The Student Accommodation Dilemma 1: The Old Terrace House

As the new academic year is about to begin, Cardiff welcomes more than 60,000 students once again. But as we stress about textbooks, coursework, and meeting new people we will work with for the whole year, there is one additional burden that students have to face that often goes unmentioned – looking for a student accommodation.

As the universities in Cardiff, similar to many other universities, do not offer student housing for students beyond their first year, most of them need to look for other means of accommodation. However, given that there are not enough privately-owned student flats to accommodate around 20% of Cardiff’s population, most students have to settle on houses of multiple occupation (HMOs) distributed through numerous letting agencies.

Unfortunately, the letting agencies for students and the landlords working with them often try to benefit from their tenants’ inexperience when it comes to the property market by employing large fees and hidden costs, as well as imposing draconian rules that only tenants must adhere to. The first sign of these practices are high and non-refundable agency fees, but for a lot of students problems start when it is time to collect the deposit at the end of the tenancy. The agencies often claim that the students have left the flats untidy and have broken furniture in order to justify additional charges. Leaving tenants can be charged even for damages that result from normal tear and wear of furniture, floors and walls, which is the landlord’s responsibility to replace. Often, the tenants are also subject to various additional “administration fees” as a payment for assessing the deposit deductions.

However, even though these practices are morally dubious by themselves, the conditions students have to face upon moving in are much more alarming. While it is not unreasonable to expect that a students’ house would present a lower standard than other houses on the market a lot of landlords will seek for any way to cut corners and pack more people into a single house. The most common tactic is turning every room possible into an additional bedroom, including the ends of the corridors, storage spaces, granny annexes and one of the pair of living or dining rooms, often leaving the houses with only one small social area with two couches and no place for even a modest dining table. This tactic enables landlords to turn a small Victorian terrace into a four- or five-bedroom HMO. This alone does not seem to be so bad – after all, most students do not share their bedrooms, so there are four to five people living in each house – the 2019 equivalent of a rather large, but still not impossible family.

However, some houses are available to much larger student groups – up to ten people. These are adapted from larger Victorian terraces (for example some houses right by the Students’ Union on its Cathays side) that allow future landlords to get much more creative with increasing the number of possible tenants. In these cases, the houses’ interiors are almost fully gutted in order to allow the ceilings to be lowered as much as possible to keep in line with building codes, gaining a whole new floor in the attic, where the room ceilings are so low one can only stand upright in the middle of the room. And the discomfort that sleeping in those tiny, badly lit bedrooms brings is not even the biggest problem. In these situations, the number of people living in the house is much higher than the number that they were originally intended for. This can have lasting consequences – for example the means of ventilating the property might not be sufficient to remove the moisture. This can lead to the creation of mould which can cause lasting negative health issues like allergic reactions, respiratory problems and hypersensitivity – especially since a lot of landlords deal with the issue simply by repainting the wall, an action which does not resolve the problem properly.

The issues with student houses do not end there – they can be quite disruptive on a larger urban scale. As landlords buy out large swaths of houses in the areas close to university facilities – Cathays, Adamsdown or Riverside, just to name a few – they push non-students out of the area close to the heart of the city and into the outskirts of Cardiff. This means that a lot of Cardiffians cannot enjoy the benefits of living in a dense urban area where everything can be reached by foot. The concentration of students in just a few areas of Cardiff also causes other problems, as city services are often not adjusted to the situation – the most notable being the waste removal scheme that for most of the houses in students-populated areas require leaving the trash bags on the pavement next to the front door once a week. While this is a minor nuisance in the area where houses are occupied by families, it becomes a large problem when nine people are living in the same house. As the trash bags pile up taking most of (and often spilling onto) the sidewalks, even the previously unconvinced residents move out to less-littered suburbs, leaving even more houses behind for the landlords to convert into substandard student housing.

This trend will most likely not be reversed anytime soon, but the recent spike in new developments of high-rise student towers could at least offer an alternative to those not willing to put up with the bad conditions of old terraces remodelled with students in mind. While it is a step in the right direction, these developments come with a ton of issues of their own – some much more important than the significantly higher rent.

This article is the first part of a series outlining the issues concerning student housing in Cardiff and the possible solutions to it. Join us next week for the next instalment: The New High-Rises.

header photo credits: Eve Bembo