The Student Accommodation Dilemma 3: The New Way

The student accommodation market in Cardiff is not unlike the ones in other cities and towns of Britain – as all universities will not provide students with housing after they finish first year,students have to turn to the private sector – be it the landlords transforming residential properties into homes of multiple occupation and renting them through student letting agencies or large, privately-owned halls. However, neither of these of these options are without faults – while HMOs disrupt and push the communities in areas close to universities to the suburbs, private halls are often financially out of most students’ reach as they are marketed as as luxury accommodations and their architecture is often out of context with both its immediate and wider surroundings.

As Cardiffians notice these patterns, increasingly more voices are being raised against the developments of the new student flats and in favour of the law making it more difficult for the potential landlords to lend their property to students. But it could be argued that these changes are not going to do much except drive the costs of these accommodations even higher, over the tipping point; the city’s student population will rapidly decrease in size, and with it a large part of Cardiff’s revenue. What we need to do is to propose a new way, a third option that, even if it will not replace HMOs and private halls, will help solve some of the issues surrounding student housing. You can find some of them below – arranged from the most utopian ones to some that have already started being introduced.

Perhaps the most ideal solution would be a reintroduction of university-owned flats, that can be offered to students for a fraction of the current rent. Paired with robust and reliable public transport options, they could perhaps be moved outside of the strict city centre, for example to the more impoverished areas that could use the additional money students will bring with them. Or maybe the flats could be included in the masterplanning of new university facilities, so there is a direct link between the place of study and the place of living.

Unfortunately, there is little chance that this would happen – even though universities, as non-profit organisations, do not have to actually generate income, they must maintain their budget. Unless the funding for higher education increases drastically, providing cheap and well-designed university-owned flats would be an additional cost – one universities would not be able to meet while maintaining their standards of education.

The solution that might work better with the existing market conditions could be to stop developing specialised student housing in general, and instead integrate it with accommodation for other demographics. In a similar manner to the push to integrate affordable housing into the newly built apartment blocks, there could be a similar initiative to introduce the cross-generational schemes that offer housing for both students and non-students alike. These schemes would have to respond to the needs of the more diverse groups, making them integrated better into the socio-economic urban fabric and providing for needs both for people in university and regular citizens. This would hopefully make the additional facilities more justified than the often unnecessary additions created only to reach the higher price mark of “luxury accommodation”.

Moreover, as this kind of mixed housing would most likely face higher scrutiny and would have to respond to more strict building regulations, the architectural value of these schemes could potentially be much higher than traditional student housing. Another benefit that could come from a strategy like that would be the possibility of closing the gap between the students and the general population. Unfortunately, this would also be the biggest challenge a scheme like this would face – fighting the stereotypes that both sides of this debate often have. As long as the working residents believe that students do not care about their immediate environment and leave a mess everywhere they go, and students regard anyone who is not in university to be uninteresting and unable to relate to their struggles and needs, said project would struggle to be successful. And as it is the case with many potentially revolutionary ideas, a system like that would have to be worked on through tedious, not to say expensive, practice of trial and error. There is no guarantee that something like that would ever work as intended; and the failure of just one of the pioneering projects would very likely put a stop to the whole idea.

However, between the private investments in the property market and the government-owned facilities, there are a range of other economic models worth exploring. One of the more interesting ones could see the recent trend of community-owned spaces applied to student housing. The less controversial cousin of anarchy, this option creates a middle ground between the purely profit-driven capitalist approach and the excessive bureaucracy that is often a product of governments trying to apply the same standards and solutions to diverse problems. A range of student-owned housing associations could help provide housing that is more successful at allocating resources and less interested in generating profit, effectively creating a student accommodation system that is cheaper, better run, more environmentally friendly and less damaging to local communities.

This arrangement would also allow for more efficient sharing of groceries and supplies like the HMOs do while allowing for flexibility in choosing people you live with, the same way it is possible to change flats mid-term. Obviously, a scheme like this would require the students to showcase a variety of essential management skills when it comes to running a co-op like that. It would require all involved students to share some of their time for the maintenance, management and necessary renovations/improvements. This would be several steps above the students-led societies and student organisations – the amount of money involved, the responsibilities, and the problem of organising all of that in the reality of the housing market in Britain already being unstable and deeply in crisis would potentially mean that the risks outweigh the potential benefits.

This does not seem to deter students from following up on this idea. Cardiff students could follow the lead of the already running student housing co-ops in university cities like Sheffield, Edinburgh and Glasgow and take control back from letting agencies, bad quality HMOs and many student accommodation schemes where developers cut corners wherever possible. And the benefits of this model could reach beyond university life – as students graduate and enter the housing market, they could embrace the lessons learned while in their co-ops and apply this model of ownership further along the line. Maybe (hopefully!) this could be one of the forces that produces the long-awaited course correction of the British housing market, currently in deep crisis.

No matter which of these options (or even something much bolder, wilder, something no one has even thought about so far) you believe is the viable one, they will never come close to being realised as long as student housing is a problem no one prefers to talk about. There is a dire need for this discussion about changing the face of student housing – a discussion between students themselves, between students and universities, research groups and local communities. The situation will not change overnight, but with these talks, should they be successful and honest, a new vision will eventually emerge. And no matter how long this process takes, anything will be better than no action.

This is the last instalment in the series of articles about the student housing dilemma in Cardiff. But this does not have be the end of this conversation. No matter if you are a student, member of university team or someone who simply believes that there can be a better way to respond to the crisis of the student housing market – reach out to the local students’ union, university advice centre or various tenants’ unions and see what alternatives to the current situations are there to be discovered or created.