Oxford University Student Union (OUSU) has stepped up efforts to get all letting agents in Oxford to delay the release of their student properties until February.
OUSU President David Townsend informed student bodies that the coalition of parties involved in its early lease campaign, which includes all JCRs and MCRs, Oxford University Colleges and Oxford Brookes University, as well as several City councillors, have agreed not to publicise any early release dates put forward by agents.
Oxford East MP Andrew Smith also “fully supported” the campaign, and “urged” agents to come on board. “I would welcome a classification system on service quality and accommodation standards,” he told Cherwell.
Townsend was involved in ongoing talks with agents this week as November release dates loom. He declared, “The strength of our joint campaign relies on all of us working together to refuse to advertise ‘early release’ letting agents.”
At least 14 undergraduate colleges and nearly all graduate colleges expect a proportion of students to live out at some stage during their course, meaning that freshers are often compelled to sign contracts for the following October in Michaelmas of first year.
Many are unfamiliar with prospective housemates, the city of Oxford itself, the housing market, and the details of budgeting and tenancy rights and obligations. Wrong decisions and fallingsout can lead to uneasy living situations: one third year at Mansfield recalls how his religious housemates “spent a year trying to convert me.”
After a 1500-strong petition last year, the early lease campaign launched to give students a “decent amount of time” to decide where to live and with whom. A second year at Exeter recounted, “Housing rumours spread in third week. People threw together groups in mad panic and started signing in fifth week.”
One St Hilda’s second year was caught “completely by surprise” by early release panic. She found a place to live only when one group needed a room filled at short notice. “I’m very lucky,” she remarked, “But agreeing to live with people I didn’t know well was a daunting process.”
Oxford City Council already operates a Landlord Accreditation Scheme, which OUSU hopes to use with its own Ethical Letting Guidelines to produce a graded ‘traffic light system’ for students.
Agents who agree to withhold properties until the new year are marked as ‘green’, ‘yellow’ agents have agreed to delay releasing a set number of properties, and ‘red’ agents are non-cooperative. Agents listed as ‘red’ will be advertised through JCRs and MCRs. Wadham Student Union President Jahnavi Emmanuel commented, ‘Not all agents have signed up, so for the scheme to work we need all students fully behind this to make sure no one starts looking for houses until February.’
Spire Properties, one of the letting agents already on board, agreed that “whether agencies suffer by not joining the scheme will depend on whether students delay their property searches.”
Premier Letting, one of Oxford’s ‘Big Five’ agents, remains undecided. It “would love” to release properties later, but stressed, “We are a business and offer a service to both tenants and landlords.” It pointed out that it was less risky for agents with smaller student housing stock to sign up to the scheme.
Premier told Cherwell that the main constraint on later release was “landlord pressure”. They explained, “Some agents already released their lists in mid-October, and some landlords multi-list their properties with several agents.
Many landlords like to secure bookings for the next year on their property by Christmas, which they will do with an agent not signed up to the scheme.”
Spire’s director Craig Carter however reminded that, “It is easy to forget that when we first started nearly 25 years ago, student lists were produced around Easter time.
“Release dates were gradually brought forward. I remember joking with clients that one day lists would be produced before Christmas, never thinking this would actually come true.”
A third year at Regent’s described the consequences. “People waited from 4.30am in freezing November cold to book viewings or see houses on offer. Letting agents could not cope with the mass of students who arrived on the day the lists came out.
“I wish it had been more clear that there was no big rush. Most houses aren’t let until much later in the year. I simply wasn’t aware of that fact and was sucked in by agents’ unfair tactics.”
An Exeter second year said, “Agents gave us an ultimatum to put down an admin fee. We felt pressured into signing, but found out later that they’d said exactly the same thing to others.”
Townsend claimed such fears of student accommodation “shortages” in Oxford are “a myth”. He explained, “It’s the students’ market. Every year colleges build new student rooms, meaning that private market supply shifts in their favour.”
Emmanuel added, “Obviously we can’t prevent anyone from looking for accommodation when they want to. But we encourage students not to sign tenancy agreements early and will protect them from agents who falsely convince them they need to.”
On their position going forward, Premier said, “If we feel that enough students hold out until February, and we see that the Universities are informing and encouraging them to do so, then we might be inclined to take part in the scheme next year.’