Leith Them Alone: The Families of Leith Street

Leith Them Alone: The Families of Leith Street

Leith Street – a key part of the North Dunedin epicentre of Otago’s student life – has long been the home of scarfie flats and student parties. But despite its reputation, Leith is more than just students living out their second-year dreams in New Zealand’s most notorious student neighbourhood. Nestled in the heart of Leith Street is a run-of-the-mill residential complex which several families call home – a unique existence when in such close quarters with student chaos. 

Critic Te Ārohi was curious to find out what life is really like for the families who live smack-bang in the middle of this student-dominated environment. 

Sidra Iqbal, her husband Habib Ullah, their daughter, and twin boys have lived in a two-bedroom flat on Leith since 2019, after arriving in Dunedin from Pakistan. At first, Sidra, who was studying at Otago before working there, came alone in 2018 to find accommodation. She found it difficult to find anything suitable and faced constant rejection. In the end, Sidra and Habib’s family were happy to finally find their place on Leith. It was affordable at $290 per week and within walking distance to the University, their mosque, and the Botanical Gardens. 

However, during their time in their Leith Street home, Sidra and Habib have experienced serious ill-treatment at the hands of students, facing vandalism and attempted break-ins, as well as racial abuse. One night, in 2019, the family denied some students access to their bathroom which resulted in the students hurling insults towards them. “They were shouting and screaming, ‘Oh, you bloody Asians!’” remembered Sidra and Habib. 

This was one incident of many others over the years they’ve lived on Leith. “Last month, some students painted our car [...] The next day, the Proctor called and said, ‘I'm so sorry, I’m so sorry.’” Sidra said that the University had a responsibility to try and curb the students' behaviour, but she was also grateful for their response when they had had issues. At the very least, Sidra and Habib have received support from Campus Watch and the University – they have their contact details and will come to check on the family when called.  

But it hasn’t only been students giving the family trouble. Sidra also said a Leith Street resident allegedly threatened to have their kids taken from them by authorities if they didn't stop crying. “You’re complaining when you’re living on Leith Street?,” said Sidra. “My kids got scared: ‘Oh my god, they are going to come and take us from you.’” 

The harassment was so pervasive that Sidra’s friends would feel scared when visiting her house, as many had been victims of it as well. On two separate occasions, her friends had been in a car which students had tried to break into. Sidra told us about one of the chilling incidents: “My friend, one day she came to pick me up and some drunk person […] he tried to open her door,” said Sidra. “He wanted to attack [her].” 

The family had, of course, anticipated that some issues would come with living in the student neighbourhood. Unfortunately, Sidra admitted that the reality was worse than they’d thought. Sidra had been warned about the students by a friend, but had assumed the problems would only be minor, saying, “I have three kids, they will always make noise.” Making noise has perhaps been the least of the kids’ worries – the broken glass that litters the streets has been an issue and is something Sidra and Habib believe the University has a responsibility to control. “My kids say, ‘Mum, it’s so dirty. The students are so dirty,’” said Sidra. 

When their son was asked if he would like to live on Leith Street when he is a student, we got an unequivocal, “No.” Unsurprisingly, Sidra and Habib expressed that their least favourite time of the year was O-Week, when a new crop of students swarm the streets. “The new students are coming in February and March. Oh my God, they are always partying.” 

On Friday and Saturday nights throughout most of the University year, the family chooses to stay inside unless there’s an “emergency”. When asked about their favourite time of the year, they replied, “November, December, January are very good, very peaceful here,” in the absence of students, “so we are happy in those few months.” 

Despite the negatives, the couple had plenty of good things to say about where they live. For one, they say they’ve been blessed with their former property manager – someone the couple described as the best person they had met in Aotearoa. After being home in Pakistan during lockdown, the family returned to find that she had left a $50 gift card, as well as fresh vegetables, milk, bread, and meat in their fridge. “I can’t explain how I felt […] she was always very amazing,” said Sidra. Even more amazingly, Sidra and Habib maintain a positive outlook on their Leith life. “I certainly have found some difficulties and problems here, but the benefits are [greater],” said Sidra. 

Living below Sidra and Habib is another family who have made their home in the Leith Street complex. Md Moudud Islam, Sadia Tabassum, and their four-year-old daughter Mahreen Tasnia moved from Bangladesh to Dunedin in 2022. Like Sidra and Habib, the family had also struggled to find accommodation before eventually moving to Leith last year. They were well aware of the student culture beforehand, but having students as neighbours was their only real option in looking for an affordable family rental near the University – a necessity for Moudud, who is completing his PhD in Zoology. 

They spent more than a year looking for somewhere to live. In that time, they had temporary accommodation that they said “mentally tortured” their daughter – it was far too small, and they kept getting sick. Eventually, they found that the Leith complex was within their budget, at $360 per week for a two-bedroom home. Moudud’s family is generally happy with their student neighbours, and surprisingly had few complaints – except for the music and the glass, of course. 

Reflecting on his own student days, Moudud said he could understand the partying, though he does think that Otago students are given significantly more freedom than other students across the world. “What we didn’t do was break glass,” Moudud said. “It’s dangerous for students, it’s dangerous for cars.” He thought that the University should be more mindful of this, saying, “They should impose some regulation over this.” Moudud and Sadia are quite sympathetic to the student population. “They can drink, they can dance, they can party,” the couple said. “Everything is alright [other] than breaking glass randomly.” 

Fortunately for Moudud’s family, they had fewer horror stories than their upstairs neighbours. Still, they told us that the hardest times were “obviously Fridays and Saturdays […] and of course the beginning of the semester.” The family avoids walking down their own street on Friday and Saturday nights. “If it’s heavy partying down the road, then it is a bit scary,” said Sadia. 

The Leith street complex consists of seven residential flats, made up mostly of families or PhD students. Despite the wider area’s reputation, the complex is a refuge in which many residents can make a home, which was part of the appeal for both families. According to Sidra, there is a definite sense of community within the complex. 

Like Sidra and Habib, Moudud and Sadia found that when raising a family on Leith Street, the good far outweighs the bad – the good being proximity to the University, their daughter’s kindergarten, and the affordable rent.

The bad, of course, is us.

This article first appeared in Issue 6, 2024.
Posted 10:01pm Friday 5th April 2024 by Harriette Boucher.