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Exposed: Overseas students most at risk in housing market underbelly

Australia’s housing crisis hurts most those who know little about their rights. Charlotte Walkling investigates how overseas students are especially vulnerable to dodgy and downright illegal practices in the rental market.

Exposed: Overseas students most at risk in housing market underbelly

Photo: Shutterstock

Story by Charlotte Walkling

Desperate international students are increasingly turning to informal rental arrangements amid the housing crisis, subletting rooms in unregistered rooming houses or private homes where they are vulnerable to financial exploitation and dismal living conditions.

Community legal services say they are concerned for students’ wellbeing as they receive reports from increasing numbers of students who, with little understanding of their options or rights, have been taken advantage of by people offering to sublet rooms at inflated rates.

Lawyers and student unions are calling for Consumer Affairs Victoria (CAV) to deter unscrupulous rental providers from exploitative conduct with a tougher enforcement of penalties, and the Victorian Opposition wants universities to be more proactive in safeguarding the welfare of students.

Reforms are clearly needed, because the issue has become so common, says Westjustice lawyer Caitlin Louth.

“It’s certainly well past time for some changes.”

Victoria’s Shadow Minister for Housing, Richard Riordan, argues it is the responsibility of tertiary institutions to protect students from exploitative informal rental situations.

It is understandable that international students may feel unsafe to report “bad behaviour” due to their unfamiliarity with local laws, says Riordan. But if this is a systemic problem, the onus is on universities “who profit greatly from overseas students,” he says.

“[T]hey should be doing more to advocate for them and to offer them that protection”.

The Victorian Housing Minister and the Commissioner for Residential Tenancies did not respond when contacted for a comment.

The public university sector recognises its obligations to provide quality information and support to students enrolling to study in Australia, says International Education Association of Australia CEO Phil Honeywood.

This includes access to important information about living in Australia through compulsory orientation weeks, Honeywood says, and international student guides in which “accommodation is front and centre.”

However, more than a third of international students in Victoria study at private higher education or vocational colleges which he describes as a “big grey area.”

“None of those colleges have any responsibility when it comes to safe, affordable, quality accommodation for international students,” he says.

About 80 per cent of international students come to Australia through the recommendation of an education agent, says Honeywood, who should provide information about accommodation “before they even leave their home country.”

Source: Australian Government of Education – International student numbers by country, by state and territory

Sunita*, a 27-year-old Indian international student at Deakin University, says she was a victim of a sequence of exploitative subletting and rooming house arrangements.

Initially unsure how to find accommodation in Australia, Sunita turned to social media rather than formal rental channels.

Sunita arranged to sublet a room in a private house in Thomastown, taking over the lease of a former tenant. On arrival she was shocked to discover that she would be living in a rooming house with eight people all sharing one kitchen and one bathroom.

A rooming house is a building housing four or more residents who “usually have separate agreements with the operator”, according to CAV. This differs to a share house “where everyone signs the same agreement”.

Sunita says the house was in such a disgusting condition that she moved out after living there for only 25 days.

It is illegal to run an unregistered rooming house. CAV and the City of Whittlesea told The Citizen they have no records of a registered rooming house at the Thomastown address.

Sunita later experienced other exploitative rental arrangements, including being charged inflated rental rates and not provided with the proper paperwork or bond lodgement for a subletting agreement.

She also says that in a private room she rented in an owner-occupied house, the rental provider presented her with falsified utility bills to charge her more than the real rate.

The Citizen has viewed Sunita’s documents but was not able to independently confirm her allegations due to her privacy fears and difficulty contacting former landlords. Lawyers say Sunita’s experiences are typical of many international students who seek help on housing issues.

Read more about Sunita’s experiences of rental exploitation


Responding to questions about what housing support Deakin offers international students, the chief executive officer of Deakin Residential Services, Marion Grey, said in a statement that Deakin had “a long history of providing safe, affordable and inclusive accomodation for all students”, including from overseas.

It provided accommodation options on all its campuses, including around-the-clock access to staffing and welfare support, she said. Students living off campus also had access to website resources on housing options, their rights and responsibilities, and a 24-hour support team for students with housing-related inquiries.

But Sunita says she was unaware of these services, or that she could go to Deakin for housing support – “otherwise I would have. I guess the universities need to better advertise their resources”.

Having just arrived in the country, she was unaware “of all the rights and regulations and rules and laws”, Sunita says.

“We were also kind of worried … if it goes to court, do we have to go again and again, do we have to provide a lot of evidence, like how does it work?”

Source: ABS Estimating Homelessness: Census 2016 & 2021

Sunita’s situation is all too common, says Westjustice lawyer Louth, with unscrupulous landlords taking advantage of students’ cultural or linguistic differences and lack of knowledge of the local rental market. Some also exploit their legal naivety by implying a complaint might pose a risk to their visa status.

“Students are afraid to seek legal advice … and the visa concern is a really big issue,” says Louth.

Often rental providers actively threaten students, for instance telling them they are not allowed to lodge a report because they are not an Australian citizen, she says.

Senior lawyer at University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) legal service Isabelle Butler stresses that “rental law does still apply in these informal situations”.

International students often don’t seek advice in these situations because they assume that as their housing arrangements are informal, they have no rights, says Butler. “And that is simply not true.” Tenants’ rights and protections are not “enlivened” by a formal lease contract, she says, they are always in place.

Louth says people renting under informal arrangements are at greater risk. “They’re more at risk of financial exploitation and also at greater risk of eviction, which can be really serious as it can lead to them being homeless.”

Rental providers who live in the same property as the tenant can also “raise safety concerns [due to] a power imbalance,” she says.

“A lot of the time, our students record feeling unsafe or threatened or harassed … which are obviously really serious [concerns].”

The lawyer, who has assisted international students with legal support for housing issues for four years, underlines the scale of the the current housing crisis, in which 6000 affordable rentals are needed to meet the current demand in Melbourne, due to rising rental rates and an unavailability of appropriate housing. This is what is forcing rising numbers of international students to seek out alternative arrangements.

“We know that when things are reported to Consumers Affairs Victoria their current policy … is education first, and education is really important, says Louth. “But we would like to see an increase in penalties imposed where rentals providers are doing the wrong thing, because there’s very little of that at the moment.”

“The current rental market in Melbourne is highly competitive and increasingly unaffordable for all renters”, she says.

“But international students face additional challenges and barriers in accessing what we might call the formal rental market.”

*Pseudonym used at the request of the interviewee to protect her privacy and security

This is part one of a special investigation co-published with Right Now magazine. Part two is here: An international student’s story of rentspoitation


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THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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