Auckland Central candidates back students' rent-hike campaign

September 22, 2023

Auckland Central candidates back students' rent-hike campaign

Auckland Central candidates pictured at a debate hosted at the University of Auckland last month. They are (FROM LEFT): DAMIAN SYCAMORE (THE OPPORTUNITIES PARTY), CHLOE SWARBRICK (GREENS), MAHESH MURALIDHAR (NATIONAL), OSCAR SIMMS (LABOUR) AND FELIX POOLE (ACT). Photo: Kexin Li

Auckland Central candidates have come out in support of the city's tertiary students as they fight for fairer rent.

A student-led group, Students For Fair Rent, launched a petition last week asking the University of Auckland to lower its rent.

The university is increasing its student accommodation rent by 8 per cent in 2024.

The petition has received more than 570 signatures and support from Auckland Central candidates.

Auckland candidates appear to be on board.

TWN spoke with Chlöe Swarbrick (the incumbent from the Green Party), Oscar Sims (Labour), Mahesh Muralidhar (National), Damian Sycamore (The Opportunities Party), and Felix Poole (ACT) to hear what the candidates are planning to do for students living in their electorate.

Greens

Chlöe Swarbrick says the core issue with student accommodation is that it’s not covered by the Residential Tenancies Act (RTA).

“Rent control is within the Residential Tenancies Act [through which] there is a limitation on how much you can increase rent by.”

Swarbrick says Section 5B of the RTA made students “completely cut off from accessing the Tenancy Tribunal if things go wrong”, and the section should be revoked.

The Green Party candidate believes a short-term focus is also causing the problem, and that the university has the power to delay financial repayments to make rent affordable.

“The yield or return on the capital outlay simply does not make sense . . . Most people gamble little on the housing market for the sake of speculation.

“We are talking typically about institutions like our universities that have massive borrowing power and the ability to look into the future.

" [They need to] spread that need for return on investment over more years so that you have students who can afford to pay to live in that student accommodation.”

Swarbrick says the current student-allowance system also perpetuates inequity and a cost-of-living crisis.

“[A] big problem with the way that we do means testing is that it basically enables those who are wealthier and who have parents who have means to arrange their finances in such a way they end up getting access to the student allowance.

“But also, people who desperately need it because they're either estranged from their parents or their parents simply don't, and can't afford to give them support, aren't getting access.”

Swarbrick says the best way to solve the inequality is through a universal student allowance, funded through a wealth tax.

To the voters, the candidate says: “Students should look at the track record of the politicians who are talking about student issues. For the past six years, I have fought tooth and nail against massive barriers to try and progress student issues.”

Labour

Labour’s Oscar Sims, who was an affordable-housing advocate for many years, says housing is still a big focus for him.

Sims says the solution should target both short and long-term answers.

“The broader challenges in the housing market can really only be addressed through supply.

"That’s why this Labour government has pushed for changes to the planning laws to ensure that we build our way out of this housing crisis. But there are also questions about whether university students are getting a fair deal. “

Sims says paying students more financial support is not the best solution.

“There’s a risk if we just throw money at the problem. This is a general issue with demand-side support for housing. You end up pumping money and paying landlords more, effectively.”

Sims says he will investigate the problem further, but believes supply from private markets will give students a broader accommodation solution.

“You have to take action to reduce the market power of landlords because both in private markets and with student accommodation, there isn’t [enough] competition for housing.”

More young people need to be in Parliament to represent youth voices, says the candidate.

”It's actually about, to some extent, electing ordinary people who have real-world experience with the issues that New Zealanders are facing.”

National

National’s Mahesh Muralidhar says that as someone who walked out of university with a large student loan, he believes students should “tough it out” after graduating, but basics such as accommodation should be reasonably priced.

“Things like accommodation . . . should be reasonably priced and we shouldn't have a situation where students are struggling like this. ”

Muralidhar agrees that the eight per cent increase is not aligned with the market rate, or with the financial support provided to students.

“[The problem] seems to be because the university decided to make this [student accommodation] a very strong revenue generation, while government support did not acknowledge the [university’s] shift.”

Muralidhar says there’s a “strong argument” for the university to put a pause on any further increases, and urges it to look into the problem further.

“It’s not wise for these conversations to be talking about whether one group is making too much money or taking too much of a cut. The right way to position these problems is [that] these students are suffering.”

If elected, Muralidhar says he would push the housing minister and tertiary education minister to deliver a resolution for students within six to nine months.

TWN asked Muralidhar whether his support diverged from National’s traditional focus on economic prosperity, rather than social policy.

“The National Party has a very strong focus on education. And for me, I don't see this as social policy. I see this as this is our future. We need to make sure that we are investing in our future.

The Opportunities Party

The Opportunities Party (TOP) candidate Damian Sycamore says the root of the problem is Auckland’s hefty land value.

“As long as New Zealand's land prices stay as ridiculously high as they are, it's very difficult to build accommodation properties at an affordable price point to either sell or rent them.”

TOP will be looking to introduce a land-value tax to curb hiking property prices.

“What [the land-value tax] does is it begins to push owners of land to develop housing or sell the land and stop land banking.

“If enough people sell, then the price of land comes down.”

Sycamore acknowledges that it can take some time for the land-value tax’s benefit to be passed onto renters. To help students out in the immediate future, TOP would prioritise introducing its Teal Card if elected into government.

TOP’s policy website listed the Teal Card acts as a Gold Card for young people. It would provide free healthcare, free public transport, and a universal savings boost for those under 30.

Sycamore also cites investors’ high return requirements as a reason why the student rent is so expensive.

“Carlaw Park is a good example of how private investors treat student accommodation as a cash cow. [The housing development] was funded by a private fund of about 50 investors. It's leased back to Auckland University to organise student accommodation.

“But those investors are looking for a significant return on their investment. So that significant return continues to push up the price of student accommodation.”

The candidate says students should vote for Chlöe Swarbrick as their Auckland central candidate and give their party vote to TOP.

“I ask only for the party vote and that everyone should vote for Chloe. I think she's excellent.”

ACT

The ACT party’s Auckland Central candidate, Felix Poole, says he sympathises with the high rent faced by young people in Auckland central, and says that the high cost of student accommodation is symptomatic of an unhealthy wider rental market.

Poole says the problem is not whether it is fair for the university to charge above-the-market rent, but it is about whether it can.

“Auckland is facing high [demand] pressure and young people can’t find tenancies to join. They have to turn to student accommodation in order to find a place to live,” says Poole.

Poole says he wouldn’t blame the university, as it has its own priorities, such as reinvesting profit into education and other services, and it’s not a “social housing provider”.

“The university wouldn't be able to charge the price they are charging if the private market was actually competitive.”

Poole says the solution is to reform the rental market through investment and infrastructure, and to build more high-density housing in a market that is “more reactive to people’s demands”.

The candidate emphasises that the Government should “make it easy” for private market to build houses, rather than building houses themselves.

The candidate says the ACT party will aim to help students get more value from their existing student allowances and loans that they receive, rather than putting more cash into students’ pocket.

“Increasing student allowance is missing forest for the trees . . . Landlords will just increase their prices. How do we make an economy where we’ve got cheap food, cheap fuel, and people can actually afford the necessities?”

Poole says part of the solution is to get on top of inflation through cutting unnecessary government spending.

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