Returning students flock to the halls, bypassing Wellington's rental shortage in favour of nine-month leases

CHECKPOINT/RNZ
Student halls of residence will be bound by a mandatory code of practice following the death of a 19-year-old whose body lay undiscovered for weeks in his room at a Christchurch student hostel. (Video first published in September 2019)

It is a student rite of passage as common as O-Week toga parties: first year in the halls, second year in a flat. But Wellington's rental shortage means students are bypassing the flat hunt altogether and returning to the halls for a second year – and beyond – in record numbers.

Second-year Victoria University student Cam Herbst returned to the halls two days ago after spending the summer with family in Auckland.

“It was a lot easier to sign up for a second year than go flat hunting,” he said.

“My original plan was to go flatting, cause that is the sort of thing that everyone does. But then me and a friend did the math and, because we don’t have to sign a full-year lease, it is actually a lot cheaper,” Herbst said.

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Second-year student Cam Herbst, 19, is returning to the university halls for a second year to avoid the rental crunch in Wellington.
KEVIN STENT
Second-year student Cam Herbst, 19, is returning to the university halls for a second year to avoid the rental crunch in Wellington.

Staying in the halls was more convenient than signing up for a 12-month fixed-term lease, as students could leave the halls after exams in November. Friends of his paid more than $2000 each over the summer to keep their flats, which was an expense many students just could not afford.

Herbst was hardly alone in extending his stay at the halls beyond first year, with the trend coming amid fears of a student exodus from Wellington due to the rental shortage. Massey University more than quadrupled the number of beds for returning students this year, providing 257 beds compared with 50 beds last year.

Victoria University had a 36 per cent increase in applications from returning students, 857 applications compared with 629 applications last year. Chief operating officer Mark Loveard said the university had 3197 beds across its 13 halls, with an occupancy rate over 97 per cent. But the exact number of returning students was currently unknown, as intake at the halls was “fluid” in the weeks leading up to classes starting on February 22.

The university had focused on recruiting “returning domestic students to fill its self-catered accommodation” to compensate for lower numbers of international students. The recent closure of the James Hutchinson wing in Weir House due to structural “vulnerabilities” had not affected availability for returning students.

Renters United spokesperson Geordie Rogers said the convenience that appealed to students might leave them out in the cold, because the agreements signed between students and the university were not bound by the Residential Tenancies Act 1986. Rogers pointed to how Victoria University handled the lockdown last year.

Tertiary students arrive at an accommodation hall in Boulcott St.
MONIQUE FORD/Stuff
Tertiary students arrive at an accommodation hall in Boulcott St.

“Basically, they were able to evict everyone that was supposed to be in a hall and then tried to charge them at the same time. It is an agreement between the student and the university, and they definitely do treat people differently than landlords do for a private tenancy agreement.”

Auckland-based recent graduate Toby Thomas-Smith founded EasyRent – a service aimed at negotiating nine-month leases between student renters and landlords – in 2018 after surveying students at Auckland University.

“Our survey found that nine-month leases were the most attractive option for students,“ he said. “And yet I don’t know anywhere, apart from the halls, that offers a nine-month lease. It is a total shambles that does not make any sense.”

The startup currently had 450 registered students, mostly in Auckland, but expanding into Wellington was “tricky” given the current rental market.

Thomas-Smith said students in Wellington had few choices.

Students in Lambton Quay carry an armchair to their flat.
KEVIN STENT/Stuff
Students in Lambton Quay carry an armchair to their flat.

“Going back to the halls is just not the same experience as flatting in private accommodation. It teaches you nothing and they charge you insane amounts. It is not a good deal for students. But students are desperate right now: it is either go back to the halls or be homeless.”

Rogers said that was another symptom of the rental crisis.

“The landlord can dictate any terms they want and the student has to go along with it,” he said. “There is no opportunity for them, in the current market, to negotiate a nine-month tenancy.”

Stuff