As the new term begins, private housing bosses are licking their lips at the prospect of cashing in on students.
Students starting university this year are the first to pay the new £9,000 a year tuition fees. On top of that they face a housing nightmare.
More and more of them are forced to turn to private housing firms as universities provide fewer spaces in halls of residence.
Private investment in student housing more than doubled during the first six months of this year compared to the same period in 2011. One in four landlords rent to students. The private sector now provides 35 percent of student housing in London and almost half in Birmingham.
Yet there’s still a housing shortage. And some students find it so hard to find anywhere to live they take whatever they can find.
In 2007/8, some 335,000 students lived in rented property advertised on the open market. By 2010/11 that had leapt to 490,000.
Matt has come to study at Goldsmiths College in south east London. “I’ve been looking for two months with no success,” he said. “It’s driving me up the wall—I can’t afford to spend £550 a month.”
Helen couldn’t find anywhere to rent in London at less than £100 a week after moving here from the US. “There seems to be nowhere available,” she said.
“At one place they told us to get in touch in April if we want a room there next year. Maybe we would have had more chance if we’d moved to Britain a month earlier, but that’s not something we could afford to do.”
There is increasing pressure on students to start renting accommodation months before term begins. But not everyone can afford to pay a whole summer’s rent when they only get student loans in term time.
Students face astronomical rents—the average for a privately managed room in London is £232 per week. Universities point students towards private halls of residence at prices that often exceed £200 a week.
One of the biggest private student housing firms is Unite. It was set up in 1991 and rents out 40,000 beds. Last month it reported a doubling of its interim pre-tax profits to £33 million.
Unite’s rival Opal is “actively seeking new land opportunities” to make a profit for its backers—including banks HSBC, Barclays and Santander, together with accountancy firm Deloitte.
The shortage has been made even worse in London this year, with landlords chasing lucrative short-term lets over the Olympics.
Of the four lettings agents on the 700 yard stretch of New Cross Road in front of Goldsmiths, none had any vacancies on the day of our investigation.
What do students get for their extortionate rents? Often not a lot. Moses is a student at the University of East London.
“We had mice, damp and no heaters,” he said of one of the places he had to live in. It was dangerous with my asthma, but even in the winter it took our agent two months to sort the heating”.
Tama White, welfare officer at Goldsmiths College student union, helps students with housing problems. Her own situation speaks volumes. “One day we heard a crash,” she told Socialist Worker.
“The whole plasterboard under the bath had fallen in, all over my stuff in the room below.” Tama’s sofa is now sloping, as one leg has disappeared through a hole in the floor.
Rodent infestations are common in student housing. Students get burgled after landlords refuse to improve locks on windows and doors.
But whatever happens, students tend to get the blame. Tama said, “When we complained the landlord said it was our fault as too many people were living in too small a space. But they knew how many we were when they rented to us.”
Tama has seen many students who have been on the receiving end of scams by predatory landlords. One trick is to take deposits from several different groups of students for the same property. “Lettings agents have a lot of hidden fees, and scams are a big problem,” she said.
“A lot of people fall for it because they are in such a panic about finding anywhere at all to live. Students are seen as an easy target.”
The average student rent in Hull, east Yorkshire, is 25 percent higher this year than it was in 2011. The findings come from a survey by Accommodation for Students.
The appropriately named Mansion Group offers private halls of residence. Its most expensive rooms go for £390 a week. At its Mansion Hub and Mansion SW3 halls in south west London all rooms are £300 a week or more.
The University of Liverpool charged £1,800 a year to stay in its fully catered Roscoe and Gladstone halls in 1993. If that rent kept pace with inflation, the cost should be £2,615 today. The university now charges £4,641 for the room.