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Does student housing have an overcrowding problem?

Some students are squeezing extra tenants into house shares in a bid to save money on expensive rent costs

When Ellie* found out that she had got into the University of Leeds, she thought she’d continue living at home. She already lived in Leeds so she wouldn’t have had a long commute to campus, and besides, student accommodation was expensive. But after her boyfriend and a mutual friend of theirs signed for a flat, they realised they were going to struggle to afford the rent – and so Ellie’s boyfriend asked her if she would move in with them, so they could split the rent three ways. “I thought, ‘why not?’,” she recalls.

Ellie explains that her boyfriend ended up in this situation after facing pressure from student letting agents when viewing rental properties. “They were hit with that ‘you need to choose somewhere now before it’s too late!’ propaganda that estate agents use on students,” she recalls. “I hate how rushed the whole situation is [when you’re a student], it makes it really hard to make a proper informed decision.”

Fearful of eviction – but unable to find alternative, affordable housing – the trio kept the situation a secret from the landlord. Eventually their other housemate invited their partner to come and live with them too, resulting in four people crammed into a poky two-bed flat. “It was really cramped,” Ellie says. “Tensions ran high a lot of the time as there was too many people’s washing, too many dirty dishes, and not enough space. Arguments between both sets of couples were really hard because there was nowhere to hide.” She adds that the “worst” part was sharing one bathroom between four people. “There was one time where three of us got a stomach bug – you can imagine how that was. Three sick people with one bathroom.”

It’s no surprise that students are turning to unorthodox measures to save money on rent when the cost of student housing is spiralling out of control. Student housing charity Unipol and the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) recently published a report looking into the cost of renting purpose-built student accommodation across ten university cities, and found that the average rent for a room now accounted for almost 100 per cent of the average student loan, leaving students to live on a pitiful 50p a week. Even in instances where, outside of London, the poorest students receive a maximum loan of £9,978, 76 per cent of this figure is still spent on rent. It’s generally accepted that affordable housing should cost no more than 35 per cent of your income.

“This was not a problem we came across very often until the last two years, and it is likely to relate to cost of living pressures” – Victoria Tolmie-Loverseed

While renting a shared house is around 30 to 40 per cent cheaper than renting purpose-built student accommodation, many students are still struggling to make ends meet. “Student housing has reached a crisis point in affordability. Rents are rising rapidly just as real-term government support has stagnated,” explains Victoria Tolmie-Loverseed, assistant chief executive at Unipol. “With rents consuming unhealthy levels of an average maintenance loan, students are being forced to take desperate measures – illegally doubling up in rooms, taking on increasing amounts of paid work or even avoiding university altogether due to costs.”

Ellie isn’t the only student who has ended up squeezing extra tenants into a houseshare in a bid to save money on rent. “Unipol has heard of several incidents of students doubling up in houses to save money, including a house for four with eight students living in it,” she adds. “This was not a problem we came across very often until the last two years, and it is likely to relate to cost of living pressures, with student incomes not growing at the same rate as their basic costs.” Failing to address the crisis, Tolmie-Loverseed says, risks undoing the progress made in improving accessibility to higher education for students from low-income backgrounds and “damaging the student experience for all”.

Sophie, a student at the University of Oxford, has also lived in an overcrowded student house, with her boyfriend and another couple squeezing into a small two-bed. “It was to save on rent, 100 per cent,” Sophie says, explaining why the group put up with living in such close quarters. “The four of us lived there for eight months,” she recalls. “The landlord didn’t know, although the estate agent definitely did – they even recommended that I get engaged to my then-boyfriend, as apparently that way it would be legal.” She says her rent cost £500 a month with bills on top, “which for Oxford is pretty good”, although she adds that she wouldn’t do it again.

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She says the situation was “OK” when it was just her, her boyfriend, and their other housemate, but became “very cramped” when their housemate’s partner moved in. “As per the contract, we only got two sets of keys, and as it was a flat in an apartment block we weren’t able to get extra ones cut,” she recalls. “This frequently turned into an issue where the others would accidentally take both sets of keys with them to work which meant I couldn’t leave until they returned.”

Overcrowding is dangerous and can seriously affect tenants’ quality of life, with adults in overcrowded homes more likely to experience psychological distress. The stress of living on top of one another certainly fanned tensions between Sophie and her boyfriend. “When I moved in I’d only been with my boyfriend for a year or so, which looking back was a massive mistake,” she says, adding that they ultimately broke up at the end of the tenancy. Similarly, living in such stressful conditions took its toll on Ellie’s relationship. “Living in such close quarters, with no private space, it was too easy to nitpick and notice behaviours we didn’t like,” she says. “It caused us to break up.”

The rental crisis is impacting millions of people across the UK, but it’s especially saddening to think that students in particular are facing impossibly high costs. Being a student has never been easy – there’s always been plenty to worry about, from grades to budgeting to relationships. Learning to cope with this stuff and getting ‘life experience’ has always been a major draw for young people contemplating going to uni, but there’s a risk that today’s students are being totally overwhelmed by anxieties about affording their rent. Who could focus on writing a good essay while living in such cramped, stress-inducing conditions? Without parental support, who could afford to even go to uni at all?

In a bid to address the student housing crisis, Tolmie-Loverseed says that Unipol and Hepi are calling for major reform of the student maintenance system to reflect real costs. “We also recommend that universities develop more affordable accommodation themselves or partner with the private sector, and that there is much greater provision of accurate information to prospective students about costs,” she says. She adds that Unipol and Hepi are also calling for the government to acknowledge the importance of treating student housing as a distinct, urgent issue. “Student housing is not just another part of the rental market,” she says. “It links directly into educational opportunity, widening participation and academic achievement.”

*Name has been changed