Finding a house: for many a fresher the most stressful part of their first year of university. Hunt too early and you risk falling out with your housemates before you even pick up the keys to your dingy Portswood property. Wait too long and all the decent places and tidy tenants have been snapped up, leaving you stuck with antisocial weirdos and a mouldy bathroom all year. Generations of Southampton students have been struggling with this dilemma.
Thankfully, SUSU have mooted a solution in the shape of their own letting agency, determined to end the tyranny of and make this mid-year house grab much cheaper and easier for students looking for that perfect pad.
Our union has for years been preaching a message of staying calm and not being rushed into putting down a deposit early. Despite this, students are still finding themselves committing to properties (and people) they soon wish they could reconsider.
At the same time, prices for rooms in student houses have shot up, leaving many paying over the odds for houses with problems landlords and agencies simply don’t have any motivation to worry about.
The union hopes this will all change with the expected launch of its own letting agency next year. First proposed at the 2010 SUSU AGM (a record of which seems to be missing from minutes.susu.org, but the original policy can be read here) and a regular staple of sabbatical manifestos ever since, it seems SUSU will finally be dipping a toe in the murky water of contracts and deposits.
This all seems reasonable but will it actually solve the problems we as students face? With little effort to prevent the rise in rents, Southampton now has the highest rental yield of anywhere in the country – it’s hard to argue we’re not being ripped off. When I started at Southampton back in 2006, £35 per person per week was a pretty standard price. Right now, looking at a few of the well known Southampton agencies, only 5% of student houses can be had for £70pppw or less.
Of course, it’s a different economy now, particularly for students, with £9k fees and massive loans, expensive textbooks and compulsory field trips de rigueur, haggling over rent and admin fees when housing is far less of a proportion of our annual costs than for our Southampton predecessors seems pointless.
While this transition has been taking place, a similar revolution has taken place in buy-to-let housing. Gone are the hobbyist types with their regular jobs, eager to keep their tenants happy in a market where reputation is everything. Now it’s the age of landlords with more houses than they can keep track of, certainly more than they can maintain in any reasonable standard. Southampton’s universities have expanded their courses, meaning more students desperate to grab the accommodation early. Fallen out with your landlord over a leaky roof, rotten windows or defective boiler? So what, there’s thousands of students ready to take your place.
Put these two situations together and you have young people with, let’s be honest, little concept of the value of money, already shelling out a fortune for their education, worried that they’ll have to slum it for a year, fighting for the custom of unscrupulous millionaires, themselves happy in the knowledge they’ve pushed up rent prices higher than anywhere else in Britain and content to sit back and rake in the profit.
How will the SUSU letting agency combat this? It’s difficult to see. Can they make students take their time, researching into landlords, resisting overpaying? Can they make landlords slow the relentless rise of prices, turning a blind eye to complaints about unsatisfactory houses, running off with our deposits? Certainly SUSU is trying to make a difference, but is it enough?
I don’t think so. Landlords will continue to use the agencies that arrange the lets with the most profit and the least hassle. Freshers will continue to sign up for the first place they see, for fear of being the one still standing when the music stops. This is a well-intentioned step in the right direction but we need to see much more done.
Perhaps it’s time for the union to consider the situation students are in now. A SUSU letting agency might have been the right thing when proposed in 2010 but in 2014 it just isn’t going far enough to make a real difference.
For me, we need to find a different solution. Perhaps we should follow the lead of undergraduates in Birmingham, who set up the country’s first housing cooperative for students. It’s actually a common thing in America, particularly California, where thousands of students live in accommodation they all have a share in, keeping rent low both for themselves and students who continue to use private landlords.
I’m convinced that here at Southampton, we have the skills and need to make something like this a reality. It’s the only way to really make the landlords and agencies listen to us and quit exploiting students across the city.
In the meantime, if you’re looking for a student house any time soon, don’t panic. There’s loads of houses, there are plenty of students to share with and the union is doing their bit to make your life easier.