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Blood and faeces stained the walls. In the garden, rubbish bags were piled up into a mountain, while dark mould snaked its way through most of the rooms.
What, on first glance, may resemble the aftermath of a horror movie, was actually the scene that greeted student paramedic Bethany and her flatmates in Cambridge when they entered their student flat for the first time.
Even after being forced to clean the mess themselves (their landlord refused to act), scrubbing the blood and faeces from the wall themselves, and taking all the rubbish to the dump, more problems arose to replace them.
Mould persisted in the communal areas and in two of the bedrooms. They had no hot water, meaning they couldn’t shower after finishing a paramedic shift surrounded by “blood, vomit and dead people”.
“Then we were told that one of the showers isn’t actually safe to use because the floorboards underneath are rotting,” Bethany recalls. “And we could fall through ‘at any time’ is what a plumber told us. But even when we told our housing company this they didn’t do anything about it.
“The girl in the room with the worst mould also had severe asthma and it was exacerbating her asthma. She’s been in anaphylaxis multiple times as a result of it all.
“It definitely feels like they think we’re ignorant [of our rights] because we’re students. They feel like they can just get away with things.”
Student housing has never exactly been known for its quality but, in recent years, the system has been pushed to breaking point.
Competition for housing and student homelessness has become as bad as it was during 1970s. Meanwhile, half of students now report living in cold, mould-ridden accommodation – far higher for the average in the already bad private rented sector. And for the students entering this broken housing system, it feels like they’re hitting breaking point.
When Huma Hasan entered her second year at university, there was almost no affordable student accommodation near her in Birmingham. She ended up eventually finding a property in Leicester, but once she moved in she learned the landlord was known for trying to date or sleep with all of his female tenants – an exploitative, yet increasingly common practice known as ‘sex for rent’. In the past, he had been in a ‘relationship’ with one of the other tenants and had cancelled all her rent payments – only for her to be forced to move out of the property when they broke up.
“He was constantly messaging me to ask to go out for coffee,” she says. “And it was also quite scary, because he had a key to the room. So he would have been able to come in and out at night.”
To make things worse, the flat had an infestation of mice that the landlord refused to pay to properly deal with. “They roamed freely in the area,” she adds. “You could hear them at night, crawling on the ceiling.”
“The aspect of feeling trapped in that situation was really disconcerting,” says Huma, who now serves as co-president of the students union for the University of Law. “It was just really, really awful to be in and it made me feel really powerless.”
For her co-president – Pedram Bani Asadi – things weren’t much better. His first place to reside after arriving as a foreign student in the UK was ageing university accommodation that became freezing in the winter.
“It was unliveable because none of the heaters worked properly,” he says. “And that affected my ability to sleep to work to focus. It was one of the worst places I ever stayed in.”
Multiple years and homes later, Pedram ended up in another block riddled with problems. Vermin infestations, broken showers, a broken elevator – over the course of an hour as we chat the list grows longer and longer as more problems come back to him.
“Structural problems were really common, but the owner’s response was as bad as it gets,” he says. “Anything you asked them to change, it took months.”
So why is the list of students with experiences like Pedram, Huma or Bethany becoming so painfully, worryingly long?
Part of it is to do with just who students are. “Students are in a vulnerable spot, usually coming to a new city and they don’t know how anything works, so it’s easier for landlords to take advantage of them,” as Pedram puts it.
Many students with less money or legal knowledge than even the average renter, he explains, feel less able to stand up for their rights when put in unacceptable conditions.
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Then there’s the mad rush for student accommodation itself – a lot of private rented housing doesn’t allow student tenants, while the location of their university means students have a strict area in which they can rent and the overall number of students is growing unsustainably.
All of that means that the pool of rented accommodation students can choose from is increasingly small, and students increasingly have to fight to get any sort of housing.
That is probably most acute at major universities nestled in small towns without a major non-student population. At Durham University, as just one example, hundreds of students have been forced in recent years to sleep on the streets in queues outside housing officers to secure a roof over their heads for the following academic year.
“Students in Manchester are being forced to commute from Liverpool,” says Nehaal Bajwa, the vice president of liberation and equality at the National Union of Students. “Some universities are expanding really rapidly and they don’t have the accommodation to cover it.” She cites how on a recent visit to Birmingham the cheapest student accommodation available was more than £600 a month for a single bedroom in a student block.
The issue being if your choice of accommodation is limited, and prices and competition for it are high, then you are more likely to accept dire conditions just for the sake of having any roof over your head.
Then you add the fact that student houses tend to be large – an average of four or five people by some surveys. Those extra people often create an added risk of issues like mould and damp, not least because often the structural changes needed to drastically increase the number of bedrooms you can accommodate puts strain on buildings that were often designed to house far fewer people.
Mix that with how poorly enforced housing standards already are in the UK. Charities recorded cases of 7,778 illegal evictions in 2021; in the 12 months up to June 2021, there were just 17 convictions. More generally, in 2019 and 2020, the Government provided councils with an average of just £37,222 in special funding to cover the cost of housing law enforcement. That’s only made worse by the high churn rate of students, who often move into new homes or new areas each and every year, and often leave areas altogether.
“But in the end, it comes down to this,” as Pedram puts it. “It just feels like we’re being used as cash cows.”