Couch surfing is fun for the holidays – but maybe not during term-time. Due to the recent housing crisis, hundreds of Scottish students have been forced to resort to couch surfing, commuting from home, or staying at Airbnb or hotels.
What’s behind the struggle to find a roof over our heads? Private landlords are blaming the Scottish Government over the Private Housing Tenancies Act, implemented in 2017. The Act which imposes tighter guidelines in terms of security and rent increases, which has driven landlords away from the sector ever since, according to the claims of Chief executive of the Scottish Association of Landlords (SAL), John Blackwood. SAL statistics report a drop of at least 80 per cent in the number of properties available to let in Scotland, just over the course of the past two months. This certainly provides an explanation to how Edinburgh-based letting agent Umega received 11,300 tenancy applications for 170 of their available properties, forcing them to take off some properties on the market to reduce the bulk of applications. One Morningside flat made headlines in early October as it received 626 enquiries in just a week. Letting agents also blame the Covid-10 government restrictions that lack transparency in changing the rental market so drastically this year.
Meanwhile, the National Union of Student (NUS) Scotland attributes this crisis to the landlords themselves, many of whom are supposedly trying to profit from this dire situation where they have the upper hand. In response, the NUS Scotland president, Matt Crilly, wrote to the Scottish government, voicing out his concerns, “With purpose-built student accommodation full, shortages, and landlords holding off to make a profit from COP26, I am concerned we have a student housing emergency.”
He added that anecdotal evidence showed landlords were requiring tenants to pay six months’ worth of rent upfront and many others had increased rent fees by several hundred pounds per month. However, Crilly adds, “This issue is not unique to the current academic year. Scotland has been dragging its heels on providing adequate and affordable accommodation for students for years, which is why we see large areas with substandard housing dominated by intimidating landlords.”
The government has pledged to carry out a housing bill in the second year of the parliamentary session. Nonetheless, it seems that the response to the bill is negative in general, with many doubts on its efficacy. On this issue, the NUS and SAL stand on the same side. The NUS do not have high hopes for the bill in creating affordable student housing that will be regulated regularly, while the SAL claim that this bill will only accelerate more landlords to leave the business.
Another alternative would be to expand student accommodations, but not only is this difficult due to the pandemic, the Scottish families and individuals have a thing or two to say. When councillors approved construction plans for a new student accommodation block in London Road, one internet user commented, “What about the residents of Edinburgh who have lived and worked in the city and are waiting to be rehoused but there is no social housing? Maybe we all need to go to college or university, and we would be sorted.”
Others are also concerned regarding the high saturation of the student population. Independent Councillor for the Sighthill-Gorgie ward, Ashley Graczyk, who launched a housing activism campaign, adds, “The student population here in Gorgie-Dalry has almost doubled in the last 10 years. We’re starting to get to levels that change the balance of our community… Students also do not pay Council Tax, so this increased population puts a strain on essential services in the local area such as bin collections and health services without the corresponding increase in revenue. We need more affordable, high-quality homes that can host families of all compositions, including single households, couples, students and families.”
For the time being, the severity of the housing crisis looms over our head, with the situation looking unlikely to get much better as the SAL warns of continued winter housing shortage. “The least I expected from this year is for my friends and I to enjoy our last year at university, in a flat of our own,” says a fourth-year Edinburgh University student. “This is not how our last year should be going.”
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