeking face-to-face help from them, and they are less likely to seek help if they have to dial a helpline or send an email,” she said.
“Universities should also provide greater support for students who have accommodation issues. [They] now only provide minimum support at the moment.”
The University of Melbourne has defended its record, including the controversial merging of housing advice services into Stop 1 earlier this year.
“The University recently further improved student housing services by offering these via Stop 1 channels to ensure a seamless and integrated experience for all students,” a University spokesperson said.
“There is a wide range of support available to help students make informed choices about their accommodation and address any difficulties which may arise.”
The University says one of its key solutions is building more housing itself.
“The University’s Student Accommodation Program commits to providing 6,000 University-affiliated student accommodation places within walking distance of the Parkville campus by 2020.”
However, the TUV is calling for legal reforms, including refined minimum property standards, and stricter criteria for evictions and enforcement of hard lease terms.
“The tenancy laws in Victoria need to be changed as a whole to better reflect the realities of the current market,” a TUV spokesperson said.
Hee says UMSU International is always ready to advocate for international students.
“UMSU International is meant to protect and improve the lives of international students at the University and accommodation is a major part of that student life.”
We are here if students need support and help with housing issues or any other issues that arise and will constantly strive to improve student housing for all students.”