A publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism, University of Melbourne


Home alone: An international student’s tale of rentsploitation

International student Sunita was new to Australia and knew little about her rights. Charlotte Walkling reports on one woman’s experience of serial exploitation in the informal rental market.

Home alone: An international student’s tale of rentsploitation

After the couple who were her new landlords drove Sunita to an ATM on a winter night demanding she withdraw money to pay them, they drove away without her. Feeling unsafe and lost in a foreign country, Sunita walked the streets for an hour trying to find her way back. Photo: Shutterstock

Story by Charlotte Walkling

Sunita* was ready for an “adventure”, she says, when the 27-year-old Indian student landed in Melbourne in June 2019, to start her master’s degree in sustainability at Deakin University.

But instead of adventure, she fell into what she says amounted to a 10-month nightmare of scams and sub-par living conditions, all due to informal rental agreements. In the ongoing rental crisis, an increasing number of desperate students have turned to informal arrangements, as an investigation by The Citizen has found.

Sunita was a victim of two financially exploitative subletting arrangements in private homes and was also tricked into an unregistered rooming house where she endured miserable living conditions.

In March 2020, Sunita arranged to sublet a room in a private house in Thomastown where she paid $950 per month. On moving in, she discovered the property was a rooming house with eight people sharing one kitchen and bathroom, she says.

According to Consumer Affairs Victoria (CAV), a rooming house is “a building in which four or more people rent rooms and usually have separate agreements with the operator”. A rooming house must be registered with the local council.

CAV and the City of Whittlesea, where the property is located, told The Citizen they have no records of a registered rooming house at that address.

“I was just surviving on UberEats because the kitchen was so dirty,” Sunita says. “Initially, I did get some groceries and stuff and I left them in the fridge, and I saw other people were using my groceries as well …

“I saw my butter being used; someone had actually put fingers in there, not even using a spoon.”

“I did not even use the toilet there. I would rather go to my work and use the toilet there because I felt much cleaner there. I was so upset living there.”

Sunita found that it was not only her mental health that was suffering, but her physical health too.

Each night, she says, “tiny insects … would bite me on my legs to the point that … my legs were badly scarred.”

Believing the insects were entering her room via its window, Sunita asked the landlords multiple times to cut the grass, but they refused and told her the pests were most likely bedbugs. After washing her mattress and sheets thoroughly, Sunita still woke up to find her legs covered in bites.

After living in the house for only 25 days, Sunita gave the rental provider 14-days notice and moved out the next day because “I just wanted to get out of that house.”

Sunita says she fell victim to two other financially exploitative rental arrangements. These have not been able to be independently verified by The Citizen. Lawyers say Sunita’s experiences are typical of many international students who seek help on housing issues.

Read more about what policy experts and lawyers say should be done to protect renters like Sunita.


Upon arrival in Melbourne, Sunita moved into a private room she found on Facebook in a house with an Indian couple in Ferntree Gully.

On the first day, the couple asked her to pay the initial month’s $600 rent, but she only had $500 cash, she says.

They told me “‘[Y]ou can’t pay us tomorrow. You have to pay us right now’.”

After driving Sunita to an ATM on the winter night, she says the couple collected the money she withdrew and drove away without her. Feeling unsafe and lost in a foreign country, Sunita walked the streets for an hour trying to find her way back.

Sunita then decided to sub-let a room she would share with a friend in a private home in Laverton.

The Indian couple who was subletting the room and living in the house charged Sunita and her friend $400 each per month for the “very tiny room”, she says, with additional charges for utilities bills.

“It’s very expensive for a room… there was no[t even a] cupboard in there where we could put our clothes.”

Sunita and her friend stayed “because they were our same ethnicity” and they “would treat us like family”.

After living in the house for six months, the students claim to have realised the couple were creating “fake bills” that were higher than the real rate.

Fearful for her visa and reeling from the “emotional betrayal”, Sunita says she decided not to report the couple to CAV and instead move out quickly and quietly.

Sunita’s fourth move in nine months was to a Reservoir property where she entered a formal rental agreement, and her exploitation by unscrupulous landlords came to an end.

“I didn’t have any issues there,” she says. “[W]e were on the lease as well, so, we had … more rights. Everything was clear.”

Vulnerable students need better enforcement by the regulator and more education about their rights as tenants, according to some lawyers and the state opposition.

In the absence of these reforms, Sunita says she warns her friends against informal rental agreements. She fears that until there is systemic change, those unaware of their rights, as she was, will continue to be forced to, “learn on their own”.

Responding to questions about what housing support and advice Deakin University 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 accommodation for all students, including those who travel to study with us from overseas”.

It provided accommodation options on all its campuses, including around-the-clock access to staffing and welfare support. 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.

Sunita says she didn’t know she could go to Deakin for support regarding her rental problems, “otherwise I would have -I guess the universities need to better advertise their resources”.

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

This is part two of a special investigation co-published with Right Now magazine.

Read part one here: Exposed: Overseas students most at risk in housing market underbelly


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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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