Navigating the sticky flaws of student housing
Timothy Chan evaluates student housing cooperatives and whether or not they are the answer to student housing issues.
For many freshers, planning for second-year housing can undoubtedly be a cumbersome task. The competitiveness of the housing market, particularly in Exeter, can drive many students to make hasty decisions as early as October. For those interested in private rental flats or house-shares, hazardous conditions and irksome negotiations with landlords can be even more disheartening.
According to research conducted by the National Union of Students (NUS), 42 per cent of students live with damp and mould growing on their walls and ceilings, and one in five students share their homes with mice, rats, slugs or other pests. In addition, many students sign contracts in the form of “joint tenancy agreements”, in which they are jointly reliable for any breaches of the contract. Problems of extra expenses can arise when someone unexpectedly leaves or when landlords unfairly withhold deposits. To add the cherry on top, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these horrendous conditions as thousands of students were not allowed to terminate their contract and were forced to pay for unused accommodation during lockdown. What, then, could be the solution to this?
Recent projects, known as student housing co-operatives, have attempted to fix these issues by allowing students to be both landlords and tenants. To what extent is this solution successful? On paper, student housing co-ops seem like an ideal situation. The central principle of a cooperative is that members own the business. For housing co-operatives, the people that live in the houses are the members and also collectively their own landlord, which means that decisions are made by the residents instead of an external housing manager.
Generally speaking, student housing co-ops operate on the principles of affordability, a democratic approach for membership and decision-making processes, sustainable living, diversity and inclusion, and education and training in housing management. Each resident has a vote in decision-making processes, and the costs are significantly lower since there are no “exploitative” landlords increasing housing prices year by year for the sake of profit. To put it succinctly, student housing co-ops are “Government of the students, by the students, for the students.”
While compelling as an idea, it is uncertain whether student housing co-ops create more problems than they fix. For instance: would students be able to commit extra hours of having to find and negotiate with repairmen and constructors outside of their studies? Would the students managing the houses have equal levels of expertise and professionalism as landlords who have years of experience in dealing with these issues?
For now, freshers’ best bet is to choose wisely, hope that they encounter an agreeable landlord and remember to take pictures of their initial housing conditions
According to a first stage report “A co-operative future for student housing”, the UK’s first implementation of the idea was the construction of Brentham Garden Suburb by the Ealing Civic Society. Its business model ultimately failed as it lacked a wider support network which meant insufficient resources and experience. A second attempt to initiate housing co-ops after WWII by secretary Harold Campbell of the Co-op Party in 1961 also failed as members were not adequately trained and co-operative values and working methods were not instilled and reinforced from early on. With a recent attempt in the 20th century to establish the National Federation of Housing Co-ops (NGHC), which eventually dissolved in 1990, we can also observe that co-op housings that relied on funding from the government lacked long-term sustainability since they are extremely vulnerable to changes in policy or political favour.
While lucrative as an idea, student housing co-ops lack the ability to operate sustainably. A successful business model relies heavily on its long-term development, which is also unlikely since most students only live in houses for two or three years.
There are currently no student housing co-ops in Exeter. For now, freshers’ best bet is to choose wisely, hope that they encounter an agreeable landlord and remember to take pictures of their initial housing conditions as evidence in case landlords unreasonably withhold deposits at the end of the contract.