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Students, why not be your own landlord?

Scotland
Co-operatives
2014.09.03-StudentCo-op-blog1.jpg

IK's worrld trip under a Creative Commons Licence

‘You be the landlord this time.’ ‘Yeah, all right then.’ I’m visiting student flats in Edinburgh and the new residents are signing their contracts. On first glance, it looks like an average beginning of the academic year, but there’s something special going on here. This 106-bed property in the heart of the city is one of only two student housing co-operatives in Britain, both opening their doors this autumn. These young people are tired of high rents and exploitative landlords, and have taken matters into their own hands.

I’m shown around the property by Mike Shaw, a serious 22-year-old who only betrays his excitement through the eagerness with which he throws open the doors to each new room. ‘The idea is that it’s participatory, everyone gets involved… it’s very much about giving members the ability to make the space,’ he tells me.

There’s certainly lots to do in the two-building property, which sits either side of a pub, looking out on the scenic Meadows. There are staircases to paint, living rooms to decorate, and two vast basement spaces to be converted into communal areas.

Shaw is a network co-ordinator for Students for Co-operation, a democratic federation of student co-ops across Britain set up last year. He was part of a group at Edinburgh University who came up with the plan to run their own accommodation, open to students from any of the city’s universities. A year and a half later, the co-op has been flooded with applicants.

Weeks ago, the first housing co-op in Britain opened in Birmingham, so they’re now the second in the country. ‘They just beat us!’ says Shaw with a grin.

How did they do it? Key to the students’ success is Edinburgh City Council, which became a ‘co-operative council’ back in 2012. In practice, this means promoting the adoption of co-operative practices in the city, focusing on the education, health, energy and housing sectors. The students found their property through the council, who put them in touch with the housing association that owns the flats. Castle Rock Edinvar were more than happy to have the students lease the place at market value, with the eventual goal of buying the property outright.

Shaw tells me the market value is several million pounds. He’s confident that this is an achievable target, with the newly established Students for Co-operation network exploring a number of funding options.

In one of the flats, I meet James Puchowski, a second-year student who moved in yesterday. ‘It was quite daunting,’ he admits, ‘I didn’t know what to expect… but honestly, in comparison to the accommodation I was in last year with the university, it’s of equal quality.’

Puchowski came up from England to study, so he’s paying tuition fees, unlike his Scottish peers. As president of the Linguistic Society, he doesn’t have time for a job outside of study, and was attracted by the co-op’s rent, which at £305 ($500) a month, including bills, is far cheaper than the average.

‘It’s a stand against the monopolies you see with student housing,’ he says. ‘People aren’t here to be consumers, they’re here to study.’

Students being set to fail

The National Union of Students (NUS) has diagnosed a ‘cost of living crisis’ among students in England, with housing averaging £420 ($700) a month outside of London and £554 ($910) a month in the capital. A recent survey of 150 universities concluded that British students were being ‘set up to fail’: forced into work to afford their accommodation. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government has refused to rule out yet another hike in fees if they win the election. They’re facing a financial time bomb, with students in England and Wales unable to pay back their fees of up to £9,000 ($14,800) a year at a fast-enough rate.

Scottish students don’t pay fees at Scottish universities, but that doesn’t mean they’re spared from high rents and exploitative landlords. Euan Kidston, a fourth-year Anthropology student, says he was assaulted by his landlord while in private student accommodation.

‘I was confronting him over having charged me a great deal of money that he shouldn’t have,’ Kidston tells me. He’s talking about upfront admin fees that are illegal under the Rent (Scotland Act) 1984. Kidston is part of the Private Tenants Action Group in Edinburgh, and he’s seen a lot of cases of exploitation.

So is opting into an alternative housing scheme at all daunting? ‘It’s natural for me to cut the landlord out,’ he shrugs.

Students are a popular market for buy-to-let, as they are less likely than your average tenant to miss rent payments. At the same time as this market increases, students renting for the first time are less likely to know their rights.

This summer, landlords were found to be using a loophole to wrongfully retain tens of thousands of pounds in deposits. This is just the latest wheeze among many, as the BBC’s new documentary ‘The Housing Enforcers’ goes some way to show. Last year, a landlord was banned in Edinburgh for threatening to shoot tenants, and while that’s extreme, most students have stories of private landlords entering property without permission, or failing to meet their legal responsibilities for reasonable maintenance and repair.

‘It’s a stand against the monopolies you see with student housing. People aren’t here to be consumers, they’re here to study.’

In contrast, the co-op will be governed by general meeting, so each resident will have a democratic say. There are plans to set up working groups to take care of everything from kitchen duties to financial management, disciplinary action to pets. Students had to apply to become co-op members, stating what experiences, skills and interests they would bring. They are also planning to learn as they go, with builders and other experts supervising members where they’re not able to do the jobs alone.

Most importantly, the co-op is about fostering a community. New students in particular can find the stress of study and financial pressure hard to handle without the support networks of housemates and friends. Since the onset of the recession, the number of students who have taken their lives has dramatically increased. The co-op property was in part chosen for its set-up, which allows for plenty of communal space.

I meet Sam Ryan, a second year who got a group together to create an LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) flat. She hopes to run workshops, maybe an open-mic night, and generally to be a source of support for fellow housemates. She also wants to pick up some life skills in return.

‘I don’t know very much about finance,’ she says, ‘so I’m hoping to learn a little more about that.’ I notice her chairs are splattered with paint – on the first day, her flat is already at work, creating a homely environment.

If Edinburgh and Birmingham student housing co-ops are successful, they will provide models for students across Britain. And it doesn’t end there. Young people who have already run their own co-op before graduating are much more likely to take those principles into the workplace.

The founders of the co-op hope it will have a legacy beyond the residents’ university days. That is certainly Mike Shaw’s vision. ‘Hopefully, alumni will then go on to maybe set up co-ops themselves or get involved in co-ops,’ he says, ‘or take some of those ideas and principles of being run democratically and directly, very hands-on, challenging hierarchies.’ Besides, entering the booming co-operative sector is not a bad long-term career plan for young people.

So, what’s the problem? If you don’t like your landlord, try doing without.

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