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The University of Otago has about 20,000 students at present, but has only 4500 beds available to them. It does not have the resources to significantly expand its accommodation numbers in the foreseeable future, and so the spread of student rentals away from the campus into the wider city will inevitably continue to be a fact of life. The university is well aware of the problems caused by the student culture of excessive alcohol consumption and riotous parties, and is making progress in addressing the issues in the campus area, but it certainly does not have the ability to enforce its own code of student conduct on students living off campus.
The Dunedin City Council has very limited ability to respond to unacceptable behaviour relating to rental housing at present. The only relevant regulation is noise control, which is a requirement of the RMA. This is a ratepayer-funded service with a current annual cost of $135,929, and the service is excellent and effective. The cost of callouts for noise control is not charged to the owner of the property, or to the tenants involved. Why not?
The plan by our Government to increase the density of residential accommodation in urban centres brings into sharp focus this problem of antisocial behaviour of tenants in close proximity to family housing occupied by permanent residents. Having more people living in the central city areas certainly brings more life and vibrancy, but it is hard to imagine a family with young children wishing to live in Castle St or Cargill St under current circumstances.
The situation faced by Dunedin is, of course, far from unique, and so it is informative to see how similar jurisdictions have addressed the problem. The university in the city of Bath, UK, expanded rapidly some years ago, with no increase in student accommodation on campus. As a result, whole streets in the city became taken over by so-called student lets, with the results we see in Dunedin. After several years of resident complaints, the local authority introduced a licensing requirement for what it called ‘‘houses in multiple occupation’’ (HMOs). An HMO is defined as a house occupied by five or more people, from two or more households, sharing amenities such as kitchen or bathroom. Complaints about tenant behaviour result in fines for the landlord, and repeated complaints result in loss of the licence. The problem was solved in a year, as the responsibility for tenant behaviour was placed squarely on the owner, with real costs for failure to act. Unfortunately, if the DCC does not have the legislative authority to introduce such a system, it would require action by central government.
A second approach would be to define an HMO as a business. It would then have to comply with all the regulations concerning noise, parking, rubbish which apply to any business in Dunedin. This change in status of an HMO is probably within the authority of the DCC, and it would place responsibility for the impact of the HMO on a neighbourhood firmly with the landlord.
At present, the ratepayers of Dunedin are subsidising poor behaviour by tenants and landlords.
The cost of noise control is not charged to the offenders, and the clearing of broken glass is also done quickly and efficiently by the DCC, again at no cost to the offenders. Since couch-burning seems to have been replaced as the vandalism of choice by bottle smashing, any walk around a student area on a Sunday morning will show how much glass has to be cleared, repeatedly. Surely it is not too much to expect the perpetrator to pay?
It is time for a wide-ranging discussion of what is a long-standing problem. The situation reflects badly on Dunedin and on the university. Being home to a major university unquestionably brings many benefits to Dunedin.
However, if we wish to encourage families to settle here, in what is arguably the most beautiful city in New Zealand, then the continuing degradation of our residential areas must be halted. There will be no quick and easy solution, but a vibrant city with people living in and enjoying the central area as well as the suburbs is a goal well worth striving for.
- Dr David Hunt is a retired United Kingdom-born biochemist and medical specialist, who moved to Dunedin in 2003 to work as a consultant anaesthetist with the Southern District Health Board.