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New housing will ease the rental squeeze for some

The University is bulking up on beds, but not everyone will be able to afford one, reports Max Chalmers

Photo: Stella Ktenas Photo: Stella Ktenas

The University of Sydney has added at least 750 beds to its current accommodation stock in a move that has drawn tempered praise from the student body.

During the holidays the University announced it had purchased the Queen Mary Building from the State Government at a cost of $27 million and confirmed the building would be converted into student housing.

SRC President David Pink said the new beds would help ease the University’s housing crisis and offer a safer alternative for students currently being taken advantage of in the private rental market.

“I think it’s a really strong commitment to expanding the number of beds on campus which is really important,” he said.

According to Pink, the SRC was particularly concerned about international students and had received reports indicating some were being forced to live in 11 or 12 person households and engage in ‘hot bedding’, a practice whereby two students share a single bed and take alternative sleeping shifts; one during the night and one during the day.

Photo: Stella Ktenas
Photo: Stella Ktenas

However, some concerns have been raised about the decision to allow private developers to take over the site.

Honi Soit has learned that during the holidays Project Director for Student Accommodation, Tim Johnson, attended a meeting with students living at STUCCO (the semi-student owned cooperative housing block in Newtown) where he advised students the Queen Mary Building would be developed and leased out by a private company at room prices of approximately $245 to $300 a week.

Director of Campus Infrastructure Services Greg Robinson confirmed private groups will bid to develop the site but said the University had agreed to ensure the housing would remain “affordable” for at least fifteen years. “Based on recent independent research, this project will provide accommodation which is priced well below the average rental rates within a three kilometer radius of the University, including student housing,” Robinson wrote, in an email to Honi. Though vague, Robinson pointed to $245 per week as a likely starting point for price but noted this would be subject to construction costs.

Bjorn Wallin, a member of the Student Housing Action Collective (SHAC), said this rate would mean the new housing would be inaccessible for many students.

“The state government, and in fact the University as well, can do a lot more for students on Youth Allowance who will not be assisted by a rent that is 10 or 20% below market rate,” Wallin said.

The state government’s own rubric – which defines affordable housing as that which cost less than 30% of a household’s income – shows that even the most modest predictions for the Queen Mary costing ($245/week) will do little to help students reliant on Centrelink Youth Allowance and Rent Assistance. If these students are unable to undertake additional work, living in the new housing would demand an unfeasible 92.3% of their weekly income. A student would have to be earning $735 a week to be able to be able to classify renting in the building as affordable.

Wallin said there was little evidence to suggest the University had undertaken proper consultation and that some rooms should have been put aside at a reduced price to help struggling students and those in need of emergency housing.

When asked via email whether the University would put caps on rental prices in the building or lobby to have subsidised rooms put aside for students from lower SES backgrounds, Greg Robinson responded simply that: “The investor of each housing development will require an appropriate development return on their investment.”

David Pink said he hoped the contract signed by the University would limit future increases in rental rates.

The concern about steep price increases comes in the wake of Sydney University Village’s decision to raise its cheapest rental rate by 21% over a two year period, a move which has prompted some sources to criticise the University’s contract with Campus Living Villages, who manage the property.