Exploitative landlords often rent out uninhabitable properties to university students who are unaware of their rights as tenants
Siobhan*, 21, is a student at Lancaster University. Like many other students across the UK, she’s had firsthand experience with shoddy housing. As temperatures sank earlier this month, Siobhan and her housemates felt the full effect of the poor insulation in their student home. “We’ve asked our estate agent to help with insulation because our house is very old and very big – it’s a five bedroom HMO, so it gets cold very quickly. It can’t retain heat at all,” she explains. But their estate agent was of little help. “They basically said it wasn’t their problem. Even something like heavy curtains would have been appreciated, but they said no.”
This isn’t just a matter of ‘putting an extra jumper on’ and ‘dealing with it’ – poor insulation can in turn exacerbate other common housing issues, such as damp and mould, and consequently these issues can cause health problems – both physical and mental – for tenants. “We have had damp and mould on the ground floor too,” Siobhan says, explaining that she suspects the cold weather plus groundwater flooding in their basement has caused the issue. “But our landlord told us to ‘treat it like an outdoor space’.” She adds that she and her housemates are essentially being gaslit about the situation by their landlord. “He said that our house was perfectly dry, even though it quite clearly isn’t.”
These are issues which can affect anyone living in substandard housing, granted, but as anyone who has lived in a student house can attest, tenants living in privately rented student housing are disproportionately likely to experience poor quality housing. The very term ‘student housing’ conjures up images of mouldy walls, biohazardous bathrooms, and, of course, mismatched furniture sourced from IKEA back in 2004 (including, invariably, a sad black pleather sofa).
There’s more than just anecdotal evidence too: a 2020 YouGov poll found that just 32 per cent of student tenants described their housing as ‘good quality’. Additionally, a 2022 survey from Save the Student found that nearly one in three students had experienced a lack of water or heating in their student house, while over a quarter lived in a house with damp. Perhaps most shockingly, according to 2021 research, an overwhelming 83 per cent of students have lived in accommodation that could be considered ‘unfit for habitation’ under the Homes Act.
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Every winter, cold weather lays bare the reality of living in poor quality student housing: on social media, student tenants have revealed a whole shopping list of issues and health hazards that have been exacerbated by the recent cold snap: dehumidifiers frozen solid, being forced to sleep in four layers of clothing just to stay warm, thermostats reading just six degrees (FYI, 19 degrees is the minimum recommended temperature for humans). New research published this year found that 33 per cent of students say their accommodation is poorly insulated or draughty, while 39 per cent have felt “uncomfortably cold” in their accommodation.
20-year-old Hull student Charlie* is, like Siobhan, part of these statistics. They’ve struggled to keep warm during the recent cold snap. “It has been an awful experience. The company who owns my house is really not very good at keeping the house warm or in good condition,” they say, explaining that their boiler has been faulty since moving in. “It was turned off for several days in early December and we were not provided with any form of heating.” (This was at a time when the Met Office issued an ‘amber alert’ for severe cold weather in Hull).
Charlie adds that as a result of their poorly-heated home, their preexisting mould problem is now getting worse. “My windows are covered in mould. I cleaned them a lot at first and I messaged the [letting agents] about it but they didn’t do anything,” they say. “Now I also have mould growing up and down my walls and behind my bed. Everything is very damp, especially the windows and walls.” They add that it’s gotten to a point where the extent of the mould issue in their room has gotten so severe that it’s now having an impact on their health.
Like Siobhan, Charlie’s attempts to get their landlord or letting agent to do anything have been fruitless. “I emailed them about the mould on a Wednesday night and then they didn’t come to look at it until the following Friday,” they say. “And the mould has already come back because all they did was wipe it off.”
Homes must be fit for habitation, as per the 2019 Homes Act – so both Siobhan and Charlie could certainly argue that leaving them in cold, damp, and mouldy conditions constitutes a breach of the act. But do they – and other students like them – know their rights inside and out? Anny Cullum, policy and research officer at ACORN, is doubtful. “Younger people are new to renting and, generally speaking, less aware of their rights, which also means they are more open to exploitative practices by landlords,” she explains.
Plus, it’s not as if students can easily up sticks if their landlord continues to violate their rights. While the issue of demand outstripping supply pervades the private rental market as a whole, Cullum points out that it’s an especially pertinent issue for student renters. “A lack of affordable housing and the nature of renting in areas with high student populations means that there’s often high demand for accommodation, meaning people often have to take the first property that they can get or can afford,” she says.
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Additionally, once students have signed fixed-term contracts – usually for 12 months – it’s difficult for them to wiggle out of their tenancy agreements and try to find somewhere better. “Most students can’t just walk away and rent somewhere else if conditions are bad,” Cullum says. With so many obstacles in their way, many simply resign themselves to a year of shit housing. “They might feel that they need to put up with worse conditions, or that it isn’t worth complaining,” Cullum adds. It certainly seems that student landlords rely on their tenants being both too inexperienced and too busy with university life to push back on exploitative practices. And the universities themselves often aren’t much help, either – back in October, the University of Bristol suggested that cold students simply sit in the library.
Still, students have successfully sued landlords in the past. Take Jack Simm, who sued his landlord for moving him into a flat which resembled “a construction site" back in 2021. Or the Leeds Five, who won £15,000 of their rent back after finding out their landlord was renting their property illegally. There are options, and student renters do have rights – so how exactly can they resist dodgy landlords?
“The best thing we can suggest is to join ACORN,” Cullum says. “If you are in dispute with your landlord, you are more powerful if you do this alongside others. You’re more powerful again with your union at your back. We aren’t an advice or advocacy organisation, but we use collective action to help people through what we call ‘member defence.’ This could be getting a deposit back, forcing landlords to carry out repairs, or stopping an eviction.” She adds that you should also report anything particularly bad or dangerous to a local authority. “Some councils have housing teams, particularly if you are living in an area with a landlord licensing scheme, or Environmental Health teams where health and safety are at risk.”
Obviously, it’s difficult enough to juggle coursework for three modules, exams, Freshers’ flu, trying to make friends, a passionate-but-doomed situationship with some guy off your course, and learning how to cook pasta, do laundry, and generally Be An Adult – without the added stress of holding your landlord to account. But this is precisely what dodgy student landlords rely on. So if you do find time, in between all the deadlines and the hangovers, get in touch with ACORN and exercise your rights. You won’t regret it.
*Names have been changed