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via TikTok (@jesshoughton98)

Mushrooms and poo: students are exposing dodgy landlords on social media

On TikTok and Twitter, users are posting videos revealing their squalid living conditions

When you move into student accommodation, you might expect to quarrel over dishes left in the sink, bicker over whose turn it is to take the bins out, squabble over who’s been using all of your nice Neal’s Yard shower gel. But you might not expect mushrooms to grow in your room and sewage to come up through your shower drain.

But that’s exactly what happened to Chantelle, 19, a student at Nottingham Trent University. When she returned to her £165-a-week room after Christmas in January this year, she found the carpet in her room sodden with toilet waste. After her accommodation provider neglected to appropriately address the issue, Chantelle took to Twitter where she uploaded photos and videos of the squalid conditions she was forced to live in. The post has now been retweeted thousands of times and has even attracted the attention of housing activist Kwajo Tweneboa.

Chantelle isn’t the only student who has been forced to air their housing grievances on social media. Many have taken to TikTok to document their grim housing situations. In one video, a girl takes the viewer through all the issues with her house, from “poo coming down the walls” to the “locks don’t work”. Another video, created in the app’s popular ‘things in my house that just make sense’ format, showcases issues like a leaking shower, collapsing ceiling, and broken fence.

Erin, 21, is a student at Manchester Metropolitan University. She’s also created TikToks about the issues in her student flat, pointing out problems ranging from design flaws like windows that open the wrong way to more serious issues like a suspected ant infestation. She runs me through a litany of issues with the property: “we’ve had mould, problems with the heating, there was a flood coming through the ceiling, we’ve had a mouse problem, we had no hot water for a good few weeks.” She says that her landlord has been helpful when they report these issues, but adds that she suspects most of the issues are a result of the property being neglected and falling into disrepair over the years. “It’s a cheap house, so it’s easy to get students in,” she says.

Jas, 22, has also taken to social media to dissuade other students from using their letting agent in Manchester. In their most recent student home, Jas recalls finding “used contact lenses all over the floor and mouse droppings everywhere” when they moved in. “It was filthy,” they say. Their landlord failed to properly address the problem and the property soon became infested with rats as well as mice. “We had a really bad smell for a few months and we eventually realised that there had been three decomposing rats under our oven.” To make matters worse, their boiler also broke and they had no hot water for two months. Now, whenever they see someone mention their letting agent on the Manchester Students’ Group Facebook page, they comment to let them know what their experience has been like.

Disturbingly, these stories aren’t even uncommon. According to a 2021 poll by student work app Stint, 87 per cent of students have lived somewhere that could be classed as “unfit for habitation” under the Homes Act 2018 while more than 40 per cent said they had lived somewhere with mould or damp. Despite living in such terrible conditions, 20 per cent of students said they spend the entirety of their maintenance loan on rent. Dr Kate Hardy, an associate professor at the University of Leeds with an interest in housing, explains that student housing is often so grim because of the profit-driven landlords and companies which control the market. “Students will always need accommodation, so it's a market you cannot lose in,” she says.

“Student housing forms a particular market, which has massively expanded over the last 20 years. The cost of student housing has increased substantially, while its quality has not. It is increasingly privatised and landlords are driven by a profit-motive, rather than the well-being of students.” She cites an incident from 2019 where a fire ripped through a block of student flats because the building’s cheap, flammable cladding had been chosen with profits, not student safety, in mind.

Chantelle, Erin, and Jas have all suffered as a result of their poor living conditions. Jas describes the experience as “traumatic” and explains that their experience was made even more harrowing due to their disability. “They had violated the equality law by not making accommodations to make sure that the house was safe for me to live in with my disabilities,” they say. “But also, just in general, it’s not safe for anyone to live in a house with dead rats and no boiler.”

According to a new report from the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, more than one in eight privately rented homes in England pose a “serious threat” to the health and safety of tenants. Dr Hardy affirms that poor housing can have devastating consequences: “Low-quality housing, including that which is cold, damp, does not have sufficient running or hot water or central heating or which has dangerous repairs which need to be done can have a range of impacts on mental and physical health,” she says. “Living in such squalid conditions can hugely increase the possibility of depression and anxiety, it can mean that vital medications don't work if people are too cold, and it can exacerbate respiratory conditions which is even more dangerous during a pandemic.”

Tenants in England have few rights as it is, but landlords are often particularly keen to exploit student tenants who might not know how they can take action. But thankfully, there are some ways that students can fight back. “Students can join their local tenants’ unions, such as Tenants UK or Acorn, which enables tenants to get together and put pressure on landlords to improve conditions in sub-quality housing,” Dr Hardy suggests. They can also approach their university, MP, or local council for help. And if all else fails, it seems that social media can also be a powerful tool: since her tweet went viral, Nottingham City Council has been in touch with Chantelle and her accommodation provider and is investigating the issue. The writing’s on the wall: slumlords and student accommodation providers can’t get away with forcing students into subpar housing any longer.