By WENDY BACON
On 15 May, the NSW government announced a $20 million housing and advice assistance package for international students in NSW.
NSW, which has the most international students and the most expensive housing market, was the last to offer them assistance. Coming after a week of stories featuring images of hungry students queuing for food supplied by the City of Sydney and charities, the package is still only half of what Victoria has offered.
The package was first mentioned in the NSW Parliament Committee Hearing last week by Treasury Secretary Michael Pratt. The NSW Minister for Tertiary Education, Geoff Lee, later tweeted the information. Three days later, no further details have been published.
The Shadow Minister for Tertiary Education Clayton Barr said in a media release that the package was “too little and too late” and “did little to address the serious cost of living pressures faced by international students that have lost their livelihood and are ineligible for JobKeeper and JobSeeker”.
Barr said that he had spoken to students who had walked eight kilometres each way to get their only meal for the day. He expects that the damage done by the NSW government to international students would be experienced for up to three years.
Greens housing spokesperson, Jenny Leong, welcomed the news but told City Hub that this was only a first step in ensuring that ”international students who are an important part of our diverse and multicultural community are treated that way by those in power.”
As reported by the Times Higher Education supplement, the package will be for students to stay in “approved accommodation or in homestay houses”. There is a big range of international student housing options including homestay, university-owned accommodation, private rentals and for-profit purpose-built student accommodation. This last option has surged in recent years.
Although Australian universities have competed for international students to raise funds for research and domestic programs, they are reluctant to provide safe, affordable housing for these students because it could reduce the profitability of their core education business. So this task has been increasingly off-loaded to the private sector.
For-profit student housing boom
The number of international student beds in Australian capital cities has grown rapidly in the last five years. Student housing has proved so profitable that it now constitutes its own real estate investment asset class. Purpose Built Student Housing or PBSH is driven by some of the biggest global real estate investors.
2020 was predicted by real estate analysts to be the biggest year yet – until Covid-19 hit. Thousands of students suddenly lost their ability to pay rent when they lost their jobs or their parents lost jobs in their home countries. There have been very few new students arriving. A business model that depends on high occupancy and rent flows has been well and truly disrupted.
One of Australia’s biggest providers of student housing is IGLU. IGLU was founded in 2010 when project developer Plenary Group backed Jonathan Gliksten and Richard Smith to move into the market. By 2014, IGLU owned more than 900 beds in Sydney and Brisbane. Plenary then sold its stake to Student Accommodation Company Pty Ltd, which is a fully owned subsidiary of GIC (Realty) Private Ltd, part of the investment arm of the Singapore government. Gliksten, whose hobbies include racing Porsche cars and street photography, declined to answer even basic questions about his company. However, an Australian Securities and Investment Corporation (ASIC) search shows that he and Smith both are still directors and own approximately half of IGLU.
IGLU is just one of GIC’s PBSH investments. It is the second biggest player in the global student housing market, having invested US$4.5 billion student accommodation since 2016 in the UK, US Germany and Australia. (The biggest player is Greystar which is the global leader in private rentals with 50,000 rooms on the market. It has invested US$6.6bn in student accommodation over the last three years in the US and four European countries.)
IGLU now has four student housing blocks in Inner Sydney and a property at Chatswood. It is building another block in Redfern with its own “IGLU Retail Precinct” which is due to open in February, and has another development in the pipeline at Mascot. The second Redfern development was approved by the NSW Planning Commission despite the opposition of the City of Sydney and local residents. One of the problems with these developments is that they cannot be adapted to other forms of housing. For example, the floor to ceiling heights of rooms do not meet general housing standards.
In Victoria, IGLU already has two housing developments in Melbourne’s CBD, with two more on the way. IGLU is in partnership with several universities which promote its for-profit housing on their websites. Its housing is promoted as convenient, boutique, and in easy reach of trendy retail shops. However, the Australian market that has begun to tighten as an even bigger global provider SCAPE has received Foreign Investment Review Board approval at the end of March to purchase another big provider Urbanest. This is a huge $2 billion deal, adding 7000 rooms and 14 buildings across Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide. SCAPE will have 16,000 rooms and is backed by real estate investment heavyweights Allianz Real Estate, AXA Real Estate Investment Managers and APG Asset Management Asia. It has publicly acknowledged that its occupancy has fallen dramatically since the Covid 19 crisis began.
IGLU is expensive, even compared to other private rental options in the unaffordable Sydney market. A single room in a six-bedroom share apartment is more than A$500 a week, although this does include utilities and WiFi. A studio apartment is more than $600 a week. This is on top of fees which even for cheaper degrees are more than $110,00 and can be much more. Students who can afford IGLU rents would either need to come from rich families or have jobs. Most depend on the latter. Even assuming students bring the $21,000 recommended by the Australian government to cover their first year of living expenses in Australia, they would not be able to afford to stay at IGLU or other for-profit providers without a job.
Housing activists stop eviction
On May 8, the usually quiet IGLU Chatswood housing complex was the focus of a small but raucous Housing Defence Coalition (HDC) ‘socially distanced’ protest. As City Hub’s reporter approached, chants of “Housing is a human right” reverberated around the uncharacteristically empty streets and high rise apartment blocks. HDC, which is a coalition of organisations “committed to defending vulnerable people” in precarious housing during the Covid-19 pandemic, was protesting against the threatened eviction of a student.
In April, HDC supported a successful student-led protest that resulted in UNSW and University of Sydney guaranteeing that there would be no further attempts to evict students from their housing (not IGLU). The group also successfully protested for a temporary stop to an eviction in St Peters.
When City Hub’s reporter arrived at the IGLU protest, a large box of food survival packs was being delivered to students inside the building. An agitated IGLU director Jonathan Gliksten was outside the building loudly accusing the protesters of being unfair.
The protest was triggered by an eviction order sent by IGLU Chatswood Manager Daniel Browne to Yifan Chen (not real name) who had not paid rent for some time. Although there is officially a formal ban on evictions in NSW, Browne’s letter which HDC published on Facebook instructed the student that “your right to remain at IGLU Chatswood will be irrevocably revoked.”
It ordered Chen to clear his personal belongings and hand in his keys. After settling all debts, he was to leave the building. Most intimidating of all was the threat that if Chen failed to comply, his security deposit could be withheld and if that did not cover the debts “we may refer your outstanding balance to an external debt collection agency.”
Chen, who had nowhere to go and no money, contacted the Housing Defence Coalition. He told them, “I ran out of money due to failure to receive it from my family overseas due to financial issues caused by Covid-19. I have been living off vouchers received from uni. I got an eviction notice from IGLU due to non-payment. They told me to evict in less than 2 weeks. This was very frightening and left me in a trauma as I have no other place to go.”
HDC wrote to Browne and the Vice-Chancellor of Macquarie University Bruce Dowson. “We, the Sydney Housing Defence Coalition, are writing on behalf of international students at IGLU Chatswood, “to express our outrage at your attempt to evict a Macquarie Uni international student from your premises due to non-payment of rent.”
On May 6, Browne responded by a Facebook message: “We are not enforcing any evictions in line with the government moratorium. We did have one student that we have since revoked a termination as he was not responding to our emails and we thought he had left the country. I would like this post removed or clarified as we are not evicting international students.”
The eviction notice was withdrawn. But there was no guarantee that Chen or other students would not be pressured to pay rent that they could no longer afford. HDC followed up with a signed letter to Macquarie University from 200 students, academics and community members in support of the HDC stance. They argued that students have a “right to housing during this crisis, and the University has a duty to make this clear beyond all doubt.”. They called for a guarantee of no evictions, secure housing and no rent debt for student tenants.
Although the eviction threat was withdrawn, HDC went ahead with the protest to highlight the need for students not to be further harassed to pay rent during the crisis.
Gliksten told City Hub at the protest that the company regretted issuing the eviction notice and that IGLU had now offered the student some rent reduction but would not say how much. He said he had been spending a lot of time looking after students in his housing.
But in an angry exchange with the protesters, Gliksten continued to claim that the email was sent by mistake and that IGLU thought the student was overseas. Asked for comment, the HDC spokesperson Bridget Harilaou rejected this claim as “untrue as they threatened to send Australian debt collectors to the student, so if the student was overseas why would they issue this threat? They also requested keys to be returned, which had to be done in person.” HDC also said that even if it had been a mistake, sending such an email “could have endangered a student’s life and made them homeless” which was “a violation of duty of care towards tenants.”
Gliksten’s claim that IGLU thought the student was overseas was further undermined by another email obtained by HDC that revealed that Browne understood that there was a difficulty in transferring money from India and had offered to delay the eviction if $389 was paid. IGLU also referred the student to Macquarie University welfare services.
HDC also told City Hub about other cases of IGLU evictions and a case where a student who returned home was still being charged rent. City Hub attempted to contact IGLU, which unusually does not have any head office contact number or information about the company online. We left a message with a receptionist at an IGLU housing project who said they would contact Gliksten.
Two days later, Lisa Nixon, who works for PR agency BDS Communications, contacted the author and agreed to transmit a list of questions to IGLU. IGLU declined to answer any of these questions including those dealing with other alleged evictions, its relationship with universities and basic information about the company’s business.
HDC also accuses Macquarie University ( MQ) which has a partnership with IGLU of not “lifting a finger to ensure Iglu suspends rents of desperate students. Students are being ruthlessly squeezed for every cent by a multinational with over $150 million in assets. (The university) have shamefully stood by while their student was threatened with homelessness in a pandemic despite Iglu flats sitting empty.”
Macquarie University is currently offering half scholarships to its domestic students to take up a room at IGLU but the nature of its relationship with IGLU is unclear. City Hub asked Macquarie University a series of questions about financial arrangements between IGLU and Macquarie but a spokesperson replied, “ We do not disclose details of commercial arrangements with accommodation providers.”
The spokesperson also said, “Macquarie University has been working closely with Iglu at Chatswood and the student concerned in the case mentioned, which was resolved quickly as soon as we were made aware of the circumstances. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic we have been working together with our accommodation providers, including IGLU, to support all affected students and we continue to have excellent working relationships with all accommodation providers housing our students.”
The university referred City Hub to its support package which included loans which need to be paid back by September 1, a $250 voucher and grants of $2000. The latter would help cover expenses for a month at IGLU, so long as an unemployed student could otherwise afford to eat.
HDC is still demanding a suspension of rents. There is no doubt that the huge real estate funds that have invested in student housing can afford to take a cut in profits, as a contribution to sharing the pain of Covid-19. A lack of transparency means it is impossible to know how they have responded to the crisis. For those students who do not have an income, rent reductions of 25% will do little to help them no build up huge debts. They have begun offering short term stays which turn the student accommodation into a form of a residential hotel.
This week international students who have remained in Australia are still queuing for food as they wait to hear what benefits will flow directly to them from the NSW $20 million package. Underlying their plight are bigger questions about how international students have been exploited by Australia and whether housing provided the profit-driven global real estate industry is in the best interests of students.
HDC warned that they are continuing to follow up cases of vulnerable tenants and if necessary, will take more actions. Spokesperson Bridget Harilaou said, “Housing should not be a commodity in which you become homeless if you don’t have the financial capacity to buy a roof over your head, but especially not for international students who are currently completely locked out of any income from hospitality or retail employment.
“With no access to welfare from the Australian government and no way to travel home, they are essentially being made destitute, and the threat of homelessness is absolutely morally bankrupt on the parts of for-profit housing companies like IGLU.
The group accused universities of being complicit in exploiting the lack of knowledge of students around housing, including higher than average rental prices and contracts that are “complicated to get out of if your circumstances change, and incredibly unforgiving should your financial situation change.”
City Hub certainly found that there is a lack of transparency in the arrangements between public universities and real estate interests involved in the student housing market. This is not in the interests of students or the broader community.
Wendy Bacon, who was previously the Professor of Journalism at UTS, will continue to investigate housing issues for City Hub. She can be contacted through Twitter DM or Signal. Information can be emailed to