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International students are victim to deceptive and financially exploitative practices in Sydney’s housing market, both when finding housing and as tenants, according to a new report by UNSW Sydney’s Human Rights Clinic.

Limited availability of student housing and high rental costs in Sydney mean international students most commonly live in share houses. In this under-regulated segment of the housing market, landlords exploit international students’ lack of knowledge of local conditions and legal rights, according to the report No Place Like Home.

The report draws on responses of focus groups with international students at multiple universities across Sydney, interviews with a range of Sydney legal service providers and university housing advisors, and analysis of advice data from the Kingsford Legal Centre UNSW between October 2017 and April 2018.

“Many international students pay money upfront to unverified landlords they find online,” said Maria Nawaz, Lecturer and Clinical Supervisor at UNSW Human Rights Clinic. “When they arrive in Sydney and housing turns out to be much worse than advertised or other things go wrong, they’re often not legally protected as tenants and face barriers to getting help.”

The report identifies a range of serious housing problems that international students encounter in Sydney. For example, some landlords demand international students pay a much larger bond or more advance rent than the law allows, or impose sudden rent increases or exorbitant charges for basic utilities. International students confront harassment by landlords or fellow tenants and may be suddenly evicted; others are subjected to overcrowding or unsafe conditions. These problems can affect international students’ mental health and place them under significant financial pressure that may impact their academic studies.

The report shows international students in share houses often do not get a receipt for their bond and do not have a written tenancy agreement. In these situations, if housing conditions become intolerable or international students face sudden eviction, they lack tenancy rights under NSW law and face obstacles in recovering rental bonds. The authors note that, unlike many local students, when things go wrong with their housing, international students often have no family or social support and nowhere else to go.

The analysis of advice file data at Kingsford Legal Centre revealed the most common problems for which international students sought help were perpetration of scams including deceptive or exploitative conduct by landlords (38%), followed by problems recovering their rental bond (25%). Other issues presented were poor living conditions, harassment or assault by the landlord and improper eviction.

The report is authored by the UNSW Human Rights Clinic, an experiential learning program in which senior law students undertake real-world human rights casework and reports under the supervision of leading human rights lawyers in the UNSW Law Faculty.

In 2018, there was a record 548,000 international students at universities, vocational colleges, English colleges and schools in Australia. Many live in Australia’s large cities, with 35,000 in City of Sydney’s local council area alone.

“We’re seeing exploitation of international students in share houses and other dark corners of Sydney’s rental market that is going unchecked, with many international students either suffering in silence or unable to get redress,” said Bassina Farbenblum, director of the UNSW Human Rights Clinic and a senior lecturer at UNSW Law. “The Commonwealth and NSW governments, local councils, and education providers can take key measures to address these problems immediately, while pursuing longer term goals of building additional quality student housing.”

The authors recommend a range of measures that can reduce international students’ vulnerability to deceptive and exploitative conduct by landlords and ensure international students can get help and redress when their rights are violated. These include improving international students’ access to information and tenancy services and strengthening their legal rights. They also recommend establishing greater accountability for landlords, enabling students to identify quality providers, and increasing international students’ ability to pay for better accommodation by providing travel concessions as in every other Australian state.

The report is available at the UNSW Human Rights Clinic website.