Tertiary students are more than twice as likely than the general population to live in damp, mouldy rental housing. It’s time to prioritise reducing energy hardship for students, argues Dr Kimberley O’Sullivan.

The perennial idea that living in cold student flats is a rite of passage in New Zealand needs a long-overdue rethink.

While housing energy efficiency standards for rental homes have improved, research from the University of Otago’s He Kāinga Oranga Housing and Health Research Programme has found keeping warm at home remains a struggle for many students, with significant health and wellbeing impacts.

We’re calling for universal financial support for students and continuing improvement in energy efficiency standards for student accommodation.

We found tertiary students in Aotearoa are more than twice as likely as the general population to be living in damp and mouldy homes – and Māori students and students with living with disability or long-term health conditions were even more likely to live in damp and mouldy housing.

Continuing to improve housing energy efficiency and providing more targeted support is essential to improve student health and wellbeing.

While we might picture students as young, fit, and able to handle a few years of living in #characterbuilding homes, in reality people undertaking tertiary study include about 20 percent who are over 25 and about six percent who live with disability.

For more than 250,000 full-time equivalent tertiary students enrolled in public and private training institutes, the $25 a week increase to Student Allowance or Student Living Cost brought in on April 1 will be cold comfort.

Students have been hit hard by recent cost of living increases. For years the solution for most students has been to borrow to live while studying and juggling increasingly long hours of paid work to make ends meet.

We found two thirds of 522 students surveyed for our research could see their breath inside their home – twice as high as renters in the general population and over five times that for homeowners across New Zealand – and four out of five students had shivered inside their home. This wasn’t a one-off for the quarter of students reporting that they regularly shivered at home.

Almost two thirds said they often or always felt cold inside their homes, and even when they were using a heater 10 percent of students still often or always felt cold. About three quarters cut back on using heating to save money.

Responses to our survey clearly show living in energy hardship is causing significant negative impacts on students’ health and wellbeing.

For Becky the consequences of living in energy hardship required medical intervention: “The cold has a major impact on my mental health. Midwinter this year I started taking anti-anxiety medication, and one of the main stressors at that time was how cold I was.”

Claire told us: “Mould is disgusting and you worry about long-term health impacts. Plus, you always smell damp and your clothes permanently reek.”

Energy poverty significantly impacted students’ mental health and their ability to carry out daily activities, with almost half experiencing four or more negative wellbeing indicators of nine that we measured. Students also had lower life satisfaction than similar age groups across Aotearoa, with only 60 percent of students reporting being at least 70 percent satisfied with their life in general compared with about 80 percent of people aged between 15 and 35 across Aotearoa.

The physical health effects of living in cold housing are not always trivial – Eli said studying while living in damp and mouldy housing “led to me being hospitalised with a chest infection”. These impacts also extended to their household, with Stephanie telling us, “My children had asthma and one child was hospitalised with pneumonia”.

Despite reporting compromising on food and other necessities, one in eight Māori students and one in 25 students had their electricity disconnected or ran out of prepaid electricity credit because their household could not afford to pay the energy bill – more than six times the national rate of disconnection for non-payment.

The Covid-19 pandemic has put students under further strain and has again disproportionately affected Māori students and students living with long-term health conditions or disabilities. Just over a half of the students said the Covid-19 Level 4 lockdown in early 2020 had made it more difficult for them to afford their utility bills, with one reporting their energy bill had jumped from $200 to $500 per month.

While StudyLink offers grants of up to $200 to students to help with outstanding power bills or to reconnect their energy supply, many students we surveyed were unaware this was an option.

Only seven percent had asked StudyLink for help with their electricity or gas bills. Of those who did not ask for support, 90 percent were unaware assistance was available, and 45 percent said they might have used it if they had known about it.

But as Anna pointed out: “All of these payments are only available when it is already freezing/overdue payments. They need to prevent harm in the first place, not come into effect once desperation kicks in.”

Other population groups were offered extra support during Covid-19 restrictions, but, as Ryan argued, “The course-related-cost increase during Covid was a slap in the face to students who lost/potentially lost jobs. Having to add money to their student loans in order to stay warm and fed was not acceptable. Student allowances should have been bolstered during this time to relieve the stress on students.”

Over half of tertiary students reported using course-related costs available as part of their student loans to help pay for their electricity bills, especially during Covid-19 restrictions when they couldn’t use the library or spaces outside their homes to save on energy costs.

This frustration was captured by Rangi, who said: “It was pathetic. Students were the only demographic given a fucking loan instead of actual government assistance, and the winter energy payment was barely anything … now I have an extra $1000 in debt because I wanted to stay warm.”

The findings of our survey are concerning, particularly for students identifying as Māori, or living with long-term disabilities or health concerns. Experiencing energy poverty restricts students’ daily activities and hinders access to essentials.

While students are acutely aware of the adverse effect on their physical and mental health because of energy poverty, available support is limited or inaccessible and poorly communicated to those who could benefit from it. Covid-19 put students experiencing energy poverty under further strain, and again disproportionally affected more vulnerable students.

Based on our research, although recent regulations to improve the energy efficiency of private rental housing are expected to have a positive impact, further policies to reduce energy hardship could be targeted to support tertiary students.

This would help to achieve the objectives of the Tertiary Education Strategy, including to create barrier-free access to education. Proactive support would reduce harm, particularly for vulnerable student groups.

*Names have been changed

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