It’s time the sector took a lead on addressing student housing

Rachel Barber is Student Support and Representation Director at York University Students' Union


Nick Glover is the Student Voice & Insight Manager at York University Students' Union

Behind the city walls and medieval architecture of one of the UK’s most popular cities, life for some students is not quite what it seems. The problem? Private rented housing.

3rd year undergraduate Katie sums it up for us:

Accommodation has been by far the worst part of what was an amazing 4 years in York.”

Many of the challenges in what’s classified as the ‘“student submarket” have been well documented. Renters are transient and only stay in properties for short periods. Growth has not been balanced by better planning and regulation of quality and conditions. And increasing student numbers in many cities have led to concerns about value for money, affordability and supply.

Working with Citizens’ Advice York, whose advisers see evidence of these challenges on a weekly basis, we wanted to understand more about how these issues were playing out in the city and explore the interventions that could make a difference. So we polled over 600 students to explore the quality and cost of accommodation, the process of finding accommodation, levels of satisfaction with housing and the impact of accommodation experiences on students.

Ceilings and flaws

While we heard a number of positive stories – mainly concerning good relationships with supportive and responsible landlords – on balance the results do not make for happy reading. The research exposes real flaws across York’s private rented sector (PRS), demonstrating that poor conditions, poor property management and hazards are commonplace features of the student housing market. Given students self-selected for the research it was always likely to uncover issues within the PRS, but nonetheless the findings indicate that student experiences and conditions should be a cause for concern.

High rental costs mean that 55 per cent of students surveyed spend over 60 per cent of their monthly income on rent, with 19 per cent spending more than 80 per cent of their income on rent. Prohibitive costs mean a widespread reliance on supplementary sources of income – and particular vulnerabilities for students left with very little after rent payments, especially those from low income families and backgrounds. And international students struggled to pay their rent just as frequently as students domiciled in the UK (47 per cent and 51 per cent respectively).

Underpinning these high costs was a high level of dissatisfaction from students – with almost half of those polled (42 per cent) dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their experiences of accommodation in York. The quality of property management and conditions were key factors in this, with half of students reporting that repairs weren’t carried out in reasonable timeframes and significant numbers experiencing indicators of non-decency including pests or insect infestations (31 per cent), gas, electricity or fire hazards (16 per cent), mould (18 per cent) and damaged flooring (30 per cent).

Pressure cooker included

Amid significant demand for rental properties, students reported a “scramble to get the cheapest housing” with over 85 per cent of respondents saying they felt pressure to secure rentals.

Incredibly, one student talked about feeling the stress of this as early as Freshers’ Week.

With half of this perceived pressure driven by landlords and letting agents, and 70 per cent from students themselves, the result is a pressure-cooker scenario with a culmination of market and social drivers.

Scaremongering and peer pressure leave students – convinced they are starting their housing search too late – feeling compelled to sign quickly for any available house, rather than thinking carefully about the decision. Ironically our research found that students who begin their search for a rental later in the academic year tended to be much more satisfied with accommodation.

With the link between mental ill-health and housing problems well established, it’s perhaps not surprising that as well as being financially and socially challenging, this market and factors associated with it have implications for health. Of those polled, just under 40 per cent said accommodation issues had contributed to poor health, whilst over a quarter said they’d made them mentally unwell.

Act now

While reform to enhance renters’ rights is back on the agenda nationally, with this month’s Queen’s Speech promising developments and a white paper in the coming months, it’s clear that more urgent action is needed.

Many of the issues we have identified are not unique to York, and are certainly not unique to students. But given the impact on education, it is important that the sector (both universities and SUs) leads the way in putting the pressure on to fix it.

Our report speaks to the need for a joined up effort by the sector in big student cities – landlords, universities, local authorities and students themselves – to address the issue of landlords unwittingly or intentionally failing to discharge their obligations.

Better minimum standards and advice to challenge bad practice were high on the agenda for our students. This is perhaps unsurprising given the challenges experienced by students in York’s PRS. However, what’s clear is that a more robust and interventionist approach across the country, incorporating additional property licensing, education for renters and landlords around rights and responsibilities – as well as better access to legal advice provision when there are issues – could go some distance towards improving students’ experiences in this part of the rented sector.

At the time of writing the City of York Council is consulting on proposals to extend the licensing scheme for HMOs in York to smaller properties in wards with high levels of shared housing. The proposals would build on the platform that existing mandatory licensing has established to drive improvements to rental stock.

Here the move represents a major opportunity for the city that would benefit renters broadly, not just students, and go a long way towards addressing some of the long-standing issues private renters face. The challenges of the past year, when our homes have been more important than ever, have highlighted the urgent need to ensure that everyone can access safe and good quality homes. For renters in York, change may well be on the horizon.

The full report is online here.

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