Striking against soaring rents and substandard living conditions, the capital’s undergraduates are taking a stand
You’re probably aware of how bad London living is. You’ve skimmed the articles, you’ve seen the news – you may, tragically, even be experiencing it first hand. With the capital currently awash with rogue landlords and extortionate rental opps, it feels like housing has never been a bigger issue. London living costs are spiralling – sucking up 72 per cent of its resident’s paychecks – while quality is slipping at the same rapid rate. After all, there aren’t many cities that will ask for £500pm to sleep on the floor of an (actual) coat cupboard.
One group really feeling the burn is students. As residents of one the most expensive cities in the world, London undergraduates are shelling out thousands of pounds on their rent – and often for very little return. Aside from the fact that tuition fees have trebled in the last five years (the average expected debt is now around £44,000), student grants have also been abolished; meaning that finances are now under serious strain. “I'm most afraid that I won't be able to validate having gone to university because of the cost,” explains UCL student Josh Clark. “I like to look at it as an economic gamble; people with degrees typically and statistically get higher salaries later on in life. The debt that you incur part of that gamble.”
For this reason, many students throughout the capital are taking a stand. In widely-publicised social media campaigns, UCL, Goldsmiths, and University of the Arts London have all decided to protest against their institution’s available accommodation. Although UAL has been successful in securing a rent freeze for 2016/17, the others are now refusing to pay their rent – striking until the cost becomes more manageable. “The only way to make UCL listen to our concerns is by taking radical action,” explains UCLU Halls Accommodation Rep Angus O'Brien. “The students striking now will force the university to deal with its unsustainable and unfair rent setting policy, this is the only option we are now left with in the campaign for affordable accommodation here.”
“One tenant paying over £150 a week had their neighbour’s sewage exploding out of their toilet, covering her bathroom in shit”
It’s this UCL ‘Cut The Rent’ campaign that is, so far, the most radical. At the time of this article, over 500 students at the Bloomsbury university are striking – withholding over £1,000,000 until they get a 40 per cent rent cut. Despite this, UCL officials are unfortunately refusing to be swayed; with their head of Estates, Andrew Grainger, apparently dismissing the extortionate rents – which can cost up to £209.79 a week – as a “fact of life”.
“We make every effort at UCL to keep rents as low as possible, which is a difficult challenge considering our central London location,” UCL told Dazed in a statement. “Our rents are competitive in comparison with equivalent London institutions, and far less than rates for comparable accommodation in the private sector.The NUS’s accommodation costs survey recognises UCL’s efforts in this regard, and acknowledges the university’s commitment to keeping a significant proportion of its accommodation in the lowest cost band of £120-150 a week.”
Similarly, Goldsmiths also started their own ‘Cut The Rent’ campaign earlier this year. With rooms at the New Cross university costing upwards of £154 a week, 130 students are now striking; holding their rent until it’s cut to 50% of their maintenance grant (equal to approximately £100.20 a week). “This figure must include all bills and services,” stresses Goldsmiths student Brittany Irwin. “The accommodation we pay for should be safe and livable, which it currently isn't due to problems (in my halls) with sewage coming up through the drains, flooding and little or no wifi for half of the year that we have lived there.”
Due to the catastrophic cuts to student grants, these concerns feel justified. The capital is quickly becoming more and more inaccessible for students who don’t have the financial support of parents – which is causing a wider gap between those with money, and those without. We caught up with a few of the strikers to hear their side of the story.
BILLIE PAUL, GOLDSMITHS:
“I pay £2025.90 a term, which works out at about £153 a week, I think. Being from a low-income family, I'm ‘lucky’ enough to get the maximum maintenance loan/grant combo, so I was left with enough money to live on comfortably if I didn't go out all the time or buy new clothes every week. A lot of my friends in halls are in a different situation to me, though; their parents earn enough that they don't get much help from student finance, but not enough to be able to fully support them. My friend goes to UCL but it was his insurance choice, which left him homeless for the first week of uni and sleeping on my floor, as he couldn't find any affordable accommodation. The accommodation he eventually found costs him £200 a week, leaving him with barely anything. When the only way you can go to uni is to pay the majority of your income just to have a roof over your head, that's a sign that London costs are becoming inhumane.
I worry that university will become inaccessible to future students of certain backgrounds, and that the commodification of university will turn it into a playground for the elite. I worry that the invasion of luxury housing companies leasing our halls will gentrify the area and punish the community who were here long before us. I also worry that our university, and other universities, will continue to make decisions that affect us behind our backs, and will continue to rely on our complacency to get away with charging ridiculous prices for unliveable conditions. That's why campaigns like Goldsmiths Cut The Rent are so important.”
“When the only way you can go to uni is to pay the majority of your income just to have a roof over your head, that's a sign that London costs are becoming inhumane”
BRITTANY IRWIN, GOLDSMITHS:
“I come from a working-class background, and I can barely afford university in London. The Grant I receive for maintenance alone is £7350.75 per academic year, and my rent costs £5432.81 per academic year (£142.96 a week). This leaves me with £47.95 a week. I have a prescription to pay for every month, travel, school books, and of course, food. I often don't have enough to cover my food costs, so I have a job which takes up time I could be studying, and I often have to borrow money from my family. It's not right that students from working class backgrounds often don't go to their first choice universities because it's simply not affordable – education should be a human right, not a privilege.”
JOSH CLARK, UCL:
“The high cost of living (and what is now becoming a higher cost of living thanks to the rent) is obviously difficult for students to deal with. They know London will be expensive and so they save where they can but sometimes this doesn't really cut it?. I think what I see most of the time is just fear; these students are afraid of going into their overdraft through no real fault of their own really, rather through having no other choice. This affects their lives from day to day, not because they won't be able to eat; it isn't that dramatic, it's just a really tough situation that could bury them in further debt because their money has gone down the sinkhole on their extortionate rent.
I think the recent decision to abolish student grants is an absolute tragedy. I know personally how reliant I am on the grant money I get and without that I would be in an awful position, the kind that would make me uncomfortable and anxious on a daily basis. People will adjust to having no grant money or less grant money should the government decide to stick with this decision, but it's a real shame that they're making students suffer like this. I find it almost difficult to believe but at the same rate it saddens me that this is apparently an acceptable thing to do to a group of people. Many students like myself rely on the money and their student lives without it is just another nail in the coffin.”
DORA HEMMING, GOLDSMITHS:
“My rent is 122 pounds a week leaving about 320 pounds of my student loan. I have seen how shoddy student halls can be – ovens and fridges constantly broken, rats, exploding toilets – and am living in a place that is being taken over by a company that will probably have no issue with putting rent up another 40 pounds a week next year. I've spoken to people at UCL paying £170 a week with cockroaches, rats and mould in their rooms and nothing being done about it.
I am worried that universities in London will end up being reserved for those that have parents who can afford to pay for them to actually live there. The government is constantly cutting help (like grants) meaning students from poorer backgrounds just can't go. A young person's choice of higher education should not depend on this.”
‘CUT THE RENT’ ORGANISER, GOLDSMITHS:
“The issues we experience here are pretty extreme, but are felt everywhere else in the country too... People spending £170 a week rent here had no oven for 4 months. Others paying £150 had no hot water and no heating for 4 days during this campaign, and even though multiple complaints were made it wasn't fixed until a protest banner was dropped. After the banner was confiscated, the heating and hot water were back within an hour – proving that CLV cares more about their PR than they do about their tenants wellbeing. Another tenant paying over £150 a week had their neighbours sewage exploding out of their toilet, covering her bathroom in shit. The tenant had to clear it up herself and the staff didn't properly clean it until five days after it happened. They offered a £50 Sainsbury's voucher as compensation.
We, as students, are in a pretty fortunate position that hundreds of us have the same landlords, hundreds of us are neighbours and hundreds of us are lucky enough to have some free time to organise something like this alongside our studies. We want to see the rent strike spread to other campuses in London and outside before the next rent payment, and we would urge anyone interested in starting a campaign at their university to get in contact with us and we'll help start you up, and offer you proper solidarity as things progress. I want to see a rent strike across the private sector as a whole, the renting industry is a fucking joke.”