On a cold June morning the residents of UniLodge – a student housing block on the corner of Bay and Broadway Street – were woken by a fire alarm. When smoke started to spread throughout the building and a second evacuation notice sounded, it became evident this was not one of the building’s regular false alarms or drills. For some of the residents – many of whom are international students – this was the beginning of an exhausting and frustrating chapter in their Australian student experience during which UniLodge neglected to provide adequate care.
Even before the June 23 fire, Canadian Masters student Nicole Campbell* had been finding life in UniLodge less than pleasant. She was disappointed by the cleanliness and upkeep of the building, the rundown kitchens, and the range of fees students had to pay for services. Already paying $400 a week in rent, Nicole had been forced to dig into her savings and accrue around $40 000 in debt for tuition and living costs.
“It definitely didn’t look like the picture,” she told me. “After a few months there I was quite unhappy and was thinking about moving but I just realised…that basically you couldn’t, I mean there was no way out.” Locked into her contract and deterred by the $110 room-change fee, Nicole decided to stay put.
Not all of UniLodge’s residents who spoke to Honi Soit shared Nicole’s pre-fire complaints. But among the students interviewed a consistent pattern emerged: those who had previously enjoyed living in the complex took a sudden dislike to it after the fire.
Once evacuated, students waited on the curb outside the Broadway Shopping Centre until its doors were unlocked and the shivering mass of pyjama-clad evacuees were allowed inside.
Here, the problems began. According to Yingbing Wang, another student living in the building, the UniLodge staff suddenly disappeared. “I just felt hopeless because I didn’t know where to find someone to ask ‘what happened?’ and ‘what can I do now?’” Yingbang said. Other students, like Peter Stewart, complained not enough was done to keep students informed. “Nobody [from] UniLodge came out to explain what happened, we were just hoping we could get back soon.”
As the day wore on and it became apparent nobody would be returning to UniLodge that night, the University of Sydney stepped in to help students. Students have since praised the University and its Security Service, who invited students back to the Security building where they were provided with food, clothes, and accommodation, as Student Services helped to organise special consideration requests. UniLodge insists it was instrumental in this process and helped coordinate aid from universities and local businesses. However, one source indicated that University Security told students they had been called to help by the police, not by UniLodge. According to Nicole, University Security were: “completely disgusted with how UniLodge were reacting to [the situation].”
Philippa Ternes, the UniLodge Broadway Property Manager, said she sympathised with the frustrations expressed by some students but insisted that the majority – who followed the instructions given by UniLodge’s staff – received an adequate level of care. Dependent on NSW Fire and Rescue for updates, Ternes said her team did everything possible to get the latest information to students.
But in the coming days and weeks, as residents slowly returned to their rooms at UniLodge, some students remained trapped in accommodation limbo. Chinese international student Chao Liu’s room was just meters from where the blaze began. After two weeks of sleeping on a friend’s couch, Liu received a phone call from UniLodge informing him his room was no longer habitable and that his contract had been cancelled. Chao said he was informed he had just days to clear out his room, leaving him almost no time to find housing in a city he was barely familiar with.
“They did nothing to help,” he said. “I feel very disappointed and I would never live in UniLodge again.” Nicole similarly felt let down by UniLodge’s administration. “We just had no idea one day to the next where we were going to be staying the next night”. Forced to move from a hotel to International House, then to Stucco and finally to a new share-house, Nicole claims Unilodge also failed to assist her.
Not all of UniLodge’s residents reported such negative stories, however. Jessie Pellow was in Perth the morning of the fire but said the management of the building, who she knew personally, kept in regular contact with her during the day.
“They were really good with me, letting me know recent information about what they were doing, what I could do,” she said. “They did a lot to make sure I was ok.”
Philippa Ternes said that the majority of feedback UniLodge had received since the fire had been positive and that overall the company’s emergency response had been a success.
“I think a measure is that nobody got hurt, nobody got killed, there wasn’t a single ounce of blood dropped. Our evacuations procedures worked,” she said.
UniLodge certainly attempted to provide some assistance to residents. Those who were not helped by their university were given beds at the YHA near Central. It is also understood that UniLodge will reimburse the University of Sydney for the money it spent on accommodating displaced students.
The divergence in UniLodge’s self-evaluation and the criticisms lodged by some students raises questions about the level of care and support that privately owned student housing should be expected to provide. UniLodge sells itself as a leader in student welfare, not just a space to live but a “community”. For most of the residents who spoke to Honi Soit, this self-description is now a shattered illusion. Ternes’ assurances are unlikely to brighten Chao’s displeasure with the company. “They could at least say sorry to us,” he concluded.
*Some names have been changed.