Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Unitec student accommodation 'uninhabitable'

2:00PM Friday Sep 04, 2009
The Herald, online, The Weekend Herald, TV3, Newstalk ZB

Some Auckland tertiary students face overwhelming health problems because of the poor accommodation they are forced to live in, a student representative says.

The Unitec Institute of Technology leases two buildings on its Mount Albert campus for accommodation. Three hundred students, many of them from overseas, live there.

There has been a scabies outbreak and two cases of meningitis there, Unitec students' association president Greg Powell said.

It was accommodation close to slum conditions as the buildings were not being maintained, he said.

Each apartment is individually owned by outside parties (a body corporate) so Unitec leases the buildings to rent to the students.

Until recently there was no provision for refunds if unhappy students wanted to leave early. International students must pay their rent for a semester in advance.

Domestic students pay fortnightly for the duration of the period they have signed to stay for, which is usually a year.

Mr Powell said he had for 18 months been fielding complaints from students but conditions had deteriorated recently, making living there a "health hazard".

Some students moved in to find a big blood stain on a mattress, while another student found his mattress covered in ants the day he moved in, Mr Powell said.

At least five people have contracted scabies living there - it was spread through infected mattresses being moved around the rooms.

Gutters were blocked, which caused the water to run down and seep into the walls, increasing dampness problems, he said.

Two residents contracted meningitis - one has been recovering in hospital, the other was Greg Thomas, a first year student.

Mr Thomas is overcoming viral meningitis. He blamed his poor living conditions for the illness and feared he would now fail his course.

Other students spoken to by NZPA complained of low security in the buildings - last month there were five burglaries in three days.

One student said the windows had hardly any resistance and the bedroom doors could be easily opened with a credit card.

Since recent break-ins, Unitec put bars over downstairs windows, making it feel like a prison, said resident Ben Butcher.

"Why make your student accommodation look like a jail?"

Unitec chief financial officer and executive director of finance and infrastructure Paul Conder said it was dealing with each issue.

It would pass complaints to the body corporate.

Unitec needed permission from the apartment owners to make changes on the buildings, he said.

He placed blame on some of the students for not cleaning their apartments properly.

Unitec had responded to insect infestation by fumigating the buildings, and was planning an external review.

By saying it could only make changes with the body corporation's agreement, the Unitec was putting up a "smokescreen" to avoid taking responsibility, Mr Powell said.

"These are their students on their campus, they pay their money to the Unitec cashiers...It's (the accommodation) advertised and marketed as Unitec's in the booklets and pamphlets to overseas students and is on Unitec grounds," he said.

"That screams louder than anything else, it's Unitec problem."

Mr Powell is trying to get a building inspector and the health board to go through the apartments.

Students hated living in the Unitec accommodation and most of them wanted to move out but couldn't for fearing of losing thousands of dollars, he said.

- NZPA