A broken student housing market can’t deliver safety

There was a fun little piece in the Sunday Times at the weekend that profiled Philippa and Tom Charrier - property developers “on a mission to improve student wellbeing”.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

The couple manages student houses in Lancaster, and have written a book on their work – The ethical property developer’s guide to creating student accommodation that outperforms the market.

I’ve read it – and it makes a compelling case for taking the quality of student housing much more seriously given the links between housing and (mental) health:

There are some school buildings that help children learn more and make better friends. There are some hospital buildings that help sick people heal faster, with less medicine. Some office buildings help employees be more productive and experience less stress. Some homes help us to be fitter, healthier and happier. How we design our buildings shapes our lives and all our futures.

Student accommodation had become purely an asset to generate returns, and landlords seemed to be forgetting the impact that homes can have on people’s lives. The reputation of student houses as poor quality and badly maintained hadn’t improved much in years… Bedroom sizes had shrunk, and communal spaces had been reduced or cut out in order to squeeze in more rentable bedrooms.

In the Times piece, Tom shares a version of an observation which still seems to shock those who espouse the “never did me any harm” rite-of-passage theory of student accommodation:

I went round these student houses and was absolutely horrified at the state of them. They’d got a lot smaller since we studied. When I was a student I lived in a bit of a dive but there was social space. We could all sit round and have toast and jam after a night out and talk about what had happened. I was going round, a toddler holding my hand and a baby in my tummy, and I got very maternal, looking at these houses with students crammed in together. I thought, ‘I wouldn’t want my child living in a space like this so why would any parent?’”

The recommendations in the guide, once you think about them for a few seconds, are pretty modest. We’re talking somewhere where housemates can gather to eat together, being able to turn your own heating on and off, and being able to pull the chair out from your desk comfortably.

And that’s all assuming that things like basic safety or living somewhere free of mould is already taken care of.

Around 600,000 students live in the private rented sector – where almost a quarter of properties don’t meet the government’s definition of a “decent home”.

To be fair, that 600k figure is UK-wide whereas the non-decent stat is for England – although on the other side of that equation that is a figure from 2020/21, where more students than usual will have been living in the parental home (although of course some of their parents will be in the PRS too).

Either way it’s a significant number of students.

I should add here that I keep coming across folks that say things like “well most of my students live at home”, implying that the “Young Ones” problem is one exclusively faced by the Russell Group. The assertion might be true technically but tends to ignore the situation faced by plenty of international students (and oodles early-career staff too). You’re looking at “other rented” in this chart to look things up for your university:

Last week the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities published the headlines from this year’s English Housing Survey – which looks at things like housing circumstances and the condition and energy efficiency of housing in England. It is one of the longest standing government surveys and was first run in 1967.

The shocking headline in there is that almost a quarter of homes in the PRS fail the government’s definition of a decent home – which means free of serious hazards, a reasonable degree of thermal comfort, in a reasonable state of repair and reasonably modern facilities and services.

We don’t know the percentage of student homes that fail the DHS, and so we don’t know the number of students who are in non-decent homes. But given how tight the market is for student accommodation in most university towns and cities, you’ll forgive me for not assuming that students somehow have it better than longer-term tenants.

Fifteen percent of homes in the PRS had a serious, category 1 hazard – where the most serious potential harm outcome is identified, like death, permanent paralysis, permanent loss of consciousness, loss of a limb or serious fractures.

DfE won’t even think about student housing, of course – it always points at others and says not our problem. But it is a mental health issue, does have a significant impact on outcomes, and even from a VFM point of view, why is DfE so obsessed over course quality but not what most of the maintenance loan that it is responsible for goes on? At least convene a couple of meetings, lads.

More practically, if you think about the English regulatory system for higher education that ministers obsess over when it comes to value for money, we have a regulator that supposedly policies a quality baseline, and then both competition and assessment and signalling exercises like the TEF are supposed to cause providers to aspire beyond the baseline.

But in student housing, as long as providers keep growing demand for student housing faster than the capacity of their local housing market (plus slack), there are simply no circumstances under which landlords are about to copy Philippa and Tom en masse.

And when it comes to basic regulation, as long as local authorities both have no money and a political predilection towards othering students as dismissable tourists, it doesn’t really matter whether the Renter’s Reform Bill will set new standards.

All you then have left is students pursuing individual complaints and redress – and to be fair, the government is planning to give a new Ombuds new powers. But just as students right now need a hand in accessing the OIA, students will need that sort of help too in battling their landlord.

The policy choice painted by some is that universities can either “restrict opportunity” by limiting numbers, or protect it by campaigning for more supply. I can make a decent argument that says living miles away in a dangerous property isn’t the expansion of opportunity some suggest it is, but either way I can also make a good argument that if a university is recruiting close to local housing capacity, it should accept that local competition won’t work to drive up standards – and so has a duty to invest some of the money gained in fees on helping students enforce their rights.

The sector invests in students’ unions in part to give students that kind of support through their advice centres. It wouldn’t magic up affordable properties of the quality promoted by Philippa and Tom Charrier – but working with SUs either to bolster their capacity to take on complex housing cases, or working with local partners to establish and part-fund student renter’s unions in cities, would likely generate a pretty unarguable return on any investment.

2 responses to “A broken student housing market can’t deliver safety

  1. Nonsense, especially part about 15% of PRS homes having category 1 hazards. Local authorities only inspect a minority of PRS homes selectively where they have some cause or suspicion of issues, not on a statistically random basis. Of those selected of inspection, 15% were found to have a category 1 hazard. Extrapolation of that figure to the whole of PRS is grotesquely misleading. Same applies to DHS figure quoted.

  2. That isn’t how the EHS works Simon. It’s dedicated survey data, not administrative data.

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