This article is more than 1 year old

Students and high-quality, affordable housing – why don’t they get it?

This article is more than 1 year old

Harry Hughes-Slattery is the Events Assistant Manager at the University of Nottingham SU

Over the past few decades, living in poor quality housing has become a kind of “rite of passage” for people during their time at university.

People share experiences of the cramped, damp, and cold living conditions they lived in while at university twenty years ago as a kind of badge of honour – sharing horror stories of who had more mould, or who had bigger rats.

Why do we accept that something as essential to your student experience as where you live is of such low quality?

Student housing can and should offer you three key pillars of student life; studying, sleep, and socialising. Yet, as SOS-UK’s report on students in the private rented sector demonstrates, over a third of students are unhappy with their current accommodation.

From high costs to poor living conditions, students often face significant challenges when it comes to finding suitable and affordable housing.

Nothing going on but the rent

One of the most significant issues facing students today is the high cost of housing. In many cities and towns, the cost of renting an apartment or purpose-built accommodation room can be prohibitively expensive.

For instance, this report from the summer demonstrates that the average annual private sector rent outside of London is £7055.71 – seventy-four per cent of the maximum student maintenance loan.

Although not all students receive a loan higher than the average private sector en-suite rent, this is pretty worrying. Especially when we consider that the household earnings threshold has been fixed since 2007, there are many students from families earning more than £25,000 but do not have the money to spare to top-up such high rents.

When most of your money is being spent on rent, it leaves little to to afford the basic necessities of life, like food and transportation. As shown in the Save the Student student money survey 82% of students worry about making ends meet, leaving many working well above the recommended maximum hours students should be working. Or, in some cases, taking on additional debt just to make ends meet.

Aside from the clear risk to equality of opportunity when it comes to taking part in extracurricular activities or events that form the basis of a good student experience, how can students expected to maintain high academic performance while working full time?

Low quality

Even if we take money worries out of the equation and assume that for some students financial worries are much less of a concern, the quality of the accommodation received can be subpar at best.

In a recent survey from SOS UK a massive 54 per cent of students reported suffering from dampness or mould and almost one fifth (18 per cent) reported having slug infestations or rodent issues.

Many students are forced to live in cramped, outdated rooms or shared private rented properties with multiple roommates and private landlords who have made houses a living room as an extra bedroom.

Students are left with little privacy and quiet areas to complete academic work, with many rooms not having room for a desk, let alone communal space to spend precious relaxing time as a flat.

How have we allowed ourselves to get into a position where it is deemed acceptable for landlords to pile copious amounts of students into what used to be a 2 bedroom house and charge each student in that house an average of £418 a month in rent?

Is there light at the end of the tunnel?

The student community has been crying out for support for some time and finally, we may be seeing what is a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel with the UK government’s proposed Renters’ Reform Bill. If successful this bill may see to it that students are no longer treated as second-class renters.

The Bill, announced in 2019, in theory will improve the rights and conditions of all renters in the UK, and for once students don’t seem to be forgotten about. The white paper for the bill currently proposes several changes that would benefit students, including the abolition of “no-fault” evictions, longer tenancy agreements, and caps on security deposits.

The bill should also improve the quality of rented accommodation by requiring landlords to meet minimum standards and to ensure that properties are safe and habitable. Specifically for students, the bill proposes to remove fixed-term contacts, giving students greater security and stability in their housing arrangements.

Currently, many students are forced to move every year, which can disrupt their studies and make it difficult for them to establish a sense of community which both the local communities and students strive for.

Another hurdle

The Renters’ Reform Bill may provide hope for students, but with strong anti reform landlord groups lobbying the government and very little in the way on opposition lobbying, I do not hold out hope that the”Renters” Reform Bill will support students in the way we’d hope.

And the news that the publication ofg the bill in draft form has been delayed – with i News suggesting that a string “pro landlord” lobby in parliament is behind the delay – should cause us further pessimism.

I fear that this bill will only be accepted with specific student-based stipulations once again proving that students are just second class renters.

Your duty or mine?

It seems no one is really ready to accept responsibility for the student population, especially when it comes non-university-owned accommodation. Universities insist they are powerless when it is accommodation they do not own, and local governments believe student problems are the responsibility of the university rather than with the local authority.

All parts have a part to play when it comes to safeguarding, protecting and supporting students’ rights, from local and national government, as well as universities, SUs and private providers.

These stakeholders have a duty to the student population, who make up a large proportion of renters in the area, yet are consistently forgotten and overlooked by the usual support mechanisms available to other renters.

Universities can and should do more, they should worry less about their relationships with landlords and more about their relationships with the students they have the duty of care of. Universities need to do better, we need to do better. Students are the leaders of tomorrow and it’s time they are treated with the respect and decency deserved.

Speak out

Currently, arguments in support of student accommodation quality nationally are patchy at best and it’s easy to feel powerless. SUs often speak on a local rather than national level which in itself is limiting.

SUs need to become a lot more vocal and coordinated on the national level when it comes to housing, as we are failing to unite behind one policy of progress. Particularly with government still not engaging with NUS, it leaves it to unions to take some responsibility and campaign together.

We must work together to amplify our voices and challenge landlord groups who are harassing student representatives like ourselves.

Take action

Universities can work to provide more affordable on-campus housing options, they can work with landlords and push them to improve and where universities have accreditation schemes in place, they need to ensure they are effective and actually ensure a home fit for study.

They can also partner with local landlords to provide students with safe and affordable off-campus housing options, which ties in with the reflective questions proposed in UUK’s briefing note on quality housing.This includes exploring methods to encourage high quality accommodation with accreditation schemes or “Rate your Landlord” platforms.

If there are local landlord groups that engage with the council, it is worthwhile reaching out to encourage collaboration between landlords and student leaders. We hear the “not all landlords are bad” argument often enough, it’s worth working together to call out the shoddy ones, and improve landlords’ understanding of student need.

We have to be loud

Students’ unions can proactively engage with your local MP (no matter the party) and use our powerful influence on a local level to guide the national discussion. Pushing back locally and nationally on landlord groups can ensure threats from landlords are debunked and priortise students rights as renters.

Publicly supporting the Renters’ Reform Coalition and the Bill is also essential. We must be seen to push against any student-specific amendments if we have any chance of ensuring they are not allowed to remain. This includes encouraging your university to speak out against private profiteering of their student population.

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