Are safer homes and better rights for students about to be traded off in an accommodation supply crisis?

Earlier this week students due to enrol at Manchester Met in a few weeks received a message saying housing demand in the city is “currently the highest” they have ever experienced.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

The message went on to offer the waiting students residence at halls “a short distance away”… in Liverpool and Huddersfield.

What I couldn’t fathom was whether the Manchester housing market really is that tight this year, or if the issue was about offering the “allocated halls” experience – albeit elsewhere.

Yesterday we got closer to an answer, when the University of Manchester also said that students who have applied for accommodation under its Accommodation Guarantee have received an email to let them know that accommodation is “oversubscribed” this year.

The line is that there are a “number of pressures” in the demand of private accommodation in Manchester, which has compounded the issue. Prior to exam results being released the university says it took a number of steps to increase the availability of university accommodation – including leasing additional rooms – but the level of demand “still exceeds these additional measures”.

As a result, it has offered all students who have applied within the Accommodation Guarantee a payment of £2,500 as an alternative to taking a room in university accommodation. It has also secured additional student accommodation in nearby cities, including Liverpool and Preston, and will release more details about this next week. This will include an offer of financial support for out of pocket expenses of £100 per week.

Describing housing as “oversubscribed” particularly aggravates students because it blames applicants – in truth these rooms have been oversold, not oversubscribed.

Following a crisis unfurling in Ireland and last year’s York students living in Hull debacle, so far then this year we already have the prospect of Manchester students living in Preston, Huddersfield and Liverpool, St Andrews students living in Dundee, a crisis in Glasgow and UWE students living in Newport.

And unlike in the “in m day” tales of old of students sleeping in gyms for a few weeks, these poor souls may well end up in 50 week contracts with private PBSA providers in a different city!

What on earth will happen in a month’s time when a metric ton of international PGTs, often told by agents that housing won’t be an issue and so appear with no housing sorted for them and their family, arrive off the plane and start house hunting?

While we persist with this stupid market model, surely universities in a city should be prevented from recruiting “away from homers” beyond the local bedspace capacity?

So supply ought to worry us. And therefore the upcoming renter’s reform bill in England should worry us too.

Landlords argue that giving students the right to cancel on two months notice and stay in perpetuity wrecks the student market. They say they’ll sell up and prices will go up as a result. They mutter quietly that a decent homes standard and an ombudsperson would also cause many of them to get out of the market, pushing prices up.

To be fair so far the government’s position has been helpful – writing to landlords this week it said that students living in the private rented sector should benefit from the reforms like others will, including not being trapped by renting early if housemates/courses change or standards poor, and being able to stay which is really important for those with kids of local roots. But will the position hold once a new government takes shape in coming weeks?

Landlords are super upset that the occasional student will drop out ahead of moving in day and stay at the end, giving them more voids and less certainty. And at the moment even a slight shift in supply could be disastrous.

So should there be a compromise, and if so of what nature?

Clearly, there should be no compromises on decent homes standard and the new ombudsperson.

On tenancies, maybe we have to live with fixed terms – the right to evict after a year. That will enable landlords to rent to groups of students even with individual contracts with some certainty and stop students having to house hunt in early summer.

But if we create special tenancies for student housing, there are two concessions back to students that I think the sector should demand.

One should be the retention of the right to cancel on two months’ notice. Renting early isn’t so much the problem as being locked in. Landlords lose a bit of certainty, but students gain a bit of right not to be locked in. That sounds like a fairer balance.

The other should be rent controls. What landlords don’t say is that new tenancies every year make it much easier to yank the rent up, and we’re worried about supply.

So to give some certainty to the landlord we let them evict after a year but impose rent controls that are related to the student maintenance package.

As I say, where bedspaces get tight, universities in a city should be prevented from recruiting “away from homers” beyond the bedspace capacity – so no more international PGTs living 200 miles away or UGs living in Liverpool but studying in Manchester.

If that causes pain re ambition and opportunity, governments will then need to act. Few governments actually dare to mess with the ambitions of middle class parents, despite the sabre ratting we see over low value courses.

The alternatives are what? Students trapped in housing they don’t need? Students living miles away from their uni? Taking publicly subsidised loans and inflating the housing market even further?

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