LPE Europe – Student Housing Series – Edinburgh

With Alma Kalina Rießler – Edinburgh University Students’ Association

Conducted and edited by J.K. Langeveld

Rome, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Glasgow, London, Berlin. Affordable housing is a major problem in many European cities. International students often face even more pre     carious conditions, despite bringing so much to the local intellectual and economic life. In this blog post we discuss the situation in Edinburgh with Alma Kalina Rießler, who is the Vice President Community of Edinburgh University Students’ Association.

Could you describe what the current problems in Edinburgh are with regards to student housing, and in particular regarding international students?   

Three main issues surrounding student housing in Edinburgh are quantity, quality and affordability. To begin with, the quantity issue. There is simply not enough housing in Edinburgh. The increase in landlords converting rented properties into Short-Term Lets and listing them on sites like AirBnB have led to a decrease in the number of properties available for both students and Edinburgh residents. Similarly, Edinburgh has a large number of Further Education (FE) and Higher Education (HE) providers, all of which are steadily increasing their student numbers year-on-year. Student populations have increased dramatically between 2018-19 and 2020-21, particularly in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and St. Andrews, which have accepted 9%, 12%, and 8.7% more students respectively (source: here). However, we know that the level of accommodation available is not increasing at the same rate, leading to students facing homelessness or paying high amounts to stay in hostels or Short-Term Lets. Between 2016 and 2020 the number of privately owned dwellings rented privately dropped by just 1.37% and the number of HMO licenses in force fell by 0.22% (source: here).

The housing crisis is particularly difficult for international students. These students will likely not have a UK Gaurantor or a reference from a previous landlord.  As a consequence, they must live in private Purpose-Built Student Accommodation (PBSAs) or pay several months’ rent up front. These organizations charge huge amounts in rent.

Secondly, the issue of quality. Finding high quality accommodation in Edinburgh can be particularly difficult. We see Landlords and Letting Agents working to the very basic requirements stated in legislation, which leaves students living with mold, damp and vermin for long periods of time, often to the detriment of their physical and mental health.

Affordability: The shortage of housing in Edinburgh, combined with the Cost of Living Crisis, has meant that the average rent being paid by students has skyrocketed over the last couple of years. For example, the average PBSA rent has increased by 34% since 2018 (source: here). Students receiving the minimum funding level from load providers (e.g. SAAS) are often pushed into financial hardship unless they secure employment outside of their studies.

What position or view does the Edinburgh University Students’ Association have with regards to student housing in Edinburgh?  

The Student Housing Crisis is exacerbated by the Cost of Living Crisis, which often affects students disproportionately, particularly those from marginalised and low-income backgrounds. With rents having increased by 34% in the last three years, students are left with an average of £60 a month after paying rent. There is a clear need for action from stakeholders to help tackle this issue on behalf of students.

FE and HE Providers – we need more strategic decision-making when it comes to student numbers on campus, and they have to take responsibility for their actions in bringing students to Edinburgh. As such, they need to increase the number of institution-owned accommodations they have available to reflect increasing numbers.

Local Councils and Scottish Government – There needs to be a crackdown on the number of Short-Term Lets available in local authorities, and on-going work in this area needs to be quicker and more robust. Similarly, there needs to be more funding dedicated to the construction of more high quality, affordable housing.

To what extent does the Students’ Association think the legal structure/laws regarding student housing are influencing the crisis?   

The main issue is the lack of housing, however existing legal structures, or lack thereof, are causing several issues for students. For example, the substantial loopholes in the tenancy changeover processes that are exploited by Landlords that disadvantage student tenants (I.e. if one person wants to leave a joint tenancy, existing tenants must sign a new lease, meaning the landlord can increase the rent). Similarly, students living in PBSAs are exempt from the private rental tenancies framework, where a lot of the legal protections for tenants currently sit. Instead, their protections and options are outlined in the contract signed between them and the PBSA, which almost always seeks to protect the interests of the business first. For example, most private tenants only have to give one month notice to vacate the property, but for those in PBSAs, this could be as long as three months and they also have to find a replacement, otherwise they are unable to leave.

Private Residential Tenancies (PRTs) have clear rules for tenants and landlords. You cannot put an end date on a PRT, it must be open ended, tenants can give 28 days’ notice to leave at any time. Tenants can only be asked to leave/evicted under specific circumstances, they have the right to choose their utilities suppliers, landlord’s and letting agent’s involved in renting must be registered and adhere to codes of practice.

None of those protections are given to students in purpose built student accommodation where they are given fixed term contracts, they are not allowed to end them early, the provider may or may not choose to join a voluntary sector code such as the Unipol code which tries to protect student rights and ensure consistency of services across the sector. Our advice team often see cases where students have been told to keep paying rent even if they stop being a student, can’t enter the country to live and study here or are asked to leave the accommodation. Getting issues resolved can be difficult due to a lack of accessible staff and it is often unclear who the owner is, as there are layers of management companies and then sometimes bits of a block are owned by different investment groups. PBSAs are the most expensive housing option in the city.

Do you have ideas on new laws or changes to the law that would help the situation?  

I have hopes for the new tenancy Scotland Act, but further protection is needed for student tenants, for example giving student tenants in PBSAs the same rights as those in PRTs. We hope the new legislation will resolve some of the issues mentioned with tenant changeovers. We provided a comprehensive response to the consultation on that legislation informed by the student cases we see in our Advice Service.

Does the Students’ Association think student housing is a local, national or European/international problem?   

It is an issue at all levels, but there are responsibilities and actions that could be taken from stakeholders in each category. Locally, institutions and councils need to take more of a responsibility to house the students they are bringing to their towns and cities to study. Nationally, there is a need for robust rent caps, more investment in new housing, Cost of Living uplifts for those in major cities and impactful housing strategies. Internationally, there is a need for more established rights relating to housing and more work needs to be done to make the process of studying internationally much easier for those that want to do it

What does the Students’ Association do to promote/advocate their position on student housing?

As EUSA’s Vice President Community, I have lobbied stakeholders such as the University of Edinburgh and Elected Officials to encourage work to solving the crisis. For example, I am working in collaboration with the university to create a campaign to tackle hidden homelessness within the student body. I am working in collaboration with our Advice Place, and drafting guidance with the University for students who are facing the issue and how they can access the support

Moreover, we highlighted the realities and lived experiences of the student housing crisis in public interviews and in Council and Government consultations on the topic. In addition, we fed into the strategy for the University of Edinburgh to support homeless students during the Welcome period. Lastly, we worked closely with the Student Housing Co-operative to lobby for community-based approaches to accommodation, including exploring the idea of creating a second Student Housing Co-operative in the city.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

150 150 Law and Political Economy in Europe