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Student housing: a look beyond private renting

By Lucy Pegg

Thursday 19 April 2018 Student Journalists

In the private sector, for most students the routine of the terrible housing situation in this country is the same. There’s the frantic search for a house, the battle to get a deposit down before your competitors, the demand for hundreds of pounds in fees by your letting agent, and then – far too predictably – a year or more of being neglected by your landlord.

Whilst there are positive student housing stories out there, the general picture is bleak. 2014 NUS research found that 76% of students had problems with the condition of their accommodation (usually mould, damp or condensation), 53% had experienced delays in getting problems fixed, and 43% had part of their deposit withheld at the end of their tenancy (75% of this group felt that this was unjustified). All of this whilst many students pay extortionate sums in rent. But despite this plethora of issues, most students see no alternative to the private rented market after they leave university halls of residence.

Alternatives do exist though, if you’re willing to live outside the box. Student co-operative housing is beginning to flourish in the UK, aiming to provide ethical and affordable housing that’s collectively owned and managed by those who live there. Students in Birmingham opened the first student housing co-op in the UK in mid 2014, using funding from the larger Phone Co-op to secure funding for their house. Sheffield Student Housing Co-operative began in 2015, whilst Edinburgh Student Housing Co-op – the largest student-run housing co-op in the UK with 106 members - set up in 2014, having taken over former halls of residence buildings. Students from the University of Glasgow and Glasgow School of Art set up their co-operative last year, whilst other students across the country are beginning to form groups. Living in a co-operative allows you far greater freedom over how you live due to its huge emphasis on democratic structure, and can be a great chance to build your practical skills. Crucially, rent is much less than the average student house, with no landlord there to make a profit out of you. Spaces are very limited at present and setting up a co-op from scratch will need commitment – but as the movement grows this should become much easier.

Similar to co-operatives are other forms of communal living. Often these won’t be targeted specifically at students, but communes or ‘co-housing’ could still be a viable option. These set-ups aim to create ‘intentional communities’ which are founded and run by their members, with the scale ranging from a single shared house to a multitude of dwellings. Just as in co-operatives, communal housing usually works very democratically and jobs around the house will be shared amongst those who live there – it’s also again much cheaper due to the lack of profit making involved.

Property guardianship is also a growing trend amongst young people looking for affordable housing. Property guardianship involves living in a property in exchange for keeping it safe and in good condition whilst it is empty. The residents are given cheap rent and the idea is that this is a cheaper way of protecting property whilst it is unoccupied than paying for conventional security. If you’re happy to live in a more obscure place – property guardianships can often be for empty office blocks, schools, or shops, though these are made into temporary living spaces – this can be a perfect way to keep your housing prices low. However, property guardianship does come with its own drawbacks; guardians do not have the same legal rights as tenants, though these are quickly increasing in favour of guardians, and the length of your contract can be much more precarious than in standard student accommodation. Many property guardianships are also only willing to accept mature or postgraduate students.

Even if you’re not able to look beyond conventional private renting – after all, there’s unfortunately not the capacity yet for us all to live in communal bliss - make sure to be engaged with renters’ or tenants’ unions, which are pushing for tenant’s rights across the country. Many of the recent successes of these groups have been on the behalf of students. Yet more importantly though, the visibility and availability of alternatives to private sector renting must be pushed as the housing crisis continues – both for students specifically and amongst the wider community.