“I knew that finding somewhere to rent in Australia wouldn’t be easy, but I didn’t expect it to be this difficult. Some are subletting their living rooms or balconies. I don’t think I can do that,” Zhang, 25, said via telephone from her home in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong.
“I have been looking for a room for about a month now and I have given up,” added Zhang, who has enrolled for a master’s degree in marketing at the University of New South Wales. “If I get desperate, I could even sleep rough on the streets, like under some bridge, or outside the Chinese consulate.”
The University of New South Wales, which welcomed a quarter of its students from China until 2020, said its on-campus accommodation was full and it was refurbishing university apartments to rent to foreign students.
Sydney University, also with a fourth of its students coming from China, said its 2,400 dormitory beds near campus were taken and that it had booked another 700 with third-party providers and negotiated discounts with hotels to accommodate the influx.
Analysts say even those planning to defer a semester may struggle to find a bed since many construction projects for foreign students stalled during the pandemic and it takes at least four years to complete one.
Conal Newland, national head of Operational Capital Markets at Savills Australia, said the property agency was seeing unprecedented demand. “It’s a perfect storm.”
The shortage has meanwhile jump-started one of the few subsets of Australian residential property, the student accommodation sector, that languished during Covid-19.
Before 2020, Chinese students accounted for about 40 per cent of the A$40 billion ($27 billion) Australia made educating foreigners annually. That shrank amid Covid-related border restrictions to less than a quarter of the market, which itself halved, hurt also by worsening diplomatic relations.
But China’s reopening has raised the issue about the availability of beds in a “welcome sign” for investors, said Brad Williams, managing director of AMP Capital’s diversified infrastructure trust, Australia’s third-largest owner of purpose-built student accommodation.
Tomas Johnsson, CEO of UniLodge Australia, the country’s biggest operator of purpose-built student accommodation, said some developers were even paying more to speed up construction.
Highlighting the rush for accommodation, Louis Liu, 22, a Chinese student in Brisbane, and others have started attending property viewings on behalf of students in mainland China. Liu said she films two viewings per day, for up to A$40 (US$27) a piece.
In the broader property market, where most foreign students stay, rents are forecast to jump 11.5 per cent in 2023, Westpac Banking Corp economists say, the fastest ever two-year increase. They rose about 10 per cent last year.
Sydney property agent Joe Du said he rented a one-bedroom flat to the mother of a Chinese student for A$1,050 (US$707) per week, about 40 per cent more than the next most expensive one-bedroom flat in the neighbourhood. Public records show the unit rented for A$540 in 2022.
“We told her there was no need to bid this high, but she is genuinely concerned that her kid might not have a place to stay,” said Du. “She was in a big rush.”