International student exploitation rife in Australia's 'wild west' rental market

There are calls for a crackdown on landlords that rip off international students in Australia after a survey found exploitation was rife in the rental market.

A makeshift bedroom on an enclosed balcony at a unit in Surry Hills, Sydney

An international student's makeshift bedroom on an enclosed balcony in a unit in Surry Hills, Sydney. Source: SBS

More than half of international students are being exploited by landlords operating in the "wild west" of Australia's rental market, a new study has found. 

Researchers from the University of New South Wales and the University of Sydney surveyed more than 2,400 international students about their housing experience in Australia and found exploitation was rife. 

Those living in shared housing were most likely to be victims of exploitative practices such as having their rent almost doubled during an exam period. 

Other students were tricked into paying for accommodation that didn't exist, faced intimidation or harassment and unfair eviction. 

Report co-author Bassina Farbenblum said problems were most commonly experienced among students who organised their share house through social media or a peer-to-peer sharing website such as Gumtree or

Ms Farbenblum said she was surprised students who waited until they arrived to find somewhere to live were just as likely to be deceived as those who arranged it from their home country. 

"Exploitation is thriving unchecked in the wild west of the share house market, and international students can’t avoid it simply by organising housing after they arrive in Australia,” she said. 

She called on the government to crack down on rogue landlords and better regulate sites that offer share housing.

"We also need far greater government investigation and enforcement to break the cycles of impunity and hold accountable the many landlords who just keep repeatedly engaging in deceptive and exploitative practices," Ms Farbenblum said.

The report also recommends international students have access to better housing services. 

"Universities and government need to provide housing services to empower international students to actually navigate these online platforms and find decent housing."

The report found that exploitative housing situations can impact international students’ emotional, physical and financial wellbeing, and seriously affect their studies.

Shelter NSW CEO Stacey Miers backed the recommendations, saying the burden too-often falls to councils to enforce laws.

"It seems that the legislation is not strong enough when it comes to the capacity of people to be charged when they set up multiple rooms that really do breach the fire and building regulation and it comes back to councils having to go out and check on these dwellings all the time and there's not enough resources to do that," she said.

She agreed more information on housing services in multiple languages was needed.

"I think there's a much stronger role for institutions to actually provide more information to students on their rights and also probably to set up services linked with tenants advice services where students can get support and information."

In a statement, Gumtree said it relies on users' feedback to keep the platform safe and free from discrimination, and encouraged users to report any listings believed to be unlawful or a scam. 

"When it comes to making payments, our community should always avoid paying bond or rent for a property before it has been viewed. You should also check that the real estate agent or landlord is real before sending them money." 

Published 4 December 2019 at 7:46am, updated 4 December 2019 at 9:27am
By Rosemary Bolger, Amy Hall