24 October 2022

Maintenance access, strict contracts leave students feeling vulnerable

| Darlene Rowlands
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Student accommodation

Lena Karmel Lodge is one of four ANU residences managed by UniLodge Australia. Photo: Darlene Rowlands.

Maintenance staff letting themselves into apartments, a lack of tenancy rights and limited flexibility are among the list of grievances raised by students living in ANU-managed accommodation.

More than 5000 students live in 14 residences on the ANU campus, including four that are contracted to UniLodge Australia. All the students are considered occupants rather than tenants under the Residential Tenancies Act.

According to Deb Pippen, an ACT Shelter research and policy coordinator, this small distinction has consequences.

“They do not have the same protections as tenants,” Ms Pippen said. “Instead of a standard tenancy agreement (lease), occupants are only covered by a handful of what are known as occupancy principles.”

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Students sign the ANU Occupancy Agreement at the start of their time living there. Conditions include a rule that gives maintenance workers permission to enter an ANU resident’s room using a master key if no one answers after three knocks on the door.

This has led to some students, particularly young women, feeling unsafe in their own rooms.

One student (name withheld) told Region she was in the shower when she heard her studio apartment door open and close. She had not heard any knocks on the door but found a maintenance worker had entered to replace her air-conditioning filter.

“It was quite frightening for me,” the woman said. “There is no lock on my bathroom door and I was in a vulnerable situation as a young woman with an unknown person in my apartment.”

The student contacted residence management about the incident and said she hadn’t “felt safe or secure in my own apartment” since. She claimed she knew several other students who had had similar incidents with maintenance access.

Management has since apologised and different access arrangements have been offered.

Nevertheless, the woman said she still worried it would happen to others who haven’t specifically made a no-access arrangement.

Uni campus residences

ANU residences allow maintenance workers to enter apartments with a master key. Photo: Darlene Rowlands.

An ANU spokesperson said it was not uncommon under any occupancy agreement for property owners to access residences for the purpose of maintenance, and residents were informed in advance.

Azraa Hussain was a presidential candidate in the recent ANU student association elections and campaigned on a platform of improving occupancy agreements at campus residences.

She was spurred on by her own attempts to break out of an occupancy agreement during ACT lockdown last year. She was required to provide “a plethora of medical documentation” with a personal statement and evidence for why the request should be approved by management.

“[The fact] that it is more difficult to break out of the contract is the main issue our ticket focused on,” Ms Hussain said. “I tried to break out of the contract for a whole bunch of different reasons.

“Given we are paying for this service, it shouldn’t be an additional struggle to leave should you need to.”

According to an ANU spokesperson, occupancy agreements at university residences range from 44 to 52 weeks in line with the full academic year.

“This is so the university can ensure that the demand for student accommodation is met as well as provide all residents with certainty when it comes to their accommodation during the academic year,” the spokesperson said.

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When signed, the agreements remain “in place until its date of expiration […] unless agreed between the grantor and the occupant.

“This is a common and standard feature of any occupancy agreement, including non-ANU and private agreements.”

Ms Pippen said stricter rental terms of occupancy agreements were “created in such a way as to benefit the accommodation provider [and] to make the most money for them”, disadvantaging students in the process.

When students such as Ms Hussain want or need to leave their agreement early, Ms Pippen said, “many people won’t even challenge or ask for a review and will just pay to the end of the agreement”.

Ms Hussain was required to meet with residence management multiple times to discuss her request to leave the agreement. Although she was ultimately permitted to move out, she had to enter a payment plan to manage the additional two and a half months of rent she was directed to pay.

Ms Pippen said occupancy agreements could ”differ markedly from each other, so there is no consistency if you move through different occupancies”.

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Broadly, she said, “these agreements are designed for the maximum benefit of the provider, making it easy for them to access the property, terminate agreements, impose rules, increase rent”.

“Renter advocates for years have sought to have the occupancy principles removed and instead have new standard agreements for different tenures such as student accommodation.”

Ms Hussain recognises that there are distinct benefits to the residential structure at ANU. The student accommodations exercise a duty of care over residents, and grant pastoral care scholarships to certain students in exchange for free or discounted rent.

Since the residences are fundamentally “built out around pastoral care”, Ms Hussain said she didn’t think universities would move away from occupancy agreements but she would like to ensure students are more aware of what they’re signing up for.

“It’s incredibly complicated, especially when the people signing these agreements are typically fresh out of high school and have no experience of signing up to anything on this scale.”

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