*names changed for privacy
Flatting is f*cking expensive. Even with StudyLink maxed out, most people find it difficult to cover $200 or more in rent every week, plus expenses, plus groceries, plus travel costs, plus self-care money (aka sushi and iced-coffee every day. Yes, I see you). As a result, lots of us live at home with our parents. There’s no shame in that, but sometimes living with your parents can feel like an awkward flashback to your angsty teen years. For some, it’s not even an option.
Coming from Dunedin to Auckland was a huge shock to my bank account. For those who don’t know, the rental market in Dunedin currently averages around $130 per week. I love Auckland, and my new flat. But it’s hard to ignore that suddenly, I’m paying $70 more in rent every week.
Luckily, I have the support of my family. I know that I can always move back home, to the North Shore. But what about those who are less privileged? What about those who didn’t have family in Auckland, or have to move out of their home for safety reasons? It got me thinking. I was sure there would be a cheap room out there. Was it really possible to find a flat in Auckland for $130 or less? Would a room at that price be liveable?
To answer these questions, this intrepid journalist put herself out there on the flatting market. To make this manageable, I set some parameters: the flat had to be no longer than a half-hour bus ride to University. From what I gathered from my friends, this was the preferred zone for flatting in Auckland while studying. This meant Sandringham, Mount Albert, Grey Lynn, etc. As someone looking for a cost-effective flat, this was essential as travel expenses rack up quickly.
I hopped on TradeMe. Facebook Marketplace had rooms starting from $160, but I was on a mission: flats $130 and under or bust.
Surprisingly, I found some.
The first flat was located in Sandringham. After a brief email exchange with the owner, we set up a flat viewing. I was apprehensive from the start. The owner emphasised that he would be able to change anything I had a complaint about, because he really wanted to fill the room. Nervous that I was about to get murdered, I roped in our Arts Editor, Maddy, to come with me and provide a second critical eye.
From the outside, the structure was imposing. It was an old villa-style house that had obviously been extended to increase capacity. There was mould on the roof, and the whole place was fortified with a 2 metre high fence. It was also huge—not surprising given there were seven rooms.
I was pleasantly surprised to find a nice lounge and big kitchen, albeit with an ancient fridge. There were two bathrooms, separated by gender. The female bathroom had adorable black and white vintage tiles. The carpet was old, but the room itself was nice. There were no signs of mould, but the ceilings were high, and there were a few cracks in the windows. According to the owner, the flat is fully insulated. However, the height of the ceiling made me feel as if that would be redundant in winter. The room also had big North facing windows, so the pleasant afternoon sun possibly clouded my judgement. There was room for a double bed, a sizable wardrobe, a chest of drawers, and a desk and chair. All of the furniture was provided. There was also a big backyard, and a bike shed. It would be entirely possible to bike to University. Maddy noted that the inner corridor was extremely dark, even on a bright afternoon in summer. We suspected that it would be damp in winter.
Another red flag was the high turnover. The flatmate that showed us around had only been there for a month, although he said he had been keeping an eye on the property for three months before that. He promptly told us that there were people he didn’t speak to, and they all cooked their own meals. This was emphasised by another flatmate walking past, very obviously ignoring us and shooting intimidating looks. However, the most expensive room clocked in at only $135. The flat manager kept a cleaning roster, and grew beans and mint in their garden. Cute.
The next room was rather more dismal. It was on Symonds street, in an apartment complex, so I was expecting the space to be tight. It was even worse than I anticipated. In a narrow room, they had squeezed in a bunk bed, and a desk. It was $125 to share with a friend, or $190 for a single occupant. That wasn’t bad. Even for a single occupant, it was cheaper than what I was currently paying, and it was right beside the University.
However, they had built a cardboard wall to partition off another “room,” and as a result, there was almost no living space. A minute dining table was pushed against the wall, and there was a small—albeit functional—kitchen adjacent. Two other boys shared the adjoining room, meaning the total occupancy of the flat was five people. The apartment was on the fifteenth floor; I was sure it was a fire hazard.
But expanding the occupancy of a property beyond recommended (or even legal) limits is common—not entirely surprising considering the state of the housing market.
Richie*, is currently living in a room that clocks in at $70 a week. Yes, you read that right. The property was another expanded colonial villa, in Mt Eden. It was just off Dominion Road, making it an accessible location for University students. From the outside, the property was beautiful, if run down. There was a huge front and back-yard, across which were strewn colourful washing lines and no less than four raised garden beds.
Richie’s room, however, wasn’t a room so much as a corridor, added as storage space beside the main living area. He explained that he had been allowed back into the flat as a favour, after having vacated a (proper) room a few months ago to live with his partner. The $70 “room” had large windows, though they were uninsulated and old, having wooden frames with peeling white paint—you know the kind. It wasn’t huge, but it was passable. He had fit in a double bed and a closet.
It wasn’t meant to be a room—Richie told me that he would have to move his bed and hide his things if the landlady ever decided to pay a visit. But it wasn’t the first time he had lived in an arrangement like this. In a previous house, where the rooms were all $100 or so each, he had someone move into their second lounge, where there was an arch demarcating the space. They had simply partitioned it off, and called it a room.
“I think [students] fill this niche in the housing market,” he said. “Where there’s a huge property but it’s a bit run down. It would be too big and expensive to get a family in there, or renovate.” And that description fits perfectly with what I had seen, and what others had told me.
Nadia* lived in an old colonial villa that housed nine in Epsom. “Someone had renovated it badly,” she said. “The bathroom was super ornate, and had gold details on the taps. There was a sauna.”
“I could cycle to Uni in half an hour,” she said. Her room was priced at $130, though she said the maximum price would have been $180 for a big room. The biggest downside was the cold, said Nadia. “In summer it was wonderful because it stayed cool. I was there from September ’till March… the house [is just] a bit cold and shitty [in winter].” When she moved in, the tenants said there were legal levels of insulation, but she suspected that the high ceilings negated that.
Additionally, there was a “huge” turnover at the house, with two tenants moving in at the same time as Nadia, and four tenants moving out within two months when she left. It was the cheap rent that attracted her initially, but “I wasn’t happy enough to stay… it was $130, it didn’t matter what the place was like.”
“It attracts people who just need a place quickly, and then you move on. It’s not the type of place that you stay,” she said. However, she did note that “I will look back on my time there with a bit of nostalgia.”
Of all of the places I had seen and the people I had spoken to, it was clear that you could get a room for way below the market price if you had the stomach for substandard conditions, and/or a shared room. Flatmates would be luck of the draw. At these prices, privacy went out the window, and the cold would be inevitable.
It brings to light the fact that students are among the most vulnerable to the current housing crisis. I’m fortunate enough to be in a position where I didn’t have to seriously consider any of the proposed rooms—but I know it would be a different story had I been searching a few years earlier.
If you’re in the market—good luck. In whatever price range you’re looking at, there’s likely to be houses that are old, badly insulated, or poorly renovated and damp. My friends rented a property at $200 per person per week, and they were still constantly sick from bronchitis, and didn’t have a back door for six weeks. Even with the new Healthy Homes legislation taking effect in July of this year, landlords don’t need to comply unless there’s a new tenancy that occurs within 90 days of the law coming into effect. This means that those in a current shit house—with a tenancy that started before July—won’t get the changes they need. Existing tenancies don’t need their landlords to comply with the new standards until the 1st July 2024. So if you are about to rent, make sure the house complies with the new standards before you move in.
The state of the housing market, and the options for affordable housing can honestly look quite dismal. But until the government stops playing fast and loose with the housing market, and leaving loopholes for landlords to take advantage of, it seems these are the best options we have.
Illustration by Gabbie De Baron