The Student Accommodation Dilemma 2: The New High-Rises

The development of the new high-rise student accommodation in Cardiff never stops. Will they help take some burden off the areas overfilled with students, or will it cause more harm than good?

Up until recently, the Cardiff skyline was relatively uncluttered. Since then, a number of new developments have reached up to capitalise on the yet-unused opportunity for vertical growth. Perhaps surprisingly, most of these developments (including the upcoming tallest building in Wales) offer not offices or high-end apartments, but rather more student housing. Some hope that these will take some burden from places like Cathays and Roath, which has become increasingly monopolised by students; while this could happen, this new batch of student accommodation could easily turn the situation from bad to worse.

The first major issue with the new student flats is that they mostly belong to the same category: high-end luxury accommodation. The rent for these flats is often double than what would be required for renting a house in multiple occupation from one of Cardiff’s student letting agencies. This renders them unaffordable for all but the wealthiest students, especially after considering what is actually offered at this price. The most typical arrangement is a small, private bedroom with a desk, an en-suite bathroom and a shared kitchen/living space, with developers often cutting corners where possible on quality of light, ventilation, materials and sustainability. This makes it in effect not greatly different to what students can expect in their university-provided first year accommodation, with the only visible differences being the double bed instead of single one and the decor vaguely inspired by the aesthetic of Pinterest boards. 

As the offered flats often do not justify the high rent alone, most developers try to lure the students in with the ancillary features. These vary from simple and understandable (on-site security, locked bike sheds and shared lounge areas and coworking-spaces), to more extravagant (on-site gym or even private nightclub/bar and additional dining areas that can be booked to entertain friends). The goal is obviously to create something more than just an accommodation – a package that allows the tenants to present their financial status. This phenomenon alone is nothing new in our society; and while we could dispute whether we should be alarmed that luxury housing is being offered to increasingly young people, there are more immediate effects that need to be taken into the account. 

As mentioned in the previous installment most of the faculty buildings of the universities based in Cardiff are in close proximity to the city centre, which means that the plots developers desire the most are often either in a very short distance to or in the city centre itself. This means that this rather eccentric place, characterised by old Victorian architecture, post-war brutalist infills and sprawling postmodern behemoth of St David’s gains another hard to miss element to its architectural identity – the towering student accommodation blocks. This is unfortunate, as most of these developments do not necessarily aim to provide interesting, captivating architecture and instead go for anything that could be considered “trendy”, from monochrome (save for some colour accents) tiles of cladding cladding in irregular pattern to juxtaposition of simple brick façades and shiny blobitecture. While there might be nothing especially offensive about most of them, they do not necessarily help the image of the already chaotic centre.

There is more to this transformation, however, than just a confused aesthetic. Where the transformation of Cathays, Roath and Adamsdown in the areas filled with student-populated HMOs pushed the Cardiff’s population outwards to the suburbs and far away from the city centre, the addition of the new student accommodation blocks can in the long run ensure that they do not actually have a reason to visit the centre at all – between private facilities of the student accommodations and the increasingly more student-oriented surroundings, the city centre might become yet another part of Cardiff taken over by the rising student demographic. This would fail to capitalise on the potential of the centre to become a much more attractive place, offering cultural activities and job opportunities for people of a variety of different demographic groups.

However, all these issues pale in comparison to a much bigger problem. Over the last couple of years, around 4,300 new flats appeared on the market; right now, there are 700 new flats nearing construction, ready to host a new batch of students. But there will be more – even 2,400 more flats that have been given planning permission but on which construction has not started yet. Given the high rent justified by private gyms, nightclubs and leisure areas, the new flats will be in competition only with similar luxury accommodation, not with the multiple HMOs in Cathays, Roath and Adamsdown, which makes it unlikely they will all find willing tenants. And while the vision of multiple empty blocks simply deteriorating over the city’s skyscape is definitely a non-pleasant one, the other possibility is much worse – what if the flats were never designed with students in mind?

Some agencies are quite open about their plan to convert the accommodation either into family flats or Airbnb rentals if they do not secure the suitable number of student tenants. And this is a much bigger issue than it seems, as this could be nothing more than a way to bypass the building laws and cut corners during the construction. The majority of the new student housing are classed as sui generis, which means that they do not have to adhere to many rules other types of residential architecture has to; their construction rarely incorporates new technologies to make the blocks sustainable, easy to heat up and properly ventilate. What this means, in simpler terms, is that the flats produced often would not be given planning permission if they were designed for anyone but students. It does not even matter whether the conversion of the expensive luxury student accommodation in the centre of Cardiff into substandard non-student accommodations and hotels was planned from the beginning as a part of some “evil conspiracy” or if it was just an unfortunate mistake on developers’ part rooted in overestimated the number of students who would be interested in these new flats; the bottom line is that it is most likely going to happen.

One thing is sure: when the new student accommodation blocks started taking over Cardiff city centre and in turn increasing the divide between students and regular Cardiffians and further alienating the latter, there was at least hope that the new opportunities would take some of the pressure from Cathays and Roath and stop them from turning into nothing more than student dormitories. But as the blocks stay empty and students move to the same areas once again, maybe it is time to realise that the new high-rises are no more the solution to the student housing dilemma than the HMOs. But if not they, then what?

This article is the second part of a series outlining the issues concerning student housing in Cardiff. Join us in two weeks for the final, more optimistic instalment – The New Way.