We have a Tenants’ Union but more must be done

By Madeleine Horton

It is testimony to the extent of the student housing problem here in Durham that a Tenants’ Union has been forced into existence to help alleviate the problem. Created together with the national antipoverty group, ACORN, the new tenants’ pressure group aims to “wage war” on these shameless “slumlords” and return power to vulnerable local students.

Unhappy tenancies here in Durham are certainly not universal. However, horror stories surrounding rogue landlords are often heard; the key complaints often being extortionate rent hikes and poor living conditions. ‘Good value for money’ is not a phrase much used to describe student digs in the city. Rat infestations are not unheard of, in addition to mould, damp, dirt, broken appliances, lack of security and, more worryingly, landlords who actively exploit students into clawing back as much of that hefty deposit as possible.

The demand for student housing is greater than ever

One story goes of a local landlady who apparently wanders into their student property unannounced, and pointedly searches the house for small scuffs and natural wear and tear in order to make significant deductions on their deposits. She gleefully boasted of “another cruise for me this summer!” to her tenants before waltzing out of the place. Very tactful.

My own student house is so cold that I spend a lot of time down at the well-heated library; a single-glazed, badly insulated old house is difficult to live in, particularly during the winter. Problems such as mould, dirt and poor heating obviously have a significant effect upon health, both physically and mentally. This can only exacerbate the poor health many students suffer at university, where they are often run down by stress or caught in the never-ending cycle of freshers’ flu.

Students have often felt powerless to complain about poor housing

The closure of the Stockton campus is creating a bottleneck in the city; the demand for student housing is greater than ever, and landlords are able to demand a premium on their properties – particularly those in desirable central locations such as Elvet and Whinney Hill, which have seen price hikes of as much as £20 per week for tenants.

The high demand has only served to worsen the already poor relations with the local community, who have felt themselves pushed out of the city by the monopolisation of properties by student landlords. Affordable housing for locals is difficult to find, and it is irritating that these student properties are only occupied for six months of the year.

It is a process of “studentification” which is worsening each year in Durham, growing as serious as the complete domination of tiny St Andrews, which struggles to accommodate its population and suffers a similar town vs gown problem. The issues in Durham will only worsen as the University expands, and the formation of the Tenants’ Union will hopefully serve to help rectify these issues, also improving relations with the local community.

High demand for student housing has worsened relations with the local community

High rents and housing issues are certainly not problems unique to Durham. Rents for students have increased nationally by 2.9% between the 2016/2017 and 2017/2018 academic years. In London, the problem is worse than ever. According to an NUS survey, the average student rent is £226 per week, and often of poor quality for such a steep price.

National polls for satisfaction with student housing paint a dismal picture. This new focus comes to light amid a general worsening satisfaction among students for their all-round university experience. The formation of a Tenants’ Union is perhaps a well-overdue move. It has been strongly welcomed by students. In fact, it’s surprising that a student body of this type has not already been formed, as the issue is surely one of the biggest concerns among the student population. This neglect has surely gone on for too long. Dissatisfaction with housing is so rife that it is almost normal.

There has been something of a complacency among students, who have come to accept poor housing as just part of the student experience. Students have often felt powerless to complain; and that results would not be achieved without the back-up of the University. A students’ body to address housing issues will be really beneficial to local students, who will now have the support to actively take on their landlord if they are dissatisfied with their housing.

Photograph: Neitram via Wikimedia

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