ziggurat house uea
by Kasper Hassett

This month, many returning university students are settling into house-shares in the private rental sector, as the first-year intake prepares to move into halls of residence shortly after. However, for students whose families live in poverty, there are a number of barriers to accessing rental homes, which have worsened this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has also constructed new obstacles to prevent poorer students from relying on campus accommodation.

Students entering their second year are usually expected to share private rentals with other students in their university’s local area, opening them to exploitation from a host of opportunistic landlords. In addition to having to pay hefty deposits, for which many wealthier students rely on help from their families, student tenants are required to find guarantors to accept liability for their property. Nonetheless, the unassailable hurdles this presents for working class students are widely ignored.

On some property listings, it is specified that guarantors must be homeowners, and for most students, who come from families in comfortable financial situations, this poses no problem. But for those whose families rent or are in emergency accommodation, properties with this requirement are out of reach. Landlords without home ownership requirements for guarantors still perform credit checks, leaving students from families with poor credit ratings unable to rely on the expected arrangement of family members acting as guarantors. In these situations, some resort to paying private guarantor companies for their services, an ironic thorn in the side of those who can afford it the least. As well as being disheartening, the lack of dialogue around working class students’ barriers to renting and the pressing need for a solution serves to further alienate us from our peers within the student community and reminds us that we are not perceived to exist within our institutions. 

the lack of dialogue around working class students’ barriers to renting and the pressing need for a solution serves to further alienate us

Some universities, such as UEA, have alternative options for some of those struggling with finding a guarantor. This summer, the UEA Students’ Union has been devising a scheme to act as guarantors for international students, who may struggle with rental contracts which necessitate that guarantors reside in the UK. This scheme removes the need to go through companies offering paid guarantor services, and is a hugely positive step, but in only offering this to international students, many working class students are left out. With some amendments to include financially disadvantaged students, though, this scheme has the potential to become a successful and equalising initiative, which could set a precedent for similar action across universities more widely. To tackle issues which manifest once renting, an increasing amount of students are finding support in renters’ unions, such as the Norwich branch of ACORN, a largely community-led movement opposing the unfair treatment of tenants. It seems, then, that most solace for disadvantaged or vulnerable renters comes from outside of the renting sector itself, but with more supporters and awareness, these movements can only gain more influence.

For now, left with no other option, some students may request to remain in halls of residence for multiple years of study. This cannot be guaranteed, but if successful, students will be relieved of having to find guarantors. However, this can result in these students missing out on renting with friends, which is often considered vital to the university experience. Additionally, campus accommodation is frequently more expensive, creeping up in price most years, and the coronavirus pandemic has thrown up extra concerns for those bidding to be allocated a place in halls.

even halls of residence are losing their status as safe, dependable options for poorer students

With social distancing measures preventing shared rooms, even halls of residence are losing their status as safe, dependable options for poorer students: this year, some UEA students are set to occupy the very cheapest accommodation available for double the advertised rent, and there is no breakthrough yet in spite of overwhelming opposition. This destabilises those who would normally rely on the cheapest rooms to get by without taking a massive financial hit.

Once again, students are being forced to bear the burden of an increasingly marketized education system, caught between the ramifications of this and a leeching, unsafe private rental sector. As renters’ unions gain traction, we are reminded that settling for the current system is not enough for those whose need for shelter can be exploited so easily by corrupt private landlords. With housing being so turbulent for the poorest students, universities and student unions should all be aiming to create schemes to act as guarantors for those who cannot find their own, or to extend these schemes where they already exist to those from low-income backgrounds. It is, after all, the least that can be done to support a demographic already widely deterred and systemically barred from accessing higher education.

Featured image CC BY 2.0 Alexander Baxevanis

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