The ANU Housing Action Collective (HAC) held an open forum on Friday 31st of March to provide students with an opportunity to discuss the ongoing national housing crisis. Approximately twenty students attended the forum, mainly those involved with ANUSA and Socialist Alternative (SAlt). Along with group discussion, the forum featured speeches from the ANU General Secretary Phoenix O’Neill (they/them), Ursula Hall Residents’ Committee President Archie Horneman-Wren (he/him) and SAlt member Nick Reich.

The ANU HAC campaign addresses the housing crisis, pushing for three specific demands:

  • Rent freezes on both a national and territory level.
  • Building enough public housing to meet the shortfall.
  • Ending privatised real estate.

The HAC forum aims to involve broader student participation in the campaign and emphasise student voices.

Discussion and debate took place on the sources of the housing crisis for students. O’Neill attributed the crisis to governments “prioritising profits over people.” Others spoke to the dissociation between interest rates, inflation and the housing crisis. Most students agreed that the source of the crisis was the result of empowering landlords, investors and property developers.

This extended to on-campus residential housing. Horneman-Wren argued rent hikes in residential accommodation could be explained by the University’s contractual agreement with Purpose Built Student Accommodation (PBSA) investors. Under this agreement, Horneman-Wren alleged, rent hikes are determined by above-inflation increases.

Students in the forum asked if ANUSA had used the Freedom of Information Act to determine the details of the contract between the ANU and PBSA investors. Organisers explained that it had been used, multiple times, even asking for just the table of contents, but the ANU rejected all attempts.

Horneman-Wren pointed out that the contract is controversial and information on it is limited. An ANU spokesperson maintained that specific details on the agreement cannot be disclosed given it is a confidential commercial agreement. However, what is known is that in 2016 the ANU sold thirty years of revenue from residential tariffs to PBSA in exchange for a one-off payment of $82 million. In 2019, PSBA sold the same investment to hedge fund AMP Capital for $162 million, almost doubling the amount the ANU received.

In contrast to the arguments in the forum, the ANU spokesperson stated that “Annual rent variations are linked to CPI [inflation rate]” and as an additional condition, “rent for all room types are to be equal or less than 75% of the market value.” Speakers at the forum argued that this condition does not recognise unique student needs and that it ultimately prioritises the profits of investors over the well-being of students, many of whom live below the poverty line.

According to the Australian Taxation Office, the market value for university residential halls “must represent an amount a willing but not anxious buyer is prepared to pay. ”An ANU spokesperson suggested that the University follows this, claiming that “on-campus rent levels remain affordable”, and, “the high occupancy for [campus accommodation] demonstrates that [it is] a very affordable option for the student population”.

However, high occupancy rates may not be the most accurate indicator of student affordability since many first year students, who are guaranteed on-campus accommodation, are supported by parental income. Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds face the option of working long hours to afford campus housing, or moving to a cheaper suburb. Current and future rent increases can come at the cost of diversity and can potentially create a class divide in residential halls.

The relatively uncomplicated procedure of applying for and accepting campus accommodation (compared to off-campus options), and the guaranteed first-year accommodation could also explain the high occupancy rates. Horneman-Wren believes, “ANU is a university where most students who are enrolled come from far away.” Interstate and international students may accept the trade-off of paying high levels of rent for the safer option of student accommodation, in a city that is foreign to them.

Woroni spoke to an international student who lives off-campus because residential tariffs were too high. She explained, “the biggest challenge is to find a suitable place and a good house,” elaborating, “you need to find a house online, contact the host, do the inspections [and then] if you have done all these things, the last one is to sign a contract which you need to be very careful with [to avoid] legal issues later.” The process can take weeks, and can be especially exhausting for students who are not familiar with the ACT, or who have no prior experience in renting or securing a rental property.

While most first-year students are likely to accept the trade-off, however, other students have been moving away. Woroni spoke to one such student who lived in Wright Hall for two years until it became unaffordable and she had to relocate off-campus. She explained, “I tried to put in Unilodge” as her preferred accommodation, one of the cheaper on-campus accommodation options. The student was ultimately placed in her third preferred option for residential accommodation, which was still not affordable – forcing her to move off campus.

Although the discussion of student accommodation was frequent in the forum, attendees debated whether on-campus student accommodation should be at the forefront of the campaign. Many students argued that students living off-campus face a similar situation with commercial renting. As Reich elaborated, “62% of renters are on rental stress, which means they spend 30% of their income on just getting a roof over their heads.”

56% of people under the poverty line are renters, while Canberra is the most expensive city in Australia to rent in. Students at the ANU have to take up renting in suburbs far away from the campus to find affordable housing. Suburbs around the Acton campus such as Reid, Turner, O’Connor, Yarralumla and Braddon, are additionally, some of the most expensive suburbs in the ACT. Students have had to relocate to cheaper suburbs, much further from campus, such as Tuggergong and Belconnen. Woroni spoke to students who explained that relocation far from campus presented its own costs, particularly that of private transport including fuel prices and the cost of parking on campus.

In the latter half, the forum focused on the organisational capacities and the ambitions of the campaign. Students argued whether a push for increasing housing capacity by the territory government should be prioritised over addressing rent increases broadly. A counter argument was that rent increases occur because of self-interested investors; increasing the supply of housing will not decrease the prices.

As of the first forum, attendance from the general student body unaffiliated with ANUSA or campus political factions was low. Attendees argued the campaign should emphasise the broad consensus of more affordable housing in protests, elaborating, “It’s easier to understand that everyone needs a house.” The forum deemed targeting legislative policies and the ANU’s policies on residential housing difficult for the wider student body to understand.

Other students pointed out this may alienate students who identify with the crisis through their understanding of policy, and would prefer to see the campaign organise in-house negotiations, or lobbying, for more affordable housing. SAlt members emphasised the need for radicalised and disruptive protests, however given the absence of general student voices to substantiate this claim, it is difficult to say how appealing this tactic will be for the broader student body.

The ANU Housing Action Collective is set to organise forums and protests in the foreseeable future, notably against the federal budget in May.

We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.