Shit student housing sits alongside hangovers and 1pm starts as populist notions of ‘being a student’. Indeed, one wonders if letting agencies have entire departments devoted to peddling the image of decrepit ‘students digs’, the masochist rite of passage alluded to by self-indulgent sitcoms and Sam Stern cook books.
However, this gritty albeit wholesome notion of student housing is fanciful at best. The reality is that poor quality student housing leads to stress and misery for many, and in some cases even serious illness.
We spoke to a number of students about their experiences with private housing in Oxford and found many had the same sort of grievances. Students generally felt that the housing industry in Oxford had preyed on their perceived naivety and lack of experience. They felt they had been ripped off and mistreated in a way they might not have done had they not been students.
For instance, two Exeter students we spoke to had issues with a property they rented together last year. Each time they tried to get in touch with their letting agent, Scott Fraser, to sort these out, they claimed they were met with a barrage of rudeness and refusal.
“[Scott Fraser] was routinely rude and failed to fix several issues,” they told us. “They don’t treat you as adults who can complain: because you’re a student they think they can get away with it.”
On one occasion when they failed to clean the house for a viewing, despite receiving less than 24 hours’ notice, they received a “telling off” email from the agency. “It felt patronising,” said one of the students. “I wouldn’t rent with Scott Fraser again, and I looked forward to moving back into college.”
Similar complaints were expressed by a student who rented using the letting agency Taylor’s. She told us that Taylor’s charged her house £300 for ‘application fees’, and advised them to buy insurance they did not need.
When she asked what certain payments were for, she reportedly received the snub, “Did your parents tell you to ask this?”
Indeed, a considerable number of students we spoke to believed letting agencies preyed on their relative inexperience as a means to make profit. One student, who managed to claim £400 back from his letting agency, Premier, told us, “They took such a long time to respond to our emails – perhaps just hoping that we’d give up. It was a couple of months until we reached a settlement.”
He added, “We were pretty good tenants but it seemed as if Premier deliberately tried to take advantage of our inexperience and lack of legal understanding.”
Another student also alleged profiteering on the part of Premier, claiming they charged her “ridiculous fees for unnecessary maintenance” and that “they did the minimum they could to stay within the law”. (See Premier’s response)
One particularly striking story was relayed to me by a 3rd year Wadham student, who was letting with RMA. She told me how her boiler broke down at the end of January of last year. After five days, and no sign of it being fixed, she came down with a flu virus, of which she informed her landlord.
Living in the house soon became unbearable, but fortunately enough Wadham was able to find her temporary college accommodation. However, her landlord was unaware of this, and was all the while under the impression that she remained ill in an unheated house.
Reportedly, the landlord did not replace the boiler for three weeks, claiming he was waiting on the delivery of new parts. Eventually, he stopped taking their calls. When they contacted the letting agency, they were told it was no longer their business, as the landlord was in the process of selling the house.
Eventually they called Environmental Health and the boiler was fixed within two days. The stories go on; allegations of such advantage taking were frequent in our investigation.
Indeed, such anecdotal evidence is corroborated by a recent report carried out by the NUS on the state of student housing in the UK. For instance, they found that of the students who had made complaints to their landlord or letting agent, a third said their complaints were not at all useful.
In the report’s foreword, Colum McGuire, the NUS Vice-President for Welfare, notes, “It is time for decision-makers to stand up and take notice of the unacceptable practices that are making students’ lives a misery … too often students feel like there is nowhere to turn and nothing in place to protect them.”
Policy is indeed one way of curtailing the objectionable treatment of students in the housing market. But we also expect letting agencies to improve their customer service via their own initiative. This means prioritising the complaints of existing customers over the creation of new business and having more staff on hand to be able to deal with housing issues as and when they arise.