On the 31st October over thirty students spent their night camped out Durham estate agents J.W.Wood in anticipation of the release of their houses the next day.
Some had arrived as early as 12 that afternoon in order to ensure their position in the queue, while others had organised shifts with other prospective housemates in order to not miss out on Halloween festivities.
J.W.Wood, who have changed their policy in the last year to pre-release their properties early for current tenants, had hoped that this amendment would avoid queues forming, as happened last year.
Upon seeing the queue, the agency discouraged students from camping out “for their own safety”. When the students were unmoved, the agency called the police, who said that there was no grounds to remove students, who were effectively queuing for a product.
The agency said that “as a family business, this didn’t sit right with us”. When asked why they would not sign up students the night before, they responded that this would be a disservice to other students and inconsistent with their agreed policy.
When asked whether they would consider moving the date further back, they responded to the fact that the demand for early houses came from students themselves, as well as landlords.
Despite the cold and rain, spirits among students remained high. Tom Ingrams and Ellie Wilson, both second years, had with them camping seats and a laptop on which they were watching ‘Hotel Transylvania’.
McAnany clearly explained the dilemma facing students: “we know that we are guilty of exacerbating the problem, but the problem itself is not our fault.” This view of students as both the cause and victims of housing anxiety was something widely recognised by the students and letting agencies alike.
At the front of the queue sat Oliver Jones who had organised to reserve the seat until two in the morning, having arrived at midday, when his friend would take over. He pointed at a car in front of the agency where he said his friend was sleeping in preparation.
Behind him sat Megha Rolly, who, armed with a hot-water-bottle, remained chirpy, despite having eight contact hours the following day.
“We know that we are guilty of exacerbating the problem, but the problem itself is not our fault.”Robert McAnany
Although the majority of students were second and third years, two proactive first years, Kieran Elliot and Caitlin Byrne, had been told by older students that the “best houses would go quickly.” Elliot commented that whilst “it is ridiculous that we have to do this… it is worth it”. Byrne, meanwhile, reflected that “the university ignore this. We didn’t get told anything. We were proactive, and if we hadn’t been the situation would have been a lot worse.”
There was a broader consensus that Durham’s student housing system needed reform. J. W. Wood commented that many students believe the myth that “they need to live near the science site”, despite the fact that there is “plenty of accommodation.”
Perhaps the most determined to get a house for her and her friends was Emma Farmer, third in line, who had flown in from her year abroad in Paris in order to secure the right house. While we talked, some friends came by to offer her a hot water bottle in a few hours, while she braced herself for the night ahead.
We didn’t get told anything. We were proactive, and if we hadn’t been the situation would have been a lot worse.Caitlin Byrne
Kate McIntosh, President of the Students’ Union, responded to these reports by saying that: “When students feel like they must camp outside a letting agent to secure a good home, we know that our student housing market is broken.”
She suggested that letting agents “benefit from the artificial panic around
In light of a perceived bottleneck in housing, particularly in housing around the Science Site and Whinney Hill, the SU has been proactive in organising contract checking workshops, a ‘mythbusting’ campaign, as well as working on a ‘rate your landlord scheme.’
Caitlin Guibout, president of St Cuthbert’s Ripped Off campaign, also expressed her concern. She argued that “signing early particularly in freshers leads to people being more likely to be unhappy in their housing”, given they are forced to sign with people they have known often for just a few weeks.
Having worked with the Ripped Off campaign, she said that the panic surrounding housing was the most frequent issue raised with their team.
She argued for both practical changes and a broader cultural one: “The university should lobby these estate agents to release houses later”, but, perhaps more importantly, there was a need for signing later to be seen as a “positive thing”.
Exactly what recent action the university has taken to redress housing issues is not clear. J. W. Wood reported that there had been little correspondence from the University since an initial email enquiring about their strategy. Having promptly responded, J. W. Wood said that they were yet to receive feedback.
Photographs by Toby Donegan-Cross