THE SORRY STATE OF STUDENT HOUSING
Students are easy prey for unscrupulous landlords who are cashing in by charging huge rents for shabby properties.
Recently I stayed, temporarily, in student accommodation again. Nostalgically I pictured the residential halls of my youth, remembering torrential water fights, superhuman livers and stark, utilitarian fittings. I thought to myself: they must be different now – surely these days, student housing no longer resembles an open prison.
Sadly, this particular hall of residence (owned by a university) was exactly as I recalled: utilitarian to the point of bleakness, and kitted out in a Spartan manner. Yes, I appreciated the innovation of an en suite shower, but I could hardly move my arms, and there was nowhere to hang a towel. The kitchen/diner/lounge was intended for six residents, but seated only four, assuming perhaps that students exist in shifts.
The bedroom wasn't suitable for an adult. There was a single bed (students being famously chaste) and storage was meagre. Many students are forced out during holidays, enabling management to re-let the rooms; students hang on to suitcases and boxes. There was insufficient space for an extra chair and few bookshelves.
Private blocks now dominate the market for student housing, so clearly there is money to be made. Unite, which builds and runs many of the new blocks springing up across the UK, lists its share price and investment opportunities with equal prominence next to shots of happy students. Many private providers boast of a detailed "welcome pack" (basic essentials of crockery and cutlery) alongside eye-poppingly enormous rents of about £180 a week for a tiny bed/study/dining/everything room. Some charge as much as £349 a week. I am not making this up.
Look around any city with a university, and you will notice similar student blocks springing up like boils. They are more lucrative than "apartments" as developers can cram in layers of minuscule cabins rather than space-devouring individual flats. A friend's accommodation had walls of exposed cinder blocks. I've seen one proposed development that seemed to be made of containers.
The choice is stark: either exorbitant halls, or renting privately – always such a joy. This is generally a young person's first time away from home, and landlords smell their naive prey from a distance. Private houses are cheaper, and yes, some landlords are heroes, but the worst examples terrorise student tenants, ignoring the deposit protection scheme or docking huge sums of money for minor misdemeanours.
One landlord tried to charge me a "retainer" back-dated to May, when we had moved in later that autumn. When I refused, he shrugged, smirking: "Worth a try." The private sector nurtures insecurity, meaning students are preferred, since they will usually stay just one year, and are unlikely to judge it worth their while to sue errant landlords for disrepair.
Most student renters are living independently for the first time. They accept shabby property, because leaving home is liberating, and hey – it's only a broken window … (until it's December, freezing and the landlord is awol). They might also rely on spending little time in their room, out working, studying in libraries or partying instead. Unemployment, cuts and poverty render these traditional diversions less likely.
Across the land, student rents are racing skywards. Even if that wasn't true, students deserve better than a freezing hovel, or a grim pod made of breeze blocks. Students are just as entitled as the rest of us to a home that is secure, comfortable and warm. Providing a double bed is a good place to start.
[Penny Anderson, Guardian.co.uk, Tuesday, 14 August, 2012]