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The new activism: Students, Serfdom and Sexuality

Steve Nicoll



In the heyday of the Middle Ages, a form of slavery called serfdom gripped Europe. While that may initially appear to bear no relevance today, if we can believe what we read in the newspapers, then it appears we too are heading down a new road to serfdom. Medieval serfdom meant that the lower classes of citizens (serfs) were forced to work on the fields of landowners in return for protection. Unfortunately nothing much has changed, the new lower class has become students, and although we are more free and aspirational than serfs, today renting costs exert pressure on students and create a dependence on landlords analogous to that of medieval serfdom.
While I’ve commented on housing prices in an earlier article, at an average weekly cost of $112 in Wellington, they remain the highest they’ve ever been. The third Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey listed New Zealand as the second highest in the world for housing unaffordability after Australia. It’s a nationwide trend, with Massey University figures showing the current average weekly rental across the country at $280 in February this year, compared with $265 a year ago. This trend looks set to stay, and is largely a consequence of having some of the highest housing costs in the world.
So why is this important (and what does this have to do with sexuality)? To explain that, some context needs to be provided: in the past 10 years the baby boomer generation has been snapping up low to middle priced houses, creating high demand for such properties. While the benefits for the boomers are obvious, it’s made it more expensive to purchase new houses, and increasing aggregate demand for housing has driven up rental costs for students.
Public debate on the matter has been steadily rising to include front page coverage declaring that little is being done. This snowballing effect has led to warnings from those holding the strings of our monetary policy, with Reserve Bank Governor Allan Bollard addressing the crisis with a call for a capital gains tax on investment properties to correct the market.
While that may be good news for students, Labour’s response to Dr Bollard’s sentiments seems impervious. This lack of response will further exacerbate the numbing effects of debt, which, when combined with the student loan system, has led to the new certainty of debt for all. While never before have so many of us faced a financial slavery arguably worse than the loan system, housing prices have until recently been of minor focus to the student activist movement. Personally, I think that’s a shame. If you compare how much high flatting costs impact on students compared to the loan burden, I’d argue that flatting costs deserve equal attention, and are just as important. Renting costs continue long after study, and over time add up to be a significant burden of debt.
It is with gratitude then that this Wednesday our student association is highlighting this issue. This protest however doesn’t involve placards or banjos; just cardboard. In an illustrative example, students will be creating a type of cardboard utopia, called Box City.
Symbolically representing the plight of modern day students with the stated aims of increasing awareness about student hardship, showing concern about rising accommodation costs, and to advocate for universal student allowances, I would like to believe that Box City is the beginning of an attempt to show our government that renting costs are becoming intolerable. There is a lighter side to all this – while raising awareness of flatting affordability, Box City offers the chance to have a sleepover with random strangers. This leads me to the current themed issue of Salient – sexuality. Contributors to this week’s issue include members of UniQ. It’s a celebration of human sexuality along all divisions of the Kinsey scale. Enjoy.
Box City, The Quad, Wed 12pm, BYO box.