Around this time of year most of us will be trying to work out where to live once the lease is up, necessitating banding together and trying to navigate the housing market in teams of three or four. Whilst the University does provide some reasonably priced accommodation, available through a raffle system run by Accommodation Services, the majority of us find flats by scouring the web and estate agents’ windows. Housing is a harsh and precarious world, and we cannot much longer sustain a system which inevitably plays into the hands of the wealthy and powerful whilst putting less financially privileged groups at risk of exploitation.
Estate agents are well aware of the stress that students face when hunting for a flat, and they’re equally aware that young adults often have little experience with the housing market and that they will often not be aware of their rights as tenants. Some estate agents will arrange to have several groups of students view a property at the same time, instructing the students that it is a first-come-first-serve arrangement so time is of the essence. This is a deliberate and cynical manipulation of students’ insecurities and results in snap decisions being made based on limited information. How can you expect someone to enter into a tenancy, or any contractual agreement for that matter, whilst they are under a form of duress which is knowingly manufactured by estate agents and property conglomerates?
This same predatory behaviour manifests throughout the duration of the tenancy, as landlords and letting agents will often conjure up astronomical bills for even the most basic of services and providing little transparency or chance for negotiation with the student tenants. This often results in landlords skimming profit from the top of ‘essential’ repair charges by using their in-house contractors, deducting arbitrary fees from deposits and generally screwing people over to fatten their accounts. Equally, some students are offered leases which only run from September-July so that landlords can rent out the property for a premium over the Fringe festival, this means that students are stranded during the summer break simply so that the landlord can turn a quick profit.
Housing should not be treated as a commodity to be speculated on and profited from by corporations that have no interest in social responsibility or moral behaviour. Whilst there are some alternative models available, such as the Edinburgh Student Housing Cooperative, these alternatives lack the funding and scale to properly solve the housing situation.
Equally, we should not be relying on a small movement of students to enact system change when this should properly be the responsibility of government and more powerful institutions. Fundamentally we need a system which favours tenants rather than landlords, one which prioritises our right to affordable living over the profit hungry monstrosities which dominate the local housing market.
Edinburgh University, with the third largest endowment of any UK university, is financially privileged enough that it could very easily take greater steps to ensure the housing security of its student population. This could take the shape of buying up more properties to then rent out to students at favourable rates, providing start-up capital and financial advice to housing cooperatives, or using its institutional weight to lobby the city council and national government on relevant issues. Market forces are clearly not functioning in a way which is of any benefit to anyone other than those already at the top, so it seems high time that we push for direct intervention.
Image: Tom Page