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VP Community Beth Simpson on tackling the housing crisis in Edinburgh

When Beth Simpson ran to be the Students’ Association Vice President Community last year, her main interests lied in sustainability and in empowering students to create positive change. However, as she says, the issue of housing quickly came to the forefront and stayed dominant for the whole of her term, which is now coming to an end.

The Student caught up with Simpson to talk about the student housing crisis in Edinburgh and her plans to help tackle it in the coming weeks, before she fully passes her role onto the new VP Community, Isi Williams.

What made you take on the issue of housing? How did you come to understand that it was a problem?

I know that as a student, there were things that I had issues with in terms of housing. And then through the Students’ Association and the Advice Place we’ve had quite a few concerns come through from students in the past year. In particular, there seemed to be a lack of affordability and availability of student housing in the city. And that has led to things such as quite sophisticated scams, and also landlords and renting agencies really taking advantage of students.

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So, for example, we’d heard from students who applied for a property and then the landlord or the rental agency came back and said: ‘Okay, if you pay this much more per month, it’s yours.’ But that was if you could find somewhere in the first place. 

We were concerned because a lot of student seemed to be staying in hotels, hostels and Airbnbs or couch surfing, staying with friends or family nearby while they were looking for somewhere to stay. 

A lot of students who come to the city, this might be the first time they ever rent, or it could be the first time they’re renting in Scotland. So there’s a lot to learn and a lot of vulnerabilities in the student population when it comes to the private housing market.

What about the university and their role in this?

I feel like housing is kind of universally understood as an issue for students. It clearly is an issue on the ground, but it became a bit of a problem when we were trying to explain it to the university. We had all of these concerns and stories we had heard to present to them, but they wanted something quantitative, basically numbers and statistics. 

So we really pushed the university to include questions about housing in the December 2021 student Pulse survey, which has given an indication that a lot of students are paying a lot of money for their accommodation and that quite a few of them struggled to find somewhere to live in the first semester. 

Do they take you more seriously now that you have numbers to show them?

I think so. I think the most productive meeting I’ve had with university officials about housing has come out of the Pulse survey. Even before that, there were people within the university who were concerned about the issue, but getting action on it is another thing. 

I think the university struggles to see its responsibility in housing students, outside of its guarantee to offer accommodation to first years, and we’re struggling to frame solutions in a way that the university is willing to accept and take on. But it’s their responsibility when they keep inviting so many students to live in a city that just cannot house them anymore, or not house them in a sustainable, comfortable, affordable way. 

Can you tell me a bit about the housing campaign that you’re running right now?

Ellen [MacRae, EUSA President] and I are running this campaign together. We’re holding a rally on Friday 25th March in front of the Scottish Parliament to lobby the government to work on solving the student housing crisis.

We have been floating this idea around and looking at the bigger picture of not just the university but also the city and the country. We had spoken to other universities, and the National Union Scotland (NUS) and we are collaborating with them in holding this rally. We are also always looking for students’ input into what sort of asks we should make of the university and the government.

How do you plan to engage the students who are the worst affected by the housing crisis in this campaign?

We’ve talked a lot about ways to best engage students because through the Students’ Association, it’s students who choose to engage with us and that’s not everyone, which is fair enough, but it’s really important to us that we’re hearing a diversity of perspectives from different university students. 

We’re been pursuing a couple of different angles. We asked the Advice Place to reach out to students who sought help with them about housing issues, to get in touch and say ‘This campaign is happening, if you’d like to have a little input or get involved, here’s how’. 

We want to engage with elected reps, student groups and the wider community. We work a little bit with Tackling Elitism and some of the [tenants’ union] Living Rent groups in the city. The Edinburgh Student Housing Co-op obviously also has a really great solution to the housing issue, so we’d really love to work with some people from there. Rent Justice Edinburgh was a group we really took inspiration from last year, I think that it’s dissolved at the moment but hopefully we would be able to reach out to some of the previous numbers. There’s so much good work already happening that it would be a shame not to collaborate on this, for sure.

Do you think that the university should maybe self impose some sort of rent controls on its own housing, even if the government doesn’t do it nationally?

Yeah, definitely. I think rent controls are a really big part of addressing the wider issue of how much rent has increased over the past couple of years. NUS Scotland actually has some data on the price of purpose-built student accommodation, which increased by 34%, over the past three years, which is shocking but not surprising at the same time.

As Sabbatical Officers, we do get consulted on rent prices of student accommodation, so it’s something we already push against. In particular we prioritise lower rent costs for family accommodation, and trying to prioritise some of the lower bands of rent in halls of residence that the university manages. We push for the lower ones to stay low as much as possible so that there are cheaper options for students, and we are hoping to have conversations with the accommodation department about their pricing band instructions.

Would you encourage students to join a tenants’ union like Living Rent? 

Definitely. I think it’s really clear that some students aren’t fully aware of their rights as tenants or don’t feel so confident in asserting their rights in such a competitive rental market, where students might feel lucky just to be able to get access to a property, even if they are being taken advantage of. I think that joining a tenants’ union really helps to empower people as tenants and make them understand what they’re eligible to. Also, scams are becoming more and more sophisticated, so tenants’ rights is definitely something we want to focus on.

Would you support another student housing co-operative to be set up in Edinburgh?

I’d be really open to speaking to students who’d be interested in setting up more things like the student housing co-op, cause I know how successful that’s been and how much of a community that’s been for the students who are living there. It’s such a brilliant achievement of the student population that they were able to set something like that up, and I definitely think it is something that should be celebrated more by the university.

Image courtesy of Beth Simpson