Wellington landlords have never had it better. Ample students fight for a limited amount of flats kept in poor condition. SALIENT Feature Writer Brannavan Gnanalingam looks at the trends and their implications in the Wellington housing rental market.
Wellington is certainly a unique place to live. Unlike most cities, there aren’t clear areas for certain groups such as students or ethnic minorities to live. Cities like Dunedin or Auckland for example, have strong student or ethnic areas. Go to places like Sydney, London or Los Angeles, and this is even more pronounced. Perhaps this has something to do with Wellington’s compactness, or perhaps widely differing standards of housekeeping (hovels co-existing with middle-class fortresses eg. Kelburn). But whatever the reason, Wellington is a pretty varied place. This is even the case when you go out into the suburbs. While places like Waitangarua, Naenae or Wainuiomata aren’t exactly endowed with the greatest reputations, you’ll still find pockets of middle-class suburbia within them. Naenae has Waddington Drive, Wainuiomata has hippies on farms, while the main road on Waitangarua leads to Whitby, a rich, white enclave renowned for its snobbery. In fact this road reputedly has the the biggest rich/poor divide in New Zealand. This all suggests that Wellington and its adjoining areas are a pretty mixed up place where young, rich, student and poor mix freely.
Yet within this, there are areas where students congregate. Obviously, the closer to university you are, the more likely you’ll witness students. And for many, Kelburn and the Aro Valley have proven (or will prove to be) a place for a flatter’s rite-of-passage, a Studentville that tries to match Dunedin, if a little warmer. And no doubt, for many first-years and first-time flatters, these will be the places to hunt around. Helen, from Victoria University’s Accommodation Services, says, “Kelburn is still pretty popular with students because it’s so close to the Kelburn campus where all their first year papers are taught.” Jules van Cruysen, a fourth year Aroite (who achieved brief Dominion Post fame by highlighting his shitty Cuba Street flat that had “no insulation, big glass windows with single panes” and “we often would lose things like TVs, which were thrown out the window into the Bucket Fountain”) says he was attracted to the Valley because “it’s still really quite central, but it’s a lot quieter than in the city. It’s a nice environment. It’s a nice community.” He also concedes, “I really did want to be an Aro Street hipster.”
“…it’s dark and dingy. And really damp. And mouldy. And it’s gross. But in summer it’s really nice.”
There are the obvious drawbacks of living in a place like Aro Valley. Van Cruysen says when talking about his current flat “it’s dark and dingy. And really damp. And mouldy. And it’s gross. But in summer it’s really nice.” Other people have identified the smelly water, the occasionally lazy (well non-committal) landlords and the high frequency of people who go to cafés and sit around in bare feet and scratch their bellies. Also there are a number of people who think that because Aro is such a small community that it’s all right to tell businesses, “I’ll pay you on Friday.” Yet that is an aspect which attracts people to Aro, a small community traditionally seen as a congregation point for students and hippies. However factors like location were very important for van Cruysen in choosing Aro. “Location is definitely more important because of the transport thing. Especially in winter, it’s either a three minute, four minute walk to school or town, or it’s a bus ride and a walk. It’s not worth saving what’s only about $10, $20 a week.” It was also a cheaper place to live. However, the important word is was. If you have the choice between a shitty flat and a nice one, both at a relatively expensive price, does the comfort factor win out?
An interesting comparison would be to look at Dunedin. Dunedin is a city where students have segregated off an area right around the university. It’s also notorious for flats so cold that if you open your fridge door it’d act as a heater. I talk to Rachel Haas, a Dunedin Masters student and filmmaker, in her fifth year of studying. Having lived in a couple of slums, she remembers fondly the “social experience – you have to huddle in the lounge because everyone’s in the lounge. Or you go to the pub.” However it changes as you get a bit older. “This year I’ve been in a flat where I haven’t had that ‘oh my god, I cannot get out of bed today’ feeling. It’s amazing how insulation keeps your house warm.” When asked if she can go back to the old-type of flat she emphatically states “oh no way. You kinda just get sick of it after three years of just constantly being cold. You would be in all your clothes in bed and your sleeping bag.” This is the traditional, romanticised notion of Dunedin. No doubt the Scarfie lifestyle will still hold interest for generations of students to come. There’ll still be the “pissheads who will run sledgehammers through walls, or as in our flat chop wood inside, or have tried to burn the place down.”
Yet this has completely changed in Dunedin. Haas says, “we’ve got too many flats for students, whereas a few years ago there were too many students for flats, so the landlords have had to put in a bit more effort.” The reaction to the previous surplus of students was for landlords to dramatically increase their prices, without having to worry about doing any work to the flat. So suddenly when there’s a uniform increase in price coupled with too many flats (which includes ones which have actually been done up), you’ve got a totally different situation. If a complete dive is the same price as nice flats that “have a lot better facilities, they’re kinda like old family homes with good upkeep”, it’s of no surprise that there’s a reaction against the traditional time honoured lifestyle. Why tolerate expensive shitty flats if you know there are alternatives at the same price?
This hasn’t completely altered everything. Haas suggests “but then, the expensive, shitty flats, if they are close to your friends, you might still go for it. Despite there being a surplus of flats, a lot of the good flats are further away, so it’s a twenty minute walk to uni. People won’t put up with it once they’ve been in a hall where they’ve had a two minute walk to class. It’s the social side of things that really dictates where people live.” Especially in the first year out of the hostel, people want to live close to the friends they had such close contact with the year before. However, there is evidence of a shift occurring down South. Haas says “there’s a lot more money in Dunedin these days than there used to be, you need a lot of money to come down here. You could have people who are not willing to put up with it and who are willing to pay an extra ten dollars for a bit of insulation. You still don’t get much insulation anyway.” It’s also a lesson for lazy landlords who assume tenants will be desperate to live in a place no matter what.
So can a similar effect be occurring in Wellington? Van Cruysen says despite living in some holes, until his current flat (where his flatmate’s parents own the flat), “I’ve never ever talked to a landlord and that’s three years of flatting.” Having seen the inevitable scrum around February for flats (there is a lot of demand in Wellington at the moment), it’d be easy for a landlord to become complacent and not to do anything about the condition of flats. For example one student mentions he lived in a shitheap and paid $140 for it. He moved out after telling the landlord the flat was unlivable, the landlord painted the walls, and then charged the place out at $150. All that would be needed is for something similar to what happened in Dunedin, too many flats and not enough tenants, and the poorly maintained ones would potentially go tenantless.
Wellington however has a few more complicating factors. Because Wellington’s not a student town, there’s a much freer mix of families, young corporates and the rest. However there is also the small matter of the housing market boom. Houses are bought, done up and sold off at ever increasing prices. Rent prices have followed accordingly. Van Cruysen says this has had an effect in Aro. “There’s still quite a few students, but a lot of student flats have been sold because they fetch high prices.” He admits if his landlords’ son wasn’t living in his flat, “it would have been sold years ago.” All of a sudden the process of gentrification takes over a notoriously shitty (but loveable shitty) area like Aro. Since Aro’s got this edgy feel to it, it will prove popular to young corporates and working people trying to buy their way into it. It’s like when you were at school and you were second-hand cool because you’d hang out with all the cool kids. And just like school, when your presence makes hanging out no longer possible, everyone cool leaves. Suddenly the area slowly and subtly mutates. This also happens with rented properties. If you’re a landlord and having to choose between a dreaded student with his own fly swarm and a hot-shot junior solicitor, the choice isn’t too difficult. Also since it’s close to the city, work and schools, families will also be attracted to the area.
Suddenly the slow gentrification process suggests Wellington’s landscape may be changing. While there aren’t any specific trends to highlight according to Accomodation Services – “nothing’s really changed”– significant amounts of anecdotal evidence suggests there may be a subtle shift already taking place. In fact, student populations are always being forced to relocate in Wellington. The popular Ghuznee Street student flats, which up to the 70s where places were cockroaches, Communism and the clap congregated, were destroyed to make way for the urban motorway. The flats along Willis Street are being made way for the Inner City Bypass. Dilapidated student blocks in the central city have made way for exclusive apartment blocks. The process of gentrification could have just as wide-ranging an effect, though not as dramatic.
Students have been known to flat in places like Newlands or Johnsonville – simply a fifteen to twenty minute journey, but about fifty dollars cheaper a week in rent.
Simon Sweetman, who has lived in Wellington for twelve years says that, “when I started Uni and moved to Wellington the only places you flatted were Aro Valley, Kelburn or in the city. Karori maybe if you were at Teachers College, but never as far out as Newtown.” Now, it is actually quite common for students to be living out in Newtown, Island Bay, Roseneath or Kilbirnie. It has also been said, that “Newtown is the new Aro Valley”. Students have been known to flat in places like Newlands or Johnsonville – simply a fifteen to twenty minute journey, but about fifty dollars cheaper a week in rent. One student, Gareth Prosser, who lived out in Newlands, said it was “cheap. I didn’t need to get any references. I knew the people who owned it, I was flatting with friends.”
Choice will also be impacted by campus changes. If people traditionally live around the campus they go to, what effect has the splintering of Victoria’s campus had on student accomodation? Accomodation Services have noted that law and commerce students now look closer to their new campuses. And while Wellington isn’t that big to make Kelburn a marathon to get home from Pipitea, areas like Thorndon are certainly becoming more popular. It’s perhaps too early to figure out the impact the opening of the new Rutherford campus will have, but this may lead to further student dilution in the traditional spots of Kelburn and Aro Valley.
As you get older, there is also a suggestion you’ll be less tolerant of living in squalour. Sweetman says “I moved out to Island Bay because I needed a change…via Berhampore for a few months. It was great to get out of the City – I lived on The Terrace for close to 5 years, in a total dive. It was a total dump but it was 3 minutes walk from University and a maximum of 5 into town, and at the time it was only $88 a week with a carpark off-street. So it was hard to beat. But we lived like pigs – and loved it for a while. But it was time to grow up and move out eventually.” Going back doesn’t really appeal either. “I never personally liked Aro Valley; for the dampness and for the politics. It just didn’t appeal to me. Kelburn’s not so bad, but only if you’re near the shops I think. I like to live in a suburb area for a reason, it’s near bus-stops, shops and gardens and things.”
People will always have different motivations for choosing where they live. Rob Short, a Masters student from England who lives in Aro Valley says, “location is more important then rent, but that could be seen as a post-grad perspective, although you could argue it either way. Having lived centrally, I think I’d find it annoying to live in Kelburn. Living close to University is good, but I guess the buses are pretty good so it ain’t the end of the world.” Sweetman says, “the main thing was always price. But when I moved to Berhampore it was partly to actually remove myself from the city. It was a nice place, at a reasonable price. But the main reason was to actually create some distance from myself and the city; I was at uni part-time and could justify the distance. It was time for a break.”
However the increase in rent could potentially affect choices. Helen from Accommodation Services says “there certainly have been increases in price around Kelburn and that’s because landlords have caught on to the fact that they are near the university.” She suggests prices have been steadily rising “usually about seven or eight dollars a year. This year, the average cost is about $130 a week. But if you’re living in the city, it could range from about $140 to $160, even $170 a week. If you’re living in the suburbs it’s probably going to be $120, $110 maybe even less.” It isn’t unheard of for flats to go for $70 in the Hutt or in Newlands. With such a big increase in price (five years ago, $100 dollars would have been seen as a rip-off) it may be understandable that there is a slow trek outwards. The compactness of the city and the reasonable bus system means living out a bit further isn’t an insurmountable problem.
However, similar to Dunedin, most people in their first year of flatting will want to maintain close contact with people from their halls. So it may indeed continue to be an early flatting experience to start off with places like Aro and Kelburn. Van Cruysen says “there’s a lot to be said for living in a shitty flat for a couple of years. It’s a good character building exercise”. However with increasing rents, change in university campuses, gentrification, the overall increase in student living and the varying quality of places, students may find themselves looking closer at where they end up choosing to live.
I can say what I like though. You’re probably going to go flat near your friends anyway.