dead end street:
why students shouldn’t have to live with CLV
Content warning: Mention of bodily injury, medical distress, death and suicide.
So. Campus Living Villages.
For those unaware, CLV are the biggest student accommodation provider in the world. For Christchurch in particular, only three of our eight total student halls and villages are independently owned, thanks to some rather generous charity funds. CLV’s halls, which include Ilam Apartments, Kirkwood Village, Waimairi Village and University Hall itself, boast about the convenience of being close to Uni, as well as some being fully catered. Odds are, if you’re an international student, or don’t have the option of flatting, you’re in one of CLV’s residential buildings. Well, at least you should be, seeing as how lockdown has just ended.
When Level 4 lockdown conditions were announced back in March, students had less than 48 hours’ notice to figure out whether or not they should go back home to their families. If they didn’t, that’d mean two whole months without seeing them, and any travel, air or otherwise, deemed as ‘non-essential’ would land them with a costly fine and potential arrest. It’s important to note that both the University and CLV recommended that if a student could go home before Level 4 was put into effect, they should. So many did, and for many different reasons – some chose to go on their own accord, some were essentially ordered home by their respective parents.
In this vacuum of anxiety-ridden time wherein so much being within arm’s length of another human being would sound alarm bells, these absent students weren’t using their rooms. Nor were they eating the catered meals, or using their allotment of power, or washing using the water, because, you know, they weren’t there. Many who left for more familiar territories found themselves without income due to their jobs being nonessential, getting furloughed. None of this seemed to matter to the folks at CLV, though. Students signed the contract so they still had to pay their weekly rent. For empty rooms.
Now, frankly, this isn’t a totally agreeable business decision. While there isn’t any clause in the contracts signed, for what would happen to rent payments during maybe the most unprecedented pandemic event in the nation’s history, anyone can get the fact this isn’t a cool thing for a student accommodation provider to do. It’s especially not cool when three other universities – Lincoln, Massey and Waikato, respectively – decided to halt absent student’s required payments accrued over lockdown out of moral and ethical concerns. Victoria University was one of those that didn’t, until their Student Union threatened a general rent strike, and they subsequently became the fourth. That makes half of the nation’s universities to come out on the side of students, not to mention the three charity-run student halls I mentioned earlier, all of whom stopped payments too. As of the time of writing, the only student accommodations still requiring backlogged payments from students not physically there all just so happen to be owned by CLV.
For Christchurch students in particular, CLV, instead of following after the other universities, instead decided to offer what they called a “very generous” incentive of a 50% discount on lockdown-era rent payments. This is on top of students documented as having to pay double rent for both their empty rooms and their accommodation during lockdown, coupled with lack of employment and potential ineligibility for jobseeker support or student allowance. On top of this, many students didn’t even get the discount CLV so generously offered, being forced to continue paying hundreds a week with the promise of an eventual cash rebate – which, it’s worth noting, they’d be ineligible for if they missed even one full payment. Several inquiries by the NZ Union of Student Associations, of which UC isn’t even a member of but decided to argue our case anyway, elicited the same pointed response, that CLV believe what they were doing was already more than enough, and students being offered the discount should be ‘grateful’ for this pittance. They have since stopped replying to any emails the NZUSA has sent. The University, too, has let this play out without making a single statement for or against.
This is also on top of the entire company taking out more than $900,000 from the COVID-19 wage subsidy offered by the Government, which, in the same brief and pointed email, CLV claims is entirely for payment of their employees. But they still need more, specifically, they need more from the students, the ones who weren’t ever really in a welcome fiscal position to start with.
So maybe you don’t think wringing out students for extra cash during a pandemic is a problem? Perhaps us entitled students should stop being so greedy and accept CLV’s very gracious discount? Well then maybe you’d like to defend that time a student leaned on a railing, only for it to snap, causing him to fall two stories and be sent to the hospital in critical condition, and for CLV, who was responsible for the apartment maintenance in the first place, faced no charges? Or how about that time Residential Assistants at Wellington’s Te Puni Village, CLV owned, ignored a student complaining of severe symptoms of meningitis which subsequently erupted into a life-threating case of influenza where she couldn’t move or breathe properly, and only received help after a solid hour of trying to contact the RA? Oh, how about that one former student who attended University Hall at 2017 who attempted to overdose in her room after months of retreating for study only to wake up the next morning with nobody having checked on her? Or, how about that Mason Pendrous who died and wasn’t found for four weeks because none of the RA’s noticed he was gone, and after he was found, CLV continued to demand the amount owing from his unpaid bills?!
Just because these kids signed a contract doesn’t mean they should be treated with any less compassion that other New Zealand institutions are affording, and corporations should never be given the benefit of the doubt. University accommodation sits outside the Residential Tenancies Act, which in usual circumstances gives tenants’ rights to access the Tenancy Tribunal and iron out poor behavior from landlords. While the government has, in the last month, opened up an investigation into accommodation suppliers’ actions over lockdown, it shouldn’t be remiss for students to speak out about being manipulated like this. We have the power, numbers and voice to let this multinational property magnate know we aren’t happy.
By Lewis Hoban