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City living a trap for many international students

James Shackell

Tue Jan 03 2012


High-density living in Melbourne carries a certain glamour. It’s a lifestyle choice. Residents are willing to sacrifice some comforts (privacy, space, a back yard) for the chance to live in a central CBD location surrounded by parks, shopping, convenient public transport and coffee. Over the last decade, international students have been a driving force behind this trend.

Nearly half the population of the City of Melbourne, around 40,000 residents, are students.

In a paper published in the journal Urban Policy and Research in 2009, academics Maryann Wullf and Michele Lobo from the School of Geography and Environmental Science at Monash University discovered that between 2001 and 2006, 54% of young singles moving into the inner city were from overseas.

Many of these international students now live in purpose-built, high-density accommodation north of the CBD, in close proximity to Melbourne University and RMIT.

For Dr. Alan Davies, blogger and principle of Melbourne-based economic and planning consultancy Pollard Davies Pty Ltd, there are some positives to be drawn from this high-density trend.

“A key benefit is it enables more people to experience a high value location than would be the case if housing were low density.”

“That increase has provided a large permanent population who ‘enliven’ the CBD through their use of its services and facilities.”

Of course, as Dr. Davies admits, one of the generic drawbacks of high density living is its cost. The demand for student housing has risen sharply over the last 16 years or so: in 2008 there were 435,263 tertiary-level international students enrolled in Australia, compared to less than 100,000 in 1994. Developers have not been able to keep up with this increase, creating a shortage of affordable housing options.

“As a result dwellings are substantially smaller than on the periphery,” says Davies.  “Markets mitigate this to a degree by building at higher densities, but planning rules constrict their ability to expand supply.”

But these generic problems really only tell half the story. The other half required more specific research.

In their seminal 2009 paper, Transnational and Temporary, academics Professor Ruth Fincher, Professor Paul Carter, Associate Professor Paulo Tombesi and Dr Kate Shaw set out to discover how ‘place-making’ occurs in communities consisting largely of temporary transnational students. Their investigation focussed largely on the impact of high-density, purpose-built student accommodation in Australia, and what they discovered was a system in shambles.

Since the universities themselves had not anticipated the housing shortage, the private sector stepped in to meet the demand, rushing plans for high-density living through council with no real overarching policy.

Not only were these apartments small and cramped, students were paying some of the highest comparative rental rates in the city (in some cases up to $350 a week for a single bedroom studio apartment).

As Dr. Kate Shaw explains, it is the knowledge gap between local and international students that is largely responsible for high rental prices.

“Local students apparently find the high density housing around University of Melbourne too small, too dense, too high security and too expensive,” she says.

“They tend to know the market better and can find better housing for less. As they are often coming from a secure local base they can afford the time to look around.”

By marketing their new developments to international students who were unaware of alternative housing options, controlling companies could inflate the market with impunity.

That international students were the target for these developments is not really in doubt; the study found many apartment blocks with a 100% international student population, the average being around 95%.

The study also discovered that, by living in high-density ‘closed’ communities, international students were less likely to interact with locals. Apartment blocks themselves were built with few communal areas, and many students reported feeling socially isolated.

Since 2009, the city council has adopted a student-housing policy modelled on the Transnational and Temporary paper as part of its Melbourne Planning Scheme. The policy supports affordable student housing, pastoral care and a reduction in social isolation.

One of its objectives is to “ensure that the internal layout of rooms and communal facilities provide sufficient space and amenity for the reasonable requirements of an active social, work, and private life of the student while promoting social interaction.”

According to Geoff Lawler, the Council’s Director of City Planning and Infrastructure, the benefits of high-density living are in the numbers, which “speak for themselves.”

“In 2008, 35,800 tertiary students lived in the City of Melbourne. Approximately 18,000 people lived in the CBD and 27% of these were university students,” he says.

But numbers only tell us so much. International students may not be choosing high density living because they want to, or even because they need to. It may be because they aren’t given any other choice.