Hello everyone. This is Law for Community Workers on the Go a podcast for community and health workers. My name is Bridget Barker, and I work in the Community Legal Education Branch at Aid New South Wales. I want to begin by acknowledging this recording was made on the land of the Widjabul Wiable people of the Bundjalung Nation and on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land and pay my respects to Elders past and present I also pay my respects to any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people listening to this podcast. This is episode eight in our series Renting Matters. The final episode in this series, Episode Eight focuses on tenants facing additional barriers in the renting market. This episode is the first of two parts. In part one, we speak to two international students, Sanjaya and Chaitra about their experiences in the renting market.
Most of the houses that I have lived are all student accommodation and I have live about nine to 10 houses so far. not all of the problems were fixed. As international students, it was very hard for me to find a stable and forever house at that point. And during those times a pandemic happened. So it was very hard to find a good housing at that point. And when you're talking about housing problems, yes, they were housing problems with regards to bonds, tenancy issues, tenants. And also, I had to move a lot of houses because of jobs or where I was doing because sometimes it used to be far from where I lived.
and in particular, the difficulties they faced during the first phase of the COVID 19 pandemic.
So I personally have had a challenging experience trying to find decent accommodation to live in Sydney when I came here as an international student in 2018. It was not easy to find decent, affordable accommodation in one of the most expensive cities in the world. When the pandemic hit, there were no moratorium on evictions that had taken shape. And we did not know whether we could stay in the accommodation because I was told not to come to my job until further notice. And that is when I had to reach out to every single person I knew. And fortunately, our own community people stood up for us and I was able to live rent free at a friend's place for about three months until I got back on my feet.
In part two of episode eight, we speak to Justin Assistant Principal Solicitor at Marrickville Legal Centre, about a client he helped who had been facing discrimination and vilification in their community housing. We will also speak to Cathy a Senior Advocate at Side by Side Advocacy, a service that supports people with disability with a wide range of issues, including in their housing situation. We acknowledge that there are other people and groups in the community who face additional barriers in accessing and maintaining stable housing, we have interviewed a selection of people to highlight the difficulties faced by many.
I would like to welcome Sanjaya to the podcast today. Sanjaya is an international student who has kindly agreed to speak with me today about his experiences in Australia, related to housing. Sanjaya, would you please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about yourself?
Hello, Namaste, everyone. My name is Sanjaya Sharma from Nepal. I'm a recent graduate in Master of Social Work in Australia. Currently, I'm working in the Smith family as a Family Partnership Coordinator, and a Community Organiser.
Thank you. How have you managed to negotiate the pandemic and what were your experiences during the pandemic as an international student in Australia?
So first thing obviously, I lost a job. Well not technically lost the job in a way because I was a casual worker so like, they said that you're still a casual worker, it's just that we don't have work during those times. That's what they stated but I was never called back to work. And with regards to that, I didn't have a lot of pocket money saved at that point because a lot of it went to the dues and fees. So during those times I I had challenges not getting any new jobs because there were not a lot of jobs available during those times. And during the first pandemic phase, I didn't have a lot of money, which also resulted in postponing my education.
And also, it also almost led me to be homeless. However, during those times, I was living with a family who were from Nepal. So they were very generous and they said that you don't have to pay any rnts if you don't have any money during these times, you can pay us later when you have it. So I didn't have a job. I was not studying at that time, however, with home and groceries, the families helped me. And with the groceries and all this other financial help, I reached out to a few organisations. And Sydney Community Forum was one of those who supported me to reach out different organisations at that point. Which they had a programme for international student. They referred me to Red Cross, Salvation Armys where I could probably get a financial aid. So during those times, I had problems with jobs, rent and financial problems,
When you were able to gain work again, did you continue to live with the family or did you look for another kind of housing?
So I did look for another kind of housing during those time. However, I could not move houses at that point, because I had borrowed a few monies from the people I were living in, so I could not leave the houses even if I wanted to. And with jobs, I was not able to receive a job at that point. I had kept looking for jobs. It's just that I couldn't find a job that was suitable for me, or that was able to say yes to the jobs, because they were like "We're not open at the moment." So obviously, it's only after when the first lockdown was over and it was kind of back to normal. And I received a job when my friend said "Hey there is a position opening up. Would you like to come?" And I said "yes". And he helped me to get that job. So afterwards, I started doing jobs paying my rent.
During the initial phase of the pandemic, did you have any access to government support from the Australian Government?
No, there were not any benefits that were provided by the government, because I still vividly remember Scott Morrison saying that you can go home if you want to. However, we're not able to go home because there was no flights that were being taken over there to go back to our country. So there were a lot of reasons, even if we want to go back to our home country, we couldn't. And yes, they were no kind of government support in the beginning of the first pandemic. So all the things I was able to manage finance support, or any form of support was through community organisations, or through a Red Cross or Salvation Army. And those were the kind of the only organisations I got support from not any government support.
I imagined too, you and your family would have invested a lot to get you to Australia and enrol in your course. It's not a simple matter of just going home, as well as the fact that there were no flights from Australia for you to be able to get.
Yeah, the country I come from. So if you even if you talk about exchange rate is very high, because like one rupee is back in Nepal, so $1 Over here is almost like 90 rupees back in home. So it's a lot of money from where I come from. So we are heavily invested. So for that we take educational loan back in the Nepal of high interest because of lack of securities and everything because the bank, they will only provide if you have high interest rate. So it's very hard because the governance is not very good as compared to Australia. So the interest are very high. So it's not easy for us to secure a stable life over there and even in financial ways. So we are heavily invested by our families. And there is a high interest rate over there.
I understand since you've been living in share housing that you've experienced some problems. Would you please tell me about some of the problems that you've had and whether you have been able to solve those problems?
Most of the houses that have lived are all student accommodation, and I have about nine to 10 houses so far. Not all of the problems were fixed. As international students it was very hard for me to find a stable and forever house at that point. And during those times a pandemic happened. So it was very hard to find a good housing at that point. And when you're talking about housing problems, yes, there were housing problems with regards to bonds, tenancy issues, tenants. Also, I had to move a lot of houses because of jobs or where I was doing because sometimes it used to be far from where I live. So those was one of the reasons. And not long ago, I came across a challenge or problem. So I just recently moved to this house in Parramatta. So it hadn't been a month. So we almost came together at the same point. So in our house, we don't have gas. However, we received a gas bill. So we were not aware that we don't have a gas. We thought that the old gas was for the hot shower. and we received a gas bill and it was for 27 days and that cost us almost like $300 something. And we're socked to receive that amount, seeing that because normally you wouldn't, that is like for three months bill. So we're shocked, we had a conversation with our tenant. He said that you don't have any gas at home. And we're shocked to hear that we didn't have gas and we received a gas bill. So we had a conversation with the retailers. They said, "We don't know what happened. But there is a gas bill on your name and this is what we know, we can't have any information further about this. So you have to talk to your distributor, agent and all that. So we talked to all the stakeholders.
But however all the stakeholders all just used to say that "have conversation with your retail distributor." They used to blame someone else. So like, we were tired of what they were saying because we have a problem. That's why we came to you. We're not trying to reach other people and say like, Okay, you have a problem, go to somebody else. Because we're trying to come up with a solution and they're always trying to put the blame on someone else. So there was nothing we could do with the retailer and distributor. Then we went to our agent, because he's the one who has the information of all those things and then we stated to him that, "Okay, either you solve the problem, or we will leave the houses. Even, we know that we have heavily invested with bonds and financials and all that, we were ready to give up because like, we are not able to pay this kind of incomprehensible amount of money every month.
As international students it's very hard for us to pay that much very month. So we said that either you solve it, or we leave the houses. And then after a couple of days, we received an email that they stated that okay, you don't have gas at home and the student have cancelled. And so we provided the evidence that was provided to us by the agent. And we talked to the retailers and all. So the retailer said okay, we'll look into measures, I believe we had a problem. So he said that I'll look into it, we'll solve it. So the problem was resolved. However, in a funny way, that retailer said, the retailer and the distributor said that, "Okay, if you want, we can join the gas bills to you." And we're like, "Why do we need a gas bill, if we don't have the gas?" We don't need any gas bills or food handlers to be connected in our house. We don't want it we don't need it. So it was a funny thing of him to say, because it's very irrational and illogical.
During those times we have had a conversation with friends as to how to have this conversation with the retailers because one of my friend also had similar issues in the past and they said that, "Okay. Go to the Fair Trade Ombudsman and file a complaint, they will help you if there is any sort of those problems and all that. So we did all those things that our friend came across and how they resolve this. So we try to do all things that were suggested to us. And also during those times, I had received training from SCF. So we had a confident enough to have conversation with our retailers, distributors is to stand firm and say," Okay, we're not taking this sort of bullshit from you. So we're taking our stand firm and we're not paying any penny." So there was a kind of good thing that came off those training, because we're confused enough to have conversation with all of the stakeholders and resolve the issues.
Sounded like you had to do a lot of hard work in order to resolve an issue for a bill for a service that you don't even receive.
Yeah, that's the funny thing.
So initially, were you aware of any services like Fair Trading that could help you with your housing problems? Or was it really just through friends who'd had that experience and knew about them that you found out about those sorts of organisations?
I knew there was like a union or trade or something that will help us but I wasn't aware of the specific work. So I knew my friend had come across similar challenge. So I had called my friend had asked him like, we came up with this guy, I know you had a similar problem, and he was like, "No, we had the same problem. And we did this" and, and he said, like, "Go to the Fair Trade Ombudsman." and we were like, "Okay, I'll take your solution. And we also did that we filed a complaint just to be on the safe side that if something happens tomorrow that we had did everything, right by the rules. Yes. So we tried everything we could to get out of the trouble.
This podcast is aimed at Community Workers who often help people with different sorts of problems, including tenancy and housing problems and I wondered if, from your experiences, you might have suggestions or tips for community workers about how they could support international students.
I'm not sure it will be a suggestion in particular or not. However, I believe that maybe workforce training, will probably help it and also reaching out especially to the colleges, I believe. Because normally, I guess we try and try to include communities but the international students are hardly in those communities, because we have a lot of things going on in our life and we don't tend to participate on those sessions. But if you reach directly to the colleges, you will find all of the people who are international student, I believe. So. I'm not sure how we can connect the community worker and international student from their community, because I believe almost 90% of the people don't even have that time to get connected with community organisations or to access because they have a lot of challenges in their life going on. So they don't think about this frequently.
So it sounds like services need to actively reach out to places where international students are living or studying to make them aware that they can get different sorts of help.
Yes, that's what I would say. Because for me, I have to go to work. I have to go to study in college, right? So you will find me there anyhow. But if you're talking about "Come to my programme, or something", "I will say I don't have a time because I don't find it necessary for me to attend". Even though I know that it's gonna be helpful for me, I didn't have that much of a time to give to organisations come there for an hour, because that would be like, Okay, I'm losing, what, $20, $25 for an hour. So I would probably invest my time where I would be working. Yeah. So that's how my mindset work and the friends I have no doubts that's how their minds work too. So there isn't an incentive for us to come over there. We know this is a good thing, but we don't have any reasons or incentive to come there.
What about online help? Would that be an easier way for you to access to help if you could send an email or use a chat function? Would that be better for international students?
I suppose Yes, because we are a lot of international students, me myself are very into gadgets and technologies. However, that will depend entirely upon how it is marketed and how it is used. Because for me, it doesn't necessarily mean I will be accessing or using those, because I might not be aware of the facilities it's providing. For example, I know there are a lot of services, right? It's not that people are not aware that there are services. Either they don't look it for, or they're just not aware where to look it. I think that's where the problem arises.
Thank you for that. Is there anything else you wanted to add about your experiences to do with housing as an international student?
For me personally, I would say like, finding affordable and stable place has been a challenge for me. Like I said, I have moved around nine to 10 times. So that's not even three years so far. So that's like moving three to four times per year. Because international student has a lot of challenges, and we don't have working ricghts as a full timer. So we don't earn a lot of money. And our tuition fees are comparatively very high compared to the domestic students, right? So with regards to that affordable and stable accommodation would be a very highly recommended solution from my side because if that's a thing where we can offer and can live in one place for a longer period of time. I think that saves a lot of money, because Sydney is very expensive.
Yeah. Well, Sanjaya, thank you so much for participating in the podcast. And I hope that your housing experiences are better from now on. Hopefully, I do hope that and hopefully not just for me, but for the people who are in international student, that will be resolved, in some ways too.
And yes, thank you for inviting me to be on this podcast.
I'm very pleased to be joined on the podcast today by Chaitra. Chaitra is an international student, and she works for the Sydney Community Forum as a Project Officer. Chaitra, would you please tell us a little bit about yourself?
Thanks, Bridget. Hi, everyone. My name is Chaitra and I am from India, from a place called Bangalore which is in the south part of India. And I came to Australia in 2018 as an international student to pursue my master's degree from UNSW. And I've graduated during the pandemic without a graduation. But since then, I have been working at Sydney Community Forum, which is an NGO that started to organise to help international students during the pandemic, and along with a coalition of organisations, including the Sydney Alliance. So we received a grant from the city of Sydney project. And since then, I've been organising international students community and we are the very first hub in New South Wales. It should have existed long before but fortunately, the pandemic made this happen. So it's a blessing in disguise, I would say, that there is an international student hub in Sydney, catering to the needs of international students in New South Wales.
So Chaitra, what has been your experience and those of other international students that you've met through the forum since the start of the pandemic?
So I personally have had a challenging experience trying to find decent accommodation to live in Sydney. When I came here as an international student in 2018, it was not the easy to find decent, affordable accommodation in one of the most expensive cities in the world. And although I did apply, to get into university accommodation, the rent there was absolutely not affordable, it was almost 400 or $500 a week. And so I had to resort to looking at other accommodations closer to the university. And so five of my friends along with me tried to look for an accommodation. and we came across this apartment in Bondi Junction that was advertised on Facebook, and we started chatting to the landlord. And we weren't aware of the systems and what a bond consisted of. How the process would look like, once we start renting the place. And we did all the due diligence from our end to ensure that the bond conditions were correct and we signed the lease agreement as well and trusting that the landlord would register in the rental bond board. And that did not happen. And we started to realise that once we were given one week notice to move out of the property, even before the lease period ended. And that was my very first challenge that I faced as an international student trying to find affordable, safe accommodation in Sydney. And fortunately, we had access to lawyers through my university and we reached out for help. And from there, I think we were advised that, you know, "This is the next step. Nobody requires you move out" because as students, these are things you don't know when you come here. What are your rights as a tenant? And the fear is very visceral, in the sense that you aren't sure. And also, there's this constant threat from landlords that if you don't listen to us, we will report you to the migration. And we will get you deported and these were things things that were told to us. And these are things that we have to go through. And there's a lot of fear that's induced constantly given we are on temporary visa, we have to go through this.
And our response was, "Okay, is that even possible?" And so when we reached out to the lawyer, the lawyer said, "That is not how this works." And "These are your rights. And this is what you can do". And so we had to file and go to the Tribunal to ensure that we received our bond money back because the landlord was just not ready to give our bond money back. And we had paid around $3,600, which is a lot of money for us. So I'm already paying $90,000, to do my master's degree that, aside from that, I'm supposed to manage paying high rents in Sydney, afford food and groceries, travel expenses, and everything else. And that's a lot of money for an international student to be able to afford here. And there's no way you can live in peace with all of this stress that so pressing at times, and on top of that, if you have people asking you to leave an accommodation that you're comfortable at, and that they won't pay you your bond money back. we then reached out to the Tribunal and registered a complaint against the landlord, that they're not giving us the bond money back. Some of the things that don't come to mind are, you know, what are the possible clauses that the landlord, and the tenant needs to know? Like, what about wear and tear of some of the things in the property? And so finally, we had to speak in front of a judge, and the judge was fair, and we got most of our bond money back. Not all of it, though. More than what we had offered during the mediation process. So that was a big relief.
It sounds like a very positive outcome for you. But it was very fortunate you had access to a lawyer, otherwise you wouldn't have known about what your rights were in that situation.
Yes, and just learning about your rights is part solution to this big persisting problem. And the most predominant and persisting problem for most international students is whether or not they will receive their bond money after a stay. And this has been one of the most common cases that I have come across at my work organising the international students community as well.
And some of the challenges is, "What if you don't have a lease signed lease agreement before you request for your bond money back?" Or "How does the lease look like?" "What is an agreement look like and what does it entail?" "What are your rights there?" And most of the times, the only place that international students can afford is a shared accommodation through either flatmates.com or Gumtree. So you're most of the times subletting without knowing that you're on a sublet accommodation. So what are the rules that entail subletting? And how do you identify what your rights are there? And how can you claim your bond money back? There is a lot of lack of awareness in the community, specifically, because you've never rented before ever in your life and you've come here to start your life from scratch. And you have to understand the entire system and structure overnight, which is impossible. So you work through this process, and the system here does not make it easy for us to be able to access those rights. And whether there exists a Tenants' Union that is in favour or at least that you can reach out for support to at any any point in time that you're going through a challenge or an issue. So these are things that we need to spread the word across in the community through migrant leaders, through migrant community services and it's a very pressing issue and ongoing one as well.
Thank you for that. What about financial struggles during the pandemic? Did you experience those as well?
Yeah, just like my peers. Honestly, when I think about the pandemic, I don't know where the two years have gone by. So it wasn't easy just like every other international student for me as well. When the pandemic hit, they were no moratorium on evictions that taken shape. And we did not know whether we could stay in the accommodation because I was told not to come to my job until further notice because the store wasn't opening. I used to work as a casual employee at David Jones. And I did not know, the entire situation was so uncertain and nothing was planned whether or not I should go home. What about border closures? Flights were incredibly ridiculously expensive. And that was not affordable at all. And parental anxiety constantly asking and checking whether I'm okay, although I had to calm them down. So all of this surfaced. And it became so real that I did not know what to do.
So I spoke to my agent during the pandemic, and I said," I'm not able to afford the rent so what do I do?" And the response from the agent was, "If you cannot pay your rent, you will have to leave the place". So it was as simple as that. And really, where, where in the world would I even think of going because this is a place where I've met people. I did not have friends and family when I came here, and who do I reach for support or help was a big question mark. And that is when I had to reach out to every single person I knew. And fortunately, our own community people stood up for us. And I was able to live rent free at a friend's place for about three months until I got back on my feet. And that is when we started campaigning for the international students' Crisis Accommodation with the New South Wales Government in 2020. And that was a successful campaign, fortunately, and I was able to apply and I was one of the beneficiaries of that temporary Crisis Accommodation that was offered. And that was a big, big relief, because back then inspections had become impossible, because we did not know how this novel virus was spreading and nobody wanted to risk coming and inspecting in person. Yes. Or even I did not know whether I had to go and inspect and there was complete uncertainty, I will surely say that international students were completely left out of the loop until the Crisis Accommodation scheme was rolled out.
So after that period, and you needed to look for other accommodation. How do you look for accommodation? You mentioned flatmates, and.com and gum tree is that how most international students find housing?
Yeah, so when we come here to find accommodation, there are two things that we look at. One is whether the place is furnished, and most of the furnished places are shared accommodations, and whether it's an unfurnished lease that you sign on and you furnish it on your own. So most of the times, it's the previous choice that we make, because we cannot afford to furnish and pay the rent. So that's the initial go to for us. And the only way that we find out about a shared accommodation is either through social media platforms like Facebook, or Gumtree or flatmates. And these platforms don't necessarily inform you about your rights as a tenant. And you don't even know what this entire deal works like. And sometimes it honestly works on implicit trust with somebody and that the landlord trusts you that you will pay your rent. And there's hardly ever a lease agreement that's official there. So I think it's quite unregulated in that sense, if you look at it, and there needs to be more regulation to how subletting works in Sydney because all or most of international students that I I come across, usually sublet.
So they're in particularly vulnerable situations.
Absolutely. And it's only when they're in the most dire need of help is when they start looking at resources and services that is affordable and accessible to them. And that is when they contact you know, the Tenants' Union or Sydney Community Forum or services that are Migrant Legal Services that because there are very few services that offer support to temporary visa holders. And that's what happens and that's exactly what I did during my situation. In the first few months in Sydney, where I started looking for who is here for us? And who do I reach out to the and the only point of contact that you have, when you come here is your university or your education agent. So your entire situation, you're relying on them to have your back. And I think it's really important that the providers, education providers and agents, work towards how it is important to bring awareness for the international students' community on the rights in Australia, work rights, accommodation rights, what is accessible to them, what are the support services available to them. And this has to be done in the first few months as they arrive. And I think that's going to make a world of difference.
They're very good suggestions Chaitra. I thought I'd ask you about any other problems that international students have experience, through your work at the forum that you might be aware of?
I think, you know, a safe place to rent, where as an individual, you're in a safe space to live is also equally important, because what sort of rights you have as a tenant, because safety is a big concern for international students when they come here. And not just for the students, but also for their family back home to know that their children who've moved and started their lives in Australia are safe here. And especially for women who come here alone to pursue their studies, it's important for them to know that they are safe. And most of the time in countries like India or Nepal, or Bangladesh, there is this requisite of sorts that if you're a female, and you move to Australia, you might as well get married because you have a man to keep you safe. And that is how important safety is for people. And especially women who come here. And a lot of the students have shared with me that they have rented or lived in places where they felt unsafe, where they were not sure about who they were living with, what they were doing here. And and not everyone they share with our international students. And so there is a level of anxiety that kicks in when the space that you're living in which you call your home isn't safe to live in. So that's another significantly important problem that I have heard of. And I think it's really important that the community of international students is accepted. And Australians and international students try to connect more and bridge the gap that exists right now. Because that is making people feel welcome. And offering a level of support and knowing that they are living in a just land, that they also have rights as taxpaying citizens of this country. They're very important points that you make.
Would you have any tips or advice for community workers who might be trying to help international students with their housing problems or other problems that they face? Yeah, I think the main recommendation or suggestion that I would have is, for communities that are established to work with migrant communities, it's really important to understand the cultural significance and nuances that exists within the community. And no matter what an Indian would go to an Indian when they need help. And a Nepali would go to a Nepali when they need help. And that that becomes more or less implicit within the community. And it's really important for established Australian communities to understand the diverse and cultural differences and work with migrants to help them understand that there is support available and that we can work together to make this a better Australia for all of us and not just you or me. So I think that's my biggest and strongest recommendation.
Thank you Chaitra and thank you so much for sharing your experiences through your work and your personal experiences with me on the podcast today. Thank you for having me Bridget
That's all for part one of episode eight. Please look out for part two of episode eight, the final episode in the renting matters series, which will be out soon. Thanks for joining us.