Should students stand for second class housing?

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The answer is no, and before I continue this little rant about the student housing market I should probably change ‘second class housing’ to ‘squats’. Unfortunately, instead of living in uninhabited factories and scrounging off a neighbour’s electricity and WiFi for free, tens of thousands of students are being duped into living in properties with the cleanliness and disrepair of a squat, all whilst paying upwards of £300 a month.

What follows is an account of my hardships, helpfully punctuated with some basic rules to bear in mind if you plan to avoid the mistakes I didn’t.

In early December I found myself unwittingly co-signing a contract with little knowledge of the sheer level of frustration I was to endure just a few months down the line. After viewing the property in Portswood, Southampton’s most popular student district, all seemed well. The floors were covered with videogames and pants and the whole house smelt of burnt toast and bolognese; we accepted this was the norm.

  • RULE 1: Imagine what the house looks like underneath everything. Look for damp, reproducing mould, giant sewer rats etc.
Dat damp.

We didn’t really fall in love with the house, nor did we catch onto the fact the ‘housing rush’ around Christmas is fabricated anually by money-hungry Agencies who prey on ignorant little Freshers like us. We believed that by February not a single house would be left on the market.

If we had known that, even in July, housing better than the dump I’ve been stuck with was waiting for anyone willing to look for it, I would’ve told the man in the suit to go do one.

  • Rule 2: The housing rush is a lie. Ignore those who tell you “but all the good ones are going!”; they’re not. If you leave house hunting and contract signing until closer to the start of your prospective tenancy, the property is more likely to be in the same state as it will be when you move in, as you’re viewing it.

Knowing we needed one little kick up the bum, the kind man showing us around the property promised us homemade cakes awaiting our arrival at the office.
He delivered the confectionary, but the rest remains to be seen. I suppose the bannoffee cupcake can offer me some solace as I stand in my damp and dirty house.

  • Rule 3: Don’t accept bribes of cupcakes.

The first of July was probably the first time we realised we’d made the wrong decision. We knew the landlord situation was a 50/50 gamble, you either get an amazingly helpful and friendly one who sends you a new oven as soon as it breaks, or you get one that doesn’t give a shit and takes a week to put an ignition button on so you can actually cook. We got the latter.

We moved in to find a broken bed, mould and damp, windows with broken locks, a toilet that had never been cleaned, glass in the garden, unusable furniture and a sofa that had some dodgy looking stains all over it.

  • Rule 4: For the love of God go through the Landlord; make sure he’s accessible and keen to help.
  • Rule 5: If you move into a home the Agent and his wife would sooner burn down in the name of health and safety than sleep in, take a full inventory and send it to the Landlord and the council.
A lovely broken bed for Mr and Ms Estate Agent.

I think the worst part about having to live in a house that, by many people’s standards, would be classed as uninhabitable is that the Estate Agents refuse to make contact or help in any way. Unfortunately the property is managed through them, and upon requests for the Landlord’s details I have been swiftly shot down and told he wouldn’t speak to me even if I tried. Meany.

It’s been an uphill struggle, consisting of numerous calls to the council, emails to Southampton’s MP and Mayor, all asking for help. What else do we do when the Agency fail to respond to every e-mail and phone call? No promise of a call back or a fixed house is ever met. When I do talk to the one woman in the office who picks up her phone, she either tells me she’ll ring me back or snaps at me for hassling her. When I informed said woman that the house was filthy, she shouted at me and told me it had been thoroughly “deep” cleaned, before promptly hanging up.

If there’s one way to run a business badly, surely this is it.

  • Rule 6: If you are experiencing problems with the Landlord/Estate Agent, CC all your correspondence to your constituent MP and councillors, as well as the Mayor and Southampton’s private housing department.

It’s been a learning curve, if anything. Even after some help from the council, I’m not naive enough to believe that this battle with my Cowboy Estate Agents is over.
Hopefully my little story will help you out if you ever find yourself in a situation like this; if not, well done on picking the good guys.

One parting note: Students are easy money for Estate Agents and Landlords. You’ll find many don’t care if a cupboard is broken or the carpet’s in poor condition; you’re stuck in a contract for 12 months. They also assume students won’t do anything about their unprofessional behaviour; many don’t. The more of us who take a stand against this kind of crap, the more successful we’ll be in securing acceptable housing for students.

For more information on housing, including many more helpful tips I’ve missed, head over to this blog post by VP Engagement Claire Gilbert, this one too, and read this handy guide by SUSU. I probably should have.

SUSU have also recently conducted an amazingly helpful survey called ‘Vent about your Rent’ which has tons of helpful statistics in it, and you can read it here.

You can also watch this SUSUtv video about the housing rush here:

Helpful email addresses:

Councillors:
Councillor.s.barnes-andrews@southampton.gov.uk, Councillor.d.burke@southampton.gov.uk, Councillor.j.rayment@southampton.gov.uk

Mayors Office:
Mayors.office@southampton.gov.uk

Council:
enquiries@southampton.gov.uk
private.housing@southampton.gov.uk

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Discussion20 Comments

  1. avatar

    Everything students need to make an informed decision is provided by SUSU, provided you are aware it exists and know where to go looking.

    I think it’s about time the Union put some serious thought into an aggressive marketing campaign in the late Autumn term to counteract the lies and propaganda spread by estate agents and landlords in Southampton.
    It’s simply not enough to mumble “well we left you a note” under our breaths.

  2. avatar

    fantastic article! perhaps the wessex scene would benefit from a ‘name and shame’ policy, see how they like it when they have no student business left!

    Claire Joines
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    Yeah, I’ll tell people the name of the Agency if they ask me for it… I just don’t want it on public domain as I’m still a paying customer and don’t want to piss them off too much.

  3. avatar

    The Law School runs a housing law clinic with a qualified barrister. Obviously its best to avoid problem situations but if you find yourself in one such as this you might want to get in touch with them. Their e-mail address is housingclinic@soton.ac.uk

    Sophie
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    The housing clinic helped my housemates and I this year. They were fantastic! I’d definitely recommend them for serious/ongoing housing issues.

    Claire Joines
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    This sounds really helpful, thanks Tom! I’ll have a look.

    Again, I really wish this information was more readily available to the normal student.

  4. avatar

    Happens every year and it seems like regardless of what SUSU/WS/Tab say or do there’s nothing that students will listen to!

    Jonny
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    Posters, pamphlets, flyers, shoutouts.

    If half as much effort was put into this as the Elections promo, we’d see a change.

  5. avatar
    Andrew Paul Landells

    I think this is a fantastic article and is right on the money. The “housing rush” is a complete and utter myth. It was when I was a fresher, back in 2000 and it’s still true today.

    I completely agree that SUSU should really be sticking up for its students in this regard. Accommodation for second year and beyond is such a vital piece of a student’s life that it should be taken very seriously, yet as you mention, there are “slum landlords” out there, exploiting the naïvete of 18/19 year olds who have nothing to compare against. Having someone championing the ‘other side’ would be a great thing.

    So, in short, thanks for posting this. I really wish someone had told me this before I moved into a total dump in my second year and got my nose broken by thugs on my doorstep. I hope even more that this October’s intake of freshers find this article before they sign themselves into a year’s worth of housing misery!

  6. avatar

    Could you update your article with the address you CC’d your letter to at the council? Did they actually do anything to help?

    Claire Joines
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    Hey Rikki, the article’s been updated with loads of email addresses – have a look!

    The Council have informed me that their new HMO (Houses of Multiple Occupancy) scheme will see council workers visiting houses like mine and surveying them, but unfortunately this won’t happen in the next year so it’s no help to me, personally. However, it’s good they’re looking at providing a long term service to help future students. I can send you more details if you like.

    They have also sent a very helpful letter to the Agency, listing the health and saftey hazards and giving them until September to fix them. If the Agency don’t fix the problems, they have been told they could be fined. I can imagine they will wait as long as possible to fix the problems, which again, isn’t much help to me. I’ve been told that until September the Council can’t do much more to help.

  7. avatar

    A few other points that you missed:

    – always ensure your deposit is held through an authorized deposit protection scheme.
    – take photographs of the house to go alongside the inventory.
    – if the landlord doesn’t uphold their end of the contract, don’t uphold yours – refuse to pay rent. The worse case scenario is the landlord pursues you through the small claims court (which is a lot more effort than it’s worth), in which case, if they’re not upholding their end of the contract (which you will have photographic evidence of of course) they wont win anyway.
    – also, it may sound silly, but if there’s a problem with the house, make sure you let the landlord or agency know about it if your can. Not all landlords/agencies are terrible, and some will go to extreme lengths to keep you happy

    Also, the flip side of the coin which you haven’t addressed: some students DO deserve to live in a shit tip. Whilst a lot of landlords/agencies are far from perfect, the mess and damage in most students houses is caused by students. To be able to get accreditation even through the Soton uni thing (SASH?) the houses have to be in a semi-tidy state upon inspection. These dumps were nice at one point, but it’s because a bunch of idiotic students that have clearly never been allowed any responsibility before have got a house and totally trashed it – the landlord has attempted to tidy it, but another bunch of students have come in an trashed it the following year.

    The point I’m making I suppose, is look after the house. If you get a dump of a house, for whatever reason, you’re not going to want to tidy it, you’re going to treat it like a shit tip and make it worse. The landlord isn’t going to want to tidy it, they may try, but students don’t pay enough rent for landlords to afford new carpets in the whole house every year. The cycle will continue and houses get worse. Break the cycle by looking after your house and leaving it in a cleaner state than when you got it – not because you’re obliged to, but because it’s the morally right thing to do!

    I’ve seen both sides: I’ve lived in what you would class as a student dump, and had a brilliant time having parties and slowly trashing the place. I’ve also lived in with a young landlord in a new house with fresh cream carpets all over and lived the quiet life. Finally, my parents are private student landlords (not around here) and I used to help maintain the houses. Their houses are immaculate, because they get in and clean and redecorate everything every summer without fail. They stick firmly to the rule that they will never let out a room or house that they wouldn’t be happy to live in themselves – but then again, they only have 4 houses averaging 5 rooms /house and most of the problem landlords are those with 50+ 6 bedroom houses.

    Sorry for the rant – I know how well student housing can be done, and I also know how much students can trash a house.

  8. avatar

    Definitely good advice here, and I’d stress the importance of the Landlord being as vital as the house itself. Having a genuinely helpful and accessible Landlord can really make the difference.

  9. avatar

    What a brilliant article! I wonder if you could tell me the name of the agency as i read below that you’ll provide it to people who ask?

    It’s shameful that estate agents and landlords get away with this, particularly when you compare the standard of non-student housing for the same price.

    I’d also like to add that during my first year in halls adverts for ‘housing week’ were being put up in our flats a few weeks before Christmas break with no comment on the ‘housing rush’ myth; it didn’t exactly help stem the panic house viewing as soon as we all got back. I agree with people saying that SUSU should raise awareness of this issue, it would prevent a lot of unnecessary anxiety and frustration.

    Claire Joines
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    Hey Ims! Drop me a message on Facebook and I’ll hand over the name

  10. avatar

    Chloe, VP Welfare and Communities here. Hello!

    I TOTALLY agree that the union should have more teeth when it comes to landlords and agencies; this is something I seek to rectify this year. Unfortunately, SUSU can’t currently do very much at all – even if we were to get involved and send letters/threats or whatever, there is still no incentive for landlords to behave better as we have no economic hold over them.

    This is something that will be partly addressed with the Letting Agency that SUSU is currently working to set up. We’re still researching and planning like headless chickens, but we’re aiming to have something achieved within the next academic year. This would mean that SUSU would advertise for landlords but in order to gain our cooperation, there will be a strict code of conduct they must abide by. This code of conduct will be something that myself and Sam Ling work on, so it’s guaranteed to be student-centred and welfare based. If they don’t deliver what we’ve asked them to, we will no longer be willing to cooperate with them. How many chances we give them, how harsh we are, how we differentiate between excellent landlords and sub-par ones – all these elements to the agency are being worked through currently.

    It won’t be a short term solution – our aim is to eventually get students to look at the Letting Agency as the ONLY trusted source of housing. If landlords aren’t backed by us, students won’t go for them and therefore landlords will have to comply by our code of conduct to secure themselves the customers. That’s a long term goal, certainly. But one that is sustainable and can really change the culture of housing in Southampton.

    … Sorry, SUCH an essay! Any feedback, shoot it my way – vpwelfare@susu.org

    Jonny
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    I’ll fire this off in an e-mail as well but just for the record:

    It’s very encouraging to see that there is a long term, solid solution in the works that seems far more air-tight than the current system.
    A SUSU Letting Agency of sorts would help students in need in Southampton by setting standards that landlords and estate agents would be falling over themselves to adhere to in the hope of attaining a “whitelist” status.

    The main issue with these plans is, as you’ve mentioned, that they are long term.
    In the mean time we are expecting another wave of students in the coming academic year who risk falling prey to the same sort of shady tactics mentioned in the article.
    Wouldn’t a marketing campaign that is equally as aggressive (if not more so) as that employed BY estate agents and landlords at present, with the aim of properly informing students who otherwise have no experience or knowledge about owning a house, be prudent?

    All the advice they need is readily available on the SUSU website! The trouble is nobody knows it’s there and not enough effort is made to highlight its existence.

    Every year around November students in halls have flyers from Posh Pads, Student No-Fee and other agencies suspiciously posted under their doors in halls.
    Would it be possible for the Union to counteract this kind of behaviour by having its own posters and flyers distributed in the same areas?
    These could contain warnings directly from SUSU NOT to be bullied or rushed into signing for accommodation, dispel the ridiculous rumours that housing will “run out” if it isn’t bagged early, and essentially combat the underhanded bullshit spread by letting agencies.
    I feel I should add that just having them up around the Union building simply isn’t good enough as vast swaths of the student population don’t see them.

    While you’re at it, surely this is something JCRs could get involved in? They’re in place to look out for freshers and ensure they have a good time in their first year in halls. There must be something they can do to aid in helping prospective 2nd years to avoid mistakes like those mentioned in the article.

    Food for thought!

    Rob
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    Alternatively, it could be said that a lot could be done by JCRs or even halls staff to remove any advertisements?

    Just like is done in nearly all university buildings around campus, all posters must be approved before they are put up (otherwise they get ripped down).

    Without the advertisements then being so prominent, freshers would be less likely to fall into the traps.

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