Durham’s housing Hunger Games: is it time for it to end?

By Helen Paton 

It’s that time of the year again. Michaelmas term in Durham, when everyone starts rushing into housing madness. Every year, in early November, landlords and estate agents start putting up huge colourful signs across the whole city. This year, however, they instead commenced in late October.

It seems that every year this housing rush arrives earlier than it did the year before. It is a very particular thing to Durham, which is one of the only universities in the country that has 60% of the houses let by early January. For most other UK universities, this is when the housing rush is merely beginning.

When I arrived in Durham last year, I was shocked by the fact that I needed to get a house with people I had known for barely three weeks. There are so many variables to consider when deciding where to live, particularly regarding housemates and the area.

Housing is one of the primary concerns raised within university welfare groups

Though there are many different areas to live in Durham, a large percentage of the student population lives in the Viaduct. It is a tough business that always requires a project manager – as Lord Sugar would say – since there’s always someone that takes the time to organise different viewings.

Housing is one of the most stressful things that you have to deal with as a student, however, most of this stress is caused not by choosing the area that you live in, but by choosing the people you live with. They are so many issues raised in welfare groups every year regarding this draining process, which impacts on academic attainment as well as student wellbeing. These issues always arise later on in the year, since many people that sign early are no longer close to who they will be living with in second year, which can be extremely challenging.

As a fresher, it is tough to look ahead as you’ve just moved away from home and are trying to figure out how further education works. How can we expect freshers to sign a house in the third week of term when they haven’t even had a tutorial yet?

The University should provide a system that empowers students and provides them with all the information on offer regarding housing and contracts. It is an essential part of university life as more than 80% of non-freshers live out of college. But is the University trying to give students more options?

How can we expect freshers to sign a house when they haven’t even had a tutorial yet?

The rise in college accommodation is out of hand, leaving a lot of students out of pocket and concerned about their financial sustainability in the future.

The year-on-year rise of college accommodation costs has also impacted the student housing market, as it has facilitated similar rises for student lets. The University must also provide more information about what is acceptable and what is not: some houses in Durham are in terrible condition whilst others look like family homes in comparison.

Colleges, in general, try to deal with the situation and advise their students on the matter with the help of livers-out representatives and JCR presidents, but as students interact with people from other colleges who have signed houses already, the stress is nevertheless passed on.

College accommodation increases have also made student lets more expensive

So how can we create an environment that doesn’t pressure students into signing for houses earlier than they should?

It is very tough to regulate the housing market, as the signing process is well-established in Durham, and landlords also coordinate their monopolisation of the local market. In years prior, the Students’ Union, the council, and the University united over the cause and agreed with the landlords to regulate the process to make it more bearable for incoming freshers.

This year I’ve seen from the liver-out’s perspective how the University and the council don’t do anything to regulate the market and how, as a result of this, students face an incredibly early rush for housing. Furthermore, the Students’ Union does not address the rush at the right time: the housing fair will take place in December, when over 40% of the houses will have already been signed.

The University must do more for the wellbeing of its students

The University should take responsibility for the well-being of every student and make sure this rush is delayed: it is outrageous to expect incoming students to commit to living with people they have known for barely 20 days. The University must provide further support as well as various alternatives for those who wish to live outside college accommodation. To deal with the problem, there must be a delay in the housing rush to preserve peace and student wellbeing, especially for first years who are still getting settled into Durham life.

What do other Durham students think?

The impact of the pressure placed upon students to sign for houses by estate agents cannot be overstated. It is clear that letting agencies often push inexperienced students into signing without allowing them sufficient time to reflect upon this legally-binding decision.

This pressed signing process is often instigated through use of the all-too-familiar claim that there will soon be a lack of houses available. This is quite frankly untrue and merely a sales technique. Thus signing for a student house can often (wrongly) feel like a rather passive experience.

Durham Students’ Union provides a plethora of guidance on student housing, including budgeting advice, a viewing checklist, and a bank of useful contacts. The Union’s ‘Stop. Think. Sign.’ campaign is helpful in this regard, providing solid advice for those considering signing for a student house, as well as a contract checking service.

Students must be made aware of these provisions well before the pressure to sign arises. Thus it is imperative that this scheme is highlighted to students very early on in order to counter this important issue.

November has arrived, and with it has come ‘Signing Season’. It’s a cold, unforgiving, and brutal time of year, as the race to sign begins.

The sight of Bill Free Homes cars whizzing across Durham, weary freshers trudging through the Viaduct, and a queue at the DSU for the contract-checking service is characteristic of this time of year.

However, it is all so unnecessary.

Estate agents love to perpetuate the myth that Durham will ‘run out’ of student properties, creating the panic that causes students to make rash, uninformed, emotional decisions. Second year is assumed to be the year of ‘bad housing’, a reality which stems from signing far too quickly for a house with people that you’ve known for little over a month!

The University needs to crack down on lies perpetuated by estate agents and tackle this absurd myth. It needs to build a secure online database, accessible only by Durham students, whereby students can rate and review their student properties. Poor landlord? Dodgy boiler? Mould? We need to know because they aren’t going to tell us.

As a fresher juggling meeting a multitude of new people, managing my academic commitments, and signing up for societies, student housing was undoubtedly the last thing that crossed my mind when I embarked on university life, until murmurs of ‘Viaduct’ and ‘Claypath’ intensified after only a few weeks.

The fundamental issue is the pressure in the first two months to ‘keep up with everyone else’, by finding a friendship group and a house with the best location and price tag to boot.

Whilst the ideal choice would always be to live in a house with your closest friends, it is impossible to anticipate the possibility of finding new social groups or of established friendship ties fraying. Additionally, this process may be especially arduous for those who haven’t found settling into university an easy feat, leaving them panicking and feeling alone.

Therefore the University should be doing more to ensure students feel secure in their housing situations by implementing lessons in colleges to educate them on the housing process.

Finding a handful of people who want to live with you is undoubtedly one of the most daunting tasks facing any fresher. There are a lot of horror stories out there.

But I am here to assure you that it’s not all doom and gloom. Believe it or not, house-hunting and its consequences can be immensely rewarding.

Early on in first year, my initial tentative group of potential housemates soon went our separate ways. Immediately, I resolved to put together another group as soon as possible. I was immensely lucky to find three blokes on my corridor who were genuinely good people and – more importantly – didn’t recoil in horror at the thought of living with me. We signed for a house in early December 2015.

Fast forward two years, and you will still find the same four guys in the same house. We’ve had our fair share of maintenance emergencies, and the occasional towering pile of washing up. But the experience has been overwhelmingly positive. We are probably closer now than we have ever been, a fact which is made even sweeter by my housemate’s legendary Rocky Road.

Photograph: John Morgan via Flickr and Creative Commons

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