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Running the Chateau

Monday 23rd December 2013

A stint in a student slum is seen as a rite of passage for many Kiwis. Even in New Zealand’s most extreme climates, it seems there’s a direct relationship between a flat’s ‘character-building’ properties and the absence of insulation. Or, in some cases, windows.

Dunedin science student Lindsey Horne, 22, and her flatmates call one such place home. Voted the worst student flat in a city of strong contenders for the title, 47 London St is falling apart at its foundations.

When Horne moved in at the start of this year, ‘the Shit Show Chateau’, as it became known, had no insulation or heat source. Today, it’s still cold and damp. One side of the house is rotten right through, so some walls are structurally unsound. Others are just defaced with likenesses of male genitalia.

“We’ve kind of become normalised to it,” says Horne. “When we throw a party, random people show up, and they’re like ‘What the f…, this place is a hovel’. It’s actually worrying how accustomed you get to dicks on the wall.”

The cold gets to them most, she says. You “regularly” see your breath inside, and flatmates fight for the middle seat in the couch, because it’s between two people, and therefore the warmest.

“We kind of take for granted how cold it gets. During our coldest month, it got down to about four degrees inside. The only time we got into the double digits was when we had a party with about 50 people in our lounge. That was cause for celebration.”

“It’s like someone got killed in here and their blood was splattered on the ceiling and then it moulded.”

The flat is in such horrific condition it’s been featured on Breakfast, Radio New Zealand, Classic Hits, in the Otago Daily Times and the student magazine Critic.

In August, Campbell Live sent a reporter to spend the night there. She gave a breathless report to a night-vision camera in which she reported the room in which she sleeping, at 6 degrees Celsius, was just 0.2 degrees Celsius warmer than it was outside.

Horne and her five flatmates sleep there every night, and pay a total of $500 a week for the privilege.

“And as crazy as it sounds, we actively sought this place out,” she says.

The group had the idea of turning a student hovel into a low-carbon, energy efficient home as both an environmental statement (some of the flatmates are members of Generation Zero) and a means of calling attention to the state of student housing.

“Students are getting ripped off, landlords are making a killing out of us, and we’re not really getting what we’re paying for,” says Horne.

The property they took on had to meet certain criteria.

“It didn’t necessarily have to be a dirty, grotty student flat, but it had to have no insulation and no heat source, which is quite easy to find in Dunedin,” says Horne. “The Chateau was voted the worst flat in Dunedin [in the Otago University Students’ Association 2012 Student Flat Awards].”

Since February, Horne and her flatmates have draught-proofed the house, insulated the floor and the roof, cleared weeds and vines from the backyard and the exterior of the building, sprayed for mould, and installed a wood pallet burner. Their landlord has paid for the cost of materials and specialist labour.

The group document their progress on social media, and have had the help of their friends at regular working bees. “The amount of work is proportional to the amount of beer we provide at the end,” says Horne. “They’re always pretty fun. We just get outside, put on some tunes, and make sure we celebrate afterwards.”

But the project hasn’t been without its holdups.

Before setting out, the group had a contract drawn up to protect them while they did alterations to the house. At first, the plan was to circulate that contract through OUSA, to other students wanting to do the same with their rental properties.

“One of the goals we originally had for the whole project was that it could be reproduced,” says Horne. “It was going to be like a pilot study, like we were canaries down the coal mine, to see if it would work and if other people wanted to take it onboard,” says Horne.

She admits now that that was “maybe a bit naïve”.

“As the year’s progressed, we don’t really see it working out quite as well as that. It’s quite a big undertaking, especially with full-time study, and one of the key things that’s kept us going is our flatmates themselves – the fact that it’s a fun bunch of people. Beyond that, it has been quite difficult.”

An attempt to insulate one room revealed what Horne describes as a “black wall of doom” behind the scrim (“we don’t have gib board, it’s pretty much like hessian sack”) lining one wall. One side of the house was rotten right through.

“There was black mould, you could see through it to outside, it was damp and wet,” she says. “We took one look at it, went ‘ugh!’ and called in the builders. The first thing they did was put up a retaining wall inside the flat, because they were worried it was just going to fall down.”

The room’s been that way, with building paper covering the hole and a retaining wall holding up the floor of the room above, for months now. “We’ve been waiting on the landlord to get her act together and get it fixed, because that kind of major structural change is not something we’re capable of doing, or willing to do,” says Horne.

Lindsey Horne, 22, at home at the Shit Show Chateau

Ian Telfer

Neither she, nor any of her flatmates, have met their landlord, who is based in Taiwan and “doesn’t even know it was voted the worst flat in Dunedin”.

The group deal only with a property manager (with whom there’s an “ongoing negotiation” about the renovations), which Horne says is fairly standard of student tenants.

“That’s one area where we see there could be some improvement – no one’s feeling the blame, or the guilt, so no one’s motivated to make a change,” she says. “It’s out of sight, out of mind for the landlords themselves, and then the property manager is this nebulous middleman who’s like, ‘Well, it’s not my property’. There’s a lack of motivation.”

If landlords show a blatant disregard for the condition of their properties, students will follow suit, she says.

“If your landlord doesn’t invest in your property, and treats it like crap, students are just going to take that and run with it,” she says. “If you sign up to a Shit Show Chateau, you don’t feel that bad adding to it. It keeps getting a little bit worse and worse.”

Horne’s flatmate Letisha Nicholas, 23, agrees. “Sometimes landlords say, ‘Students wreck all the houses’, but I can’t really empathise with them, knowing that they take rent for years and years and don’t put anything back into their houses.”

The focus of the project is now empowering students to get their landlords to do up their own properties.

The group is collaborating with OUSA on resources for students, and has been involved in both the Cosy Homes 2525 initiative and Dunedin City Council’s discussion of a ‘Warrant of Fitness’ for rental properties in the area. (A Dunedin property management company recently introduced its own such system.)

Horne and another flatmate also spoke at the Festival of the Future, held at Te Papa in late November, about the project, which led to its selection for Live the Dream, a 10-week social enterprise incubator project at Massey University’s College of Creative Arts in Wellington. The wheels are now in motion for a site where tenants can log in to rate their flat on aspects like location, price, warmth and “landlord responsiveness”, due to be rolled out next year.

The challenge is convincing landlords that investing in their properties is a win-win arrangement.

“If you’re keeping your flat well-maintained, it’s going to stick around for longer, and students are less likely to f… it up,” says Horne. “It’s just about how we can communicate that to landlords, and provide them with motivation and incentives to do it.”

Landlords says, ‘Students wreck all the houses’, but I can’t really empathise with them, knowing that they take rent for years and years and don’t put anything back into their houses

She’s concerned that measures like Labour MP Phil Twyford’s members bill to enforce minimum standards for heating and insulation for every rental property in the country could result in increased rents.

“We like where the conversation is going, and we definitely think it needs to be happening, but we’re poor students and we’re concerned the costs will get pushed onto the tenants.”

But it might take a law change to spur less scrupulous landlords into action. “Meeting a minimum standard for heating and insulation shouldn’t warrant an increase in rent because it should have been put in place, anyway,” says Nicholas. “If the market was going to fix it, it would have by now. And if you’ve had carrots, and you haven’t had the initiative to take them up, you can’t complain about having the stick shoved in your face.”

But despite the interest in the project and the success of the renovations so far, the group are under no illusion that the Chateau will ever be much more than a ramshackle student flat.

“Although we say we’re taking it from P-lab to penthouse, what we’re really talking about is getting it from ‘completely shit’ to ‘just a bit shit’,” says Horne. “Like, this is never going to be a family-friendly house; we just don’t want long-term respiratory illness from living here.”

As much as living in a dive of a flat is part of the fabled ‘student experience’, it shouldn’t be at the point where it’s detrimental to your health.

“You can still be a student and live in a grotty flat that’s insulated, with a heat pump. You can still do a keg stand in the middle of your lounge, and be warm.”