By Alex Powell
In 2014, the NUS reported that three quarters of students had suffered issues with privately rented accommodation. Such a high proportion is indicative of an endemic problem within the private rental market, a problem that disproportionately impacts students. Since the publication of this report, the problem has only gotten worse, as inflationary pressures have pushed up the price of rents while student loans have remained stagnant. Students now face more issues with finding decent housing than ever before, and many are left living in less than ideal conditions, to say the least.
As the guardian reported in 2014, ‘Woodlice in the bathroom and mould on the walls’ is a reality for many students. Students face a unique mix of issues in the search for housing. These often centre on landlords and lettings agents who seek to exploit a perceived naivety in students. Expecting us not to know our rights, landlords behave with unacceptable disregard of our welfare.
Students are grouped into a set area and left without proper protections; most are increasingly unable to afford the rent imposed by the private rental market, leaving them less and less room to attain comfortable living standards. Rising prices, and the need to live in groups (both for cost saving and social reasons) leave students with limited choices. This often means students are forced to accept a substandard property, forced into inhumane conditions which they pay a premium for. We deserve better.
The problem is even more pronounced for postgraduates, who oftentimes find themselves moving into a new area where they know no-one, and looking for accommodation without the support of friends and housemates at their side. This can result in them being forced to live with people they do not know and can often see them having to find accommodation at the last second, limiting their choices. In addition to this, the inadequate level at which postgraduate student loans are set leaves many postgrads unable to afford ever rising rent costs. This can, of course, have dramatic consequences for their ability to effectively complete their studies.
Of course, the best way for students to approach this issue is to inform themselves on their rights and to ensure that they take appropriate action when either landlord behaviour or living conditions breach reasonable standards. Students can find information on their rights from a number of sources, including the citizens advice bureau, or on government pages, or, indeed, through your university (see for example the advice on the University of London housing services page).
The next best way for students to approach the issues they face when entering into the private rental market is for us to work together. This is a call for students unions to begin to take more seriously the issues faced by students when renting, to put support structures in place and to ensure that enough information is provided on the properties in the surrounding area.
This is an area in which student’s unions, and the NUS itself, should be looking to lead.
When I was an undergraduate in Reading, the private rental market was dominated by one or two landlords who owned most student properties (friends of mine at other UK unis have noticed a similar trend). When such a small number hold such a large stake in the local property markets it becomes easy for landlords to fix prices high and provision low. But informal networks can tackle this to some extent, by exchanging information about which landlords to avoid. This could be achieved by running information sessions, by operating a blacklisting system, or even by simply providing a forum for students to share their experiences of renting in the area.
This is an area in which student’s unions, and the NUS itself, should be looking to lead. Students unions are ideally situated to disseminate the necessary information to students entering the private rental market. And I am not talking about simply supporting students who are experiencing an issue; this comes too late in the process. Students unions should be advising students as to which landlords their peers have had issues with, which lettings agents are charging over the odds, and which houses have previously suffered issues such as infestation. Only by sharing experiences, working together, and, where necessary, taking action can students put themselves on a level footing in the private rental market.
Featured image via Huffington Post