Michael Basckin surfing WooMates.com. Photo: Alana Levene

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BY ALANA LEVINE

For many of Sydney’s international students, finding a place to live is treacherous. They navigate the housing process with no local support network, no rental history, and little knowledge of local tenancy laws.

Sydney’s biggest universities — The University of Sydney and University of Technology Sydney — can only accommodate a small fraction of their students in their residences. Private off-campus providers like Urbanest and Iglu aren’t budget-friendly, charging premium rates up to 50 per cent higher than universities.

This is why most international students turn to share houses in the private rental sector. It’s the only option left, according to a UTS report on international students.

Despite some highly-publicized reports detailing the squalor and overcrowding that some students endure, few protective measures and regulations have been established, according to Leo Patterson Ross, a senior policy officer at the Tenants Union of NSW.

“Attention on international students kind of comes and goes,”

“It’s slowly shifting. I think there is an increasingly loud push for governments to get back in to ensure enough affordable housing is being built.”

With rising costs of private rentals, domestic students might seek financial relief by moving back home and commuting to class. But international students don’t have that option.

“When I talked to classes at unis, 10 years ago, almost everyone in the class would be renting. They were in share houses,” said Ross. “Now, many of them are at home because the rents are so high.”

Left to their own devices

With a student population of about 59,000 students, USyd can accomodate about 2,120 of them in their residences. This figure doesn’t include independently-run student housing near their campuses or affiliated residential colleges, according to a spokesperson.

UTS currently houses 1,204 students out of its total population of 45,930. A spokesperson said they offer support all year for students who need help with off-campus accommodation matters.

Most of Sydney’s 35,000 international students shoulder a higher cost burden than their Australian classmates, paying up to three times the domestic tuition for their degree. Unlike Australian citizens, international students aren’t permitted to apply for long-term housing at co-operatives like STUCCO in Newtown.

“That’s a condition that was kind of imposed on us,” said Daniel Naoumenko, a STUCCO member. “We definitely have heard from international students, but we haven’t been able to accept them.”

With intense pressures to find accommodation in Australia’s most unaffordable housing market, international students need to rely on their own due diligence.

A global problem inspires a student

Enter Michael Basckin. In 2017, the Sydney University student went on exchange in Tel Aviv, Israel, where he noticed international students, like himself, were experiencing similar housing woes.

Basckin wanted to live by Tel Aviv’s beaches, and he wanted to live with other students. His university said he couldn’t have both.

So he and another student rented a four-bedroom apartment on the beach, and posted an invitation on Facebook to find students to fill the other two bedrooms.

“We were inundated with messages from other students who were looking for the same thing,” Basckin said.

Basckin wanted to see if there was such a demand from international students in Sydney.

One student from China told Basckin that she put down a $1,000 deposit for an apartment she found on sydneytoday.com. But when she arrived at the address, no one was there. It didn’t exist. She never heard from the landlord again.

Ross said that due to intensified pressures to find accommodations, international students are especially likely to be victims of online advertising scams and rent gouging, or find themselves unwittingly forced into in sub-standard accommodations.

Maeva de Tahiti, a French student at UTS, scrambled to find a place to live after her contract ended with university housing. After two weeks of couchsurfing, she found a private room in Surry Hills on Gumtree. When she moved in, de Tahiti realized it wasn’t a “real private room” — it was a tiny single room split in two by a thin divider.

“I picked it because I had no home,” de Tahiti said.

WooMates

Last semester, Basckin launched WooMates, a service designed for international students wanting secure and affordable student-oriented housing.

The idea was that Basckin would vet the landlords, inspect the property, and rent out the apartments. He’d hook up the electricity, gas, and Wi-Fi. He would fill his apartments entirely with students, and match them based on their living preferences.

He sent his pitch into the Facebook-sphere, and got 500 responses from interested students over the next two weeks.

Ashley Yip, a UTS student from Hong Kong, was one of Basckin’s first customers. Last semester, she lived with four other exchange students in Stanmore.

When she got to her room her bed was set. Everything was furnished. The apartment was just as she’d seen in Basckin’s video.

“I just feel more safe,” Yip said of WooMates. “Everything is just legit, and I’m not scared that someone’s gonna scam my money. Because it’s a very big, scary issue.”

Basckin has four apartments at full capacity ready for next semester, with a few more in the pipeline.