There’s a dangerous assumption that is always in the air when I talk to people about students’ experiences of housing.
It is true that for decades, student housing has been a byword for low quality. But people assume that being ripped off by dodgy landlords, living with broken appliances and having to put up with damp and mould are seen as part of student life – something to be tolerated and left unchallenged.
This was wrong when student accommodation was cheaper than other forms of housing. But with costs spiralling, it’s now just as hard to find somewhere affordable to live as it is to find somewhere that is good quality and fit for habitation, and almost impossible to find somewhere that is both.
And there’s a deep misunderstanding about just how bad it’s got. Policy makers seem to assume that a retired couple that have moved to the coast will just need a nudge to get the boiler fixed. In fact, we’re not sure the Welsh Government are aware of how bad things really are. If they’re not, that’s disappointing. If they are aware, then it’s scandalous that they have yet to engage with us on this problem.
They don’t see the realities – vast, barely regulated buy-to-let portfolio empires of property flipping landlords whose commitment to safety is notional, where communal space has been value-engineered into two extra bedrooms, and where essential repairs are more of an ambition than a service.
Rites or wrongs?
As President of NUS Wales, I want to challenge the idea that students should just put up with shoddy and dangerous housing as a rite of passage. That’s why we’ve been working with Shelter Cymru to shine a light on student housing injustices and demonstrate the need for stronger rights and protections for student renters.
Our new report Broken foundations: fix student housing represents the first stage of that work, and exposes the extent to which housing issues affect students’ daily lives. To inform the report we surveyed hundreds of students across Wales, revealing their experiences of housing and the real, detrimental impact that poor-quality accommodation has on students and their lives .
We’ve also collected a whole range of case studies on the Twitter hashtag #StudentHousingHorrorStories. It’s not a comfortable read.
We found that more than half of students in Wales are living with damp or mould in their accommodation. 46 percent have to put up with disrepair, and 31 percent have had issues with their landlords.
These numbers will come as little surprise to many students, but it’s the knock-on impacts of these problems that are the greatest cause for concern. It’s clear that the place you live has a fundamental impact on your quality of life, but our survey shows first-hand the extent to which substandard housing is feeding into the student mental health crisis.
A staggering 65 percent – almost two thirds of students – told us that housing issues have had an impact on their mental health and well-being.
We already know that students experience mental health issues more than the general population, and that a combination of financial, social and academic pressures contribute to this. Add housing into the mix and we get a clear picture of how students’ environments have such a fundamental impact on their wellbeing while at university.
35 percent of students said housing issues affected their physical health, and 26 percent said they affected their academic achievements – a problem exacerbated by the pandemic when students spent more time than ever studying in their rooms.
But it’s not just about health. 24 percent said issues with their accommodation had affected relationships with their family or friends, and 12 percent said that issues with their accommodation had affected their work or volunteering commitments.
It’s often suggested to me that students are adults and should simply be choosier. But again, comments like that show a deep misunderstanding of the market that students find themselves in. 40 percent of respondents said that they had – at some point – felt pressure to sign an accommodation contract without understanding it, or before they had had time to consider their options.
In most major student cities students are in the mindset of a wider housing emergency where we are supporting thousands of people asked to pay significant amounts of rent in advance, who report that properties are sold or let before they can view them and who are struggling to find a home.
The figures speak for themselves, and our asks are basic – for all students to be protected equally, for all students to be able to hold their landlords to account, and for all students to be able to afford to live in safe and decent housing.
We’ll be working this year with Shelter and others to work out what those asks would like in practice – but my message to university leaders and Welsh Government is simple too. This isn’t “someone else’s problem” and the market won’t “be fixed by itself” – if you bring students to your city, you need to exercise some responsibility over their living conditions, and I’m expecting you to play your part in helping us to develop solutions in the months ahead.
Student housing is broken at the foundations – and it’s time to fix it once and for all.