Correction: The original article stated that the University and the estate agents had an agreement to only release houses on 1st November. This was incorrect and has since been removed.
Durham University students hoping to secure student properties were seen camping outside letting agencies in the city through low temperatures last night.
Homes have been released onto the market two weeks prior to this, allowing students a ‘grace period’ in which to view houses before making an informed decision. The agencies require students to have viewed the property before they are permitted to sign a tenancy agreement.
There has been encouragement from various bodies to discourage students from making contracts so early in the Michaelmas term, despite the current pressure on housing resources.
Companies such as Crampton Estate Agents have encouraged students not to rush into signing any tenancy agreements via social media, using the hashtag #TakeYourTimeToSign.
An increased strain on housing resources in the city has occurred following the closure of Durham University’s Stockton Campus, which is believed to have created something of a bottleneck housing crisis in the city due to the greater influx of students.
Such pressure has led to a degree of scaremongering about losing out on good homes, or missing out on securing any property at all, among the student population.
Groups of prospective tenants camped out by Frampton and Roebuck lettings agency, on New Elvet, and watched films, ate pizza, and chatted to passers-by as they waited for doors to open.
Frampton and Roebuck had planned to open at 8am this morning, but did so at the earlier time of 5am to avoid long queues or disturbances, allowing students to sign while providing hot coffee and pastries.
Students camping out supported the reasoning of the new rule in preventing students making unwise and hasty housing choices. However, there has been frustration surrounding the lack of coordination and regulation among letting agencies in city.
One student who camped out overnight told Palatinate, “I started queuing at 3:30am, was about the 10th group in line, and a few quick conversations established that some of them had been there as early as 9pm the night before (and the estate agents were due to open at 8am the following morning).
“The whole thing just adds to the panic and rush to sign a house and that desperation allows estate agents to get away with charging more rent every year at a consistently higher rate than college accommodation fees have been rising.
“Lack of student housing is clearly a massive problem, made worse by growing numbers of students year on year, and that lack of housing will drive more extreme queuing at ridiculous hours as people are desperate to get first in line.”
The increased housing pressure has resulted in a marked increase in rent prices throughout the city, particularly in central and more desirable locations.
An estate agent at Frampton and Roebuck remarked, “The students camping out were in most instances doing it to secure higher-priced or particularly characterful properties in Elvet and the Bailey streets of Durham.”
“The closure of the Stockton campus has definitely put pressure on housing in the area, despite the range of new-build accommodation blocks that have been constructed in less central parts of the city.
“We didn’t want any rioting, so opened earlier than planned. There are still many houses left available.”
Some lettings agencies have criticised other agents for choosing to open at normal business hours.
Bill Free Homes made the decision to open their doors to students at 3:30am to accommodate students sleeping outside another letting agency.
Bill Free Homes criticised other lettings agencies in the city for their “lack of compassion” in choosing to open their doors so late this morning, and described the practice of students waiting outside agencies until normal opening time as “creating an instance of public anxiety and stress amongst the student community.”
They said, “Images of students asleep in sleeping bags is not an image that should be repeated in the future – in 2018 when students have to queue up to sign a tenancy in person is an unnecessary strain when the technology to find and sign houses is readily available and encouraged.”
Bill Free Homes Director, Sean Lawless, said that whilst he respected the right of other companies to market as they saw fit, it was always important to put customer welfare ahead of everything. He said, “It was a horrible morning and as well as serving students we made sure that the local rough sleepers were amply supplied with coffee and doughnuts.”
Owen Adams, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Colleges and Student Experience), Durham University, said: “Durham City has no shortage of accommodation.
“We strongly advise students to take their time to find accommodation and not rush into anything, and have reinforced this message through our Colleges.
“We are concerned at the queuing that took place overnight into Thursday 1 November. The safety of our students is of paramount importance to us and we are working with Durham Students’ Union to ensure students are well informed when seeking privately rented accommodation in Durham City.”
Meg Haskins, Welfare and Liberation Officer, Durham Students’ Union, said: “Provision of good quality homes for students is one of my key areas of work this year because I know how important a good home is.
“It really worries me that students feel that they need to go to these extremes to get the best possible house when the reality is that there will still be houses available for months.
“Sometimes taking some time to make the process less stressful also means you’ll have a better home next year.
“I would ask us all to be mindful of friends or peers who might be feeling some of this stress, and remind them that they do have time to give it a bit more consideration.”
Photographs: Julia Atherley