How to get student landlords to behave better

The state of student housing seems to be getting worse - but what can be done? Jules Singh weighs up the efficacy of accreditation schemes.

Jules Singh is the Community Living Officer for the University of Birmingham.

The move from university accommodation to the private sector is often the big jump into “proper adulthood” for students.

It brings more personal responsibility, from the house hunting process to living in the local community. It is arguably the aspect of university life that prepares you the most for the “real world” – with nearly half of graduates moving into the private sector after university.

If you ask someone who has rented before, they’ve probably got stories about unscheduled visits from their landlord, waiting weeks for urgent repairs, and more, much worse, experiences.

Expectations from students regarding the quality of student housing are high, and it raises the question of whose responsibility it is to ensure private sector accommodation is up to scratch.

That’s where landlord accreditation schemes come in. The premise is simple – a stamp of approval for landlords in exchange for a promise of good behaviour and good standard accommodation. Throw in some membership benefits and you’ve theoretically got a great incentive for landlords to act reasonably and fair towards their tenants.

Some schemes are run by universities, some by local authorities, and others as their own entity. But how effective are they? And do these schemes really encourage good behaviour?

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The biggest advantage of these schemes, and the reason universities can’t ignore them, is that it’s a good way to monitor the student housing market.

We already know some cities are struggling to deal with student housing shortages amongst rising student numbers. Being able to monitor the housing market is essential and the last thing universities will want is to be caught by surprise by their returning students having nowhere for to live.

A common benefit that schemes provide to members is some form of market advantage. Schemes run by universities are best placed to provide students with a pre-approved list of landlords and letting agents. It’s also advantageous to build these relationships to quickly deal with housing issues during the year.

It’s no secret that student landlords are displeased about certain elements of the renter’s reform proposals. More specifically, the potential move away from 52-week contracts to periodic tenancies. Active accreditation schemes give you instant access to a network of landlords, all ready to give you their opinion.

Landlords like having that network exist for each other too. A sense of community to share thoughts on the housing market and universities to give them useful information about their student body. And if this best practice isn’t being shared, universities should be the ones educating them! Good schemes provide training and development opportunities for landlords improve service delivery.

The schemes provide an avenue for students to report unscrupulous behaviour. The phrase “rogue landlord” is thrown around a lot and sometimes for good reason. Don’t provide students with a quality service and your name is logged on a system to shape the experiences of future student tenants.

Whether it be discounts, access to local authority grants, or being on a university “nice list”. The best schemes are made with good benefits. Build an accreditation scheme worth signing up to, and landlords should go out of their way to avoid being taken off it- right?

A year in a life

The effectiveness of these schemes at encouraging good behaviour is a mixed bag. Local authorities simply no longer have the funding to properly back these schemes – a statement that can be about a lot of services they used to offer.

Schemes funded by local authorities often cover residential and commercial lettings in addition to student lettings. This leaves them stretched under already dwindling funding.

But what about the schemes funded by universities? Sadly, the amount of landlords that care about accreditation is not as high as it should be.

You would hope training and development opportunities would draw in incentive to join and not want to leave. But resourcing is an issue here too. The focus should be on supporting students with housing and therefore we must question how much of a responsibility that universities have towards training landlords how to run their businesses.

Then you have market advantage. If you’re a landlord or large letting agent that manages to fill the rooms in your houses every single year, is the threat of being taken off a list of approved landlords a credible one? Unless the unscrupulous behaviour is against the law and will affect you financially, I struggle to think of it being an intimidating consequence.

Added to this is a new batch of students every year, the majority of whom are renting for the first time and have little idea what to look out for. University and students’ union peer-to-peer support is helpful in managing this – but the cycle of renting horror stories is yet to be broken.

Discounts are good – but they aren’t enough incentive to encourage good behaviour, leaving a bleak picture of the effectiveness of some schemes.

Seasons of love

Where they aren’t run by universities, national schemes appear to have the most participation and provide the most. But these are often run on the side of landlords, leaning towards training, development, and support rather than scrutinising.

Local schemes provide the best networks and communities but aren’t able to provide big incentives.

University-run schemes could be in a position to provide the right balance of benefits and level of authority to scrutinise effectively. But this still requires effort on the part of landlords and letting agents.

Students often rush to sign their contracts for the next academic year out of fear that they won’t get the best quality if they wait. But hopefully they would listen to their institutions telling them to steer clear of blacklisted housing providers- something accreditation schemes have the power to do. Nevertheless, the sands of power will always favour the owners rather than the renters.

The Government private rented sector white paper has been widely criticised for not being what the future of the student housing market needs. I only hope it isn’t too late for the government to understand that it’s a market with its own niche issues that need fixing.

Accreditation schemes have their value. Someone needs to take responsibility for ensuring compliance with HMO licensing, gas safety certificates, and the rest of the bare minimums. But beyond this, there is a lot of work to do to improve scrutinising the private housing sector.

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