Why Dunedin Boys Live in Shit Houses

Why Dunedin Boys Live in Shit Houses

Spoiler Alert: it’s not always by choice

It’s a man’s world, and we’re all living in it. Unless, of course, you’re a Dunedin boy. Then there’s a chance you’re not living anywhere. 

The flatting scene in Dunedin is one-of-a-kind. One could compare it to an episode of Survivor, where competing teams run around through the bush in search of the immunity idol to be saved from Exile Island. The immunity idol is a flat, preferably on Queen with four walls and double glazed windows, and Exile Island … would probably be somewhere on Forth St where the bedrooms have sinks and living organisms grow on the walls. Hours of door-knocking, frantic emails to Cutlers in August and false references from previous landlords: it's all a game of strategy, where alliances mean everything. Outwit, outplay, outlast. 

Of course, every game has its rules, including flatting in Dunedin. Rule one: If you want a named flat, you needed to apply two weeks ago. Rule two: if you want a place at all, have girls in your flat. This is where boys get stuck. Mike, a hopeful second-year looking to escape Exile Island, was told by a prospective landlord that “she’ll only sign us if we have girls in the flat.” He said “she didn’t even ring our current landlord to see how we are with flats, she just assumed we’d be bad tenants because we’re guys.” Another student, Joel, has had a similar experience. “We’ve had landlords tell us that they only accept girls. Other landlords [property managers] have had to ask owners to make exceptions when accepting a group of guys.” 

There is an expectation amongst all-guy groups that they are going to lose out to all-girl groups. Second-year Tom and his mates are on their 15th flat application. “We’re not a breatha group,” he said. “We all have good grades and good references, and are altogether pretty calm guys.” As quoted in the news section of this issue, Tom said that seeing a rival group of girls at a flat viewing is “the most demoralising thing… you might as well not even bother looking round the flat as it's as good as gone.” Luke, a Hyde St resident, also believes landlords generally prefer girls. “[When looking for flats] they gave us an opportunity to look and get interviews, but every time a group of females comes in they instantly get it.” Another Queen St hopeful, Max, has felt the brunt of this unspoken rule: “We applied for five flats on Queen and got none, girl groups got them all.”

It appears that this game of survival isn’t a very fair one, and winners aren’t being chosen on merits alone. So what is it about guys that makes them less appealing to flat owners? Easy: their reputation precedes them. “Landlords perceive guys to be disrespectful hosters, breathas, and just poorer tenants in general,” said Joel. Max reckoned that women are “favoured because they stereotypically look after flats better, which is ceebs as for guys, but it’s also understandable from landlords.”

There must be some underlying truth to this stereotype, though, right? As referenced in the news section this week, an anonymous Dunedin property manager in Dunedin said that “there are groups of guys who don’t do themselves any favours, where they have treated the property badly and not taken responsibility for it. Whilst they move on, they leave behind a perception with some owners and landlords.” This person hadn’t had any bad experiences with male flats themselves, but recognized the bias nonetheless.

While there is some justification for the struggle, it’s unfortunate that the bad behaviour of some male tenants has been attributed to guys in general. Joel said “it's partially fair, but it’s a harmful generalisation and effectively gender discrimination. The fact that landlords will email us and not even entertain a viewing is discriminatory.” One male student commented: “I think it’s warranted. If I was a landlord and could choose, I would obviously choose girls. Is that sexist, though?” 

Good question.

It is illegal in New Zealand to discriminate on the basis of sex. “You can’t choose a tenant based on what gender they are,” said one property manager. But just because it’s illegal doesn’t mean it isn’t happening; good luck getting definitive proof that that’s why you got denied. So where do we draw the line between landlords simply exercising their discretion and actually discriminating against men? “I don’t know if I’d go as far to say it’s sexist, but it definitely is just the landlords buying into stereotypes about guys,” said Tom. 

Buying into male stereotypes and acting on those subsequent prejudices constitutes gender discrimination. There seems to be a sea of Dunedin boys who are constantly struggling against the tide. If every landlord was taking tenants simply based on their merits and nothing else, it is highly unlikely that there would be such a disproportionate amount of guys affected compared to girls. 

In general, flatting in Dunedin is not easy. There is a shortage of flats, most of them are cold and damp, and rent prices are climbing. “This is way bigger than guys not being able to get some flats,” said one property manager. “[There is] a serious supply and demand issue.” What’s more, there seems to be a constant rush to get into flats each year, creating a competition where the prize is a roof over your head and insulated walls. In other words: the bare essentials for living have now become a trophy to be earned. The system is forcing students to fight over a place to live, which isn’t right. Instead of worrying about what gender their tenants are going to be next year, perhaps the owners of Dunedin flats should turn their minds to the flatting crisis that seems to be emerging. Everyone is entitled to a place to live, and certainly to a fair chance of finding one, free of any discrimination.

It’s true: boys in Dunedin have a reputation for being bad tenants. But it goes beyond just their gender. It's a reputation inherent to the culture of Dunedin. Dunedin has its own reputation. The students play into it. The landlords buy into it, and profit. A lot. So while there is a certain depiction of boys within this culture, they are a product of a larger cultural perception. Dunedin is a city run by students, and sometimes it feels like the rules don’t apply. Its culture allows students to live how they want, act how they want, and drink as much as they want. We have created this culture, and in turn it creates us. Are these male tenants and their (supposed) terrible behaviour a result of Dunedin itself? Or is Dunedin a result of them? There is a wider cultural issue at play here. Landlords, having made their decision to manage flats in New Zealand’s most notorious party city, could re-evaluate their standards, and consider the culture that they are literally buying into. “As a landlord, you’re dreaming if you think no damage will be done to a flat in Dunedin. If you own a flat here, you have to accept that,” said one flat-owner. Of course, the culture of damaging property should not be normalised, but landlords could at least acknowledge the differing standards between Dunedin and other cities of New Zealand, and the effect that the culture has on student’s perceptions of what constitutes acceptable behaviour. 

One student is sick of men bearing the brunt of the cultural prejudices in Dunedin. “I’m not sure what the issue is but we’ve applied for so many flats and we’ve all got pretty decent CVs, we hand them in with applications, yarn to the agent and then, fuck, no reply. All our chick mates just walk in, say they’re interested and apply. No clue what the issue is but I’m low-key starting to think it’s something to do with us being male.”

It might be. It might also be more than that. It’s the way Dunedin warps people’s perceptions of normality, and standards of behaviour. While landlords are entitled to exercise their discretion, it appears that this discretion is being levied predominantly against young men, who end up spending far longer searching for flats, often settling for the less-desirable options. Being stuck in those iceboxes only perpetuates the stereotype that Dunedin men live in the coldest, shittiest, dirtiest Dunedin hovels - not by choice, but by the rules of a game they’re set up to lose.

This article first appeared in Issue 19, 2022.
Posted 2:50pm Monday 15th August 2022 by Anna Robertshawe.