The London students who refuse to pay rent

Students have joined a rent strike to protest against prices they say are out of reach for poorer students. Amy Hall reports.
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Goldsmiths' rent strikers. by Amy Hall

Rats, cockroaches, floods, ceiling collapse, an exploding toilet and extortionate prices are just some of the complaints from more than 1,000 London students who are refusing to pay their rent for university accommodation.

The rent strike is part of a wider Cut the Rent campaign against expensive university accommodation which campaigners say pushes studying in the capital out of reach for students from less-wealthy backgrounds. Maintenance grants for the poorest students were scrapped for 2016 and universities can now charge up to $13,200 a year in tuition fees.

Students can receive a loan to pay for fees and living costs but the money is not always enough to cover rent and bills.

The current rent strike began at University College London (UCL) in January, spreading to other universities with a massive increase in students pledging to withhold rent in the last three weeks as a payment deadline passed. Students have also used protest and petitions to get their point across.

Around 700 students at Goldsmiths, over 300 at UCL and smaller groups at Roehampton and the Courtauld Institute have joined the action, including some living in privately owned accommodation.

The National Union of Students (NUS) is supporting the strike and Vice-President Shelly Asquith has said the organization will cover the cost of legal advice students may need to seek. It is thought the strike could spread to other universities. There are also Cut The Rent campaigns in Kent and Edinburgh.

London is a microcosm of the wider UK housing crisis. People in the British capital now spend nearly two-thirds of their income on rent, which has risen by over 7 per cent each year. Salaries in the UK have been going up by just 1.5 per cent annually.

These students explain why they've had enough:

Billie Paul, Goldsmiths University of London

Billie Paul is angry. A 19-year-old first-year English student, she moved to London in September from the seaside town of Great Yarmouth in Norfolk. Unhappy with what she was getting for her $230-per-week rent, she was taken by her flatmate to a Cut The Rent campaign meeting.

Billie pays more for her one bedroom in university accommodation than her family pays for a three-bedroom house back home. 'That was a real shock to me because when I came here and saw the prices I thought I would at least be getting a decent standard of living.'

'Since we moved in we've had repeated issues: sometimes no hot water, plug blow-outs in the kitchen, bad flooding. It takes so long to get anything fixed. The only thing that seems to work is doing banner drops - then they rush to fix things and take the banners down – or when we put something on the halls' Facebook pages,' Billie explains.

'But compared to what I've heard from others; our flat is quite good.'

It's the cost of rent that really gets Billie going. Although she has been able to make it through this year with the maximum student loan and grant available, due to her family's low income, she is worried about how she is going to get through the rest of her degree.

'I'm going to have to get a job to support myself... I have depression and having to work as well as doing my studies is going to drain me and that's a real worry.' She has friends who receive less financial support and are trying to juggle more than one job as well as their studies.

'I'd love for our campaign demands to be met,' says Billie, becoming even more animated. These include 'safe, secure and liveable' accommodation, in line with housing charity Shelter's guidelines. Cut the Rent also want weekly rent to be capped at half the average maintenance loan, a reduction to $147. 'I don't think that's unfair,' she says. Currently the average is $220 – 75 per cent of the average loan.

Billie would like the university-led action to take off across London. 'I think the sense of growing discontentment is spreading,' she says. 'We're in a privileged position being at university - the average tenants, especially in poor areas, don't have that luxury of safety net.'

One of the Goldsmiths campaign organizers, Billie says they receive messages every day from more students joining the rent strike. 'There's been such a growing anger among students over the last 10 or so years: increased tuition fees, capping of grants, privatization and we have a rent strike – something has to happen eventually.'

Bethan and Billie

Amy Hall

Bethan McKinney, Goldsmiths University of London

'I was worried when I realized how much it was going to cost to live here,' says 19-year-old art student Bethan McKinney, who is originally from Gloucestershire.

'I remember when I moved in, my mum going white when she saw where I was going to be living and getting all the wipes out and cleaning, trying to blitz the whole place to get out the mould, the grime and whatever it was that had grown all over the kitchen.

'So many people have bugs and infestations,' she says. 'This is the fourth day our kitchen hasn't been working.'

Because of her low-income background, a government grant has provided help through her first year but she says she now needs a job. 'I'm going to be working from nine until five for two weeks straight, starting tomorrow, including weekends. I'm disabled; I have a chronic illness which makes me very tired but this is something I have to do to feel I'm going to be able to financially support myself; but it's probably beyond my capabilities.'

'It's really worrying to think about the future consequences from the amount of debt that I'm racking up.' Bethan shudders when she thinks about it.

Despite the stress – it's also assessment time for many students – Bethan says she is determined to see the strike through. 'We're aware that debt collectors are something that could happen,' she says, but is hoping for safety in numbers.

However, Bethan says that students living in halls managed by Campus Living Villages, a private company, have faced more trouble over the strike than those living in accommodation run by the university. It's particularly difficult for those about to rent a house for their second year. 'They've been refusing references or giving really poor references and they've been sending threatening emails about charging late fees for payments,' she says.

'It's not like we're trying to inconvenience the university; it's a much wider thing than that. It's about housing and it's about privatization and the whole education system. This is the best way we've found to protest in order for the people in power to pay attention.

'I think the rent strike is something that we almost have a responsibility to do because the way that housing is being dealt with right now in London is entirely unjust.'

Chris Thomas, University College London (UCL)

'I looked at university as a place where, based upon your academic merit, you've worked hard in school, you can come and have the education you really wanted and study something that you love. But then you get here and you realize that's not the only selecting factor,' says 18-year-old Chris Thomas from the garden of Ramsay Hall where he lives. 'Actually, your family wealth becomes a selecting factor,as well as your academic merit ,and I don't think that's right.'

Although he has been able to pay the rent so far, Chris, a first-year student of philosophy, joined the strike this month because of his visible fury at the widening inequality in higher education.

He explains that some people are put off applying to university in London altogether and others end up dropping out. 'I would love lower rent but it's also the bigger picture that's really important.'


Amy Hall

UCL have admitted a 40.12-per-cent increase in rent since 2009, which they defend as being below market level. 'They don't need to keep up with the market prices because they own these buildings,' says Chris, arguing that the university's planned expansion is futile. 'Who are they expanding for really? They're expanding for the future but then only the richer students are going to be able to come here.'

This is not the first time UCL have been challenged on housing. In 2015 they paid $587,000 compensation to students who had been living in 'unacceptable' conditions in two halls of residence. The UCL Cut the Rent campaign is now calling for a 40-per-cent rent cut.

Chris loves university and wants everyone to have the same opportunities available to him. 'It's a place that can nurture your passion for your subject and you're taught by world-class academics.'

'There seems to be a distinct distance between the academic side and the more corporate side of the university.

'You're never going to live this centrally in London again for the rest of your life but that doesn't mean you should be paying extortionate rents.'

UCL says that any surplus made from accommodation, $23.5 million according to Cut the Rent campaigners, is 'reinvested into the accommodation.' But Chris says it doesn't feel like that's always the case. 'We just feel used for their asset gain.'