Passed at National Conference 2020
Currently in Northern Ireland the homeless population stands at an estimation of over 20,000 people categorised as needing immediate new housing under Housing Executive standard. This is alongside those individuals and families living in ‘housing stress’ that entails substandard conditions, overcrowding and sofa-surfing who are lost among the homeless figures. Housing Associations responsible for building social housing have for over a decade failed to meet their housing build quota whilst the private sector in Belfast and beyond has become the second most profitable area to ‘buy-to-let’ under UK jurisdiction.
Meanwhile there are over 19,000 known homes vacant across Northern Ireland. Student accommodation, whether under university management or within the private sector, is grossly unaffordable and consumes almost entirely the sum of the average student maintenance loan. The failure to build social housing has produced an increasing dependence upon the private sector to house the homeless which in-turn has seen millions of public funds annually squandered into the bank accounts of private landlords.
The increasing opportunities for short-term lets such as AirBnBs has further caused an unaffordable rise in rents as landlords pursue further profits. The profitably of the private sector has meant students, priced out of university halls, are left with no option but to rent within the private sector whereby they are positioned as cash-cows with little available rights.
That the fight for social housing is inalienable from the fight for suitable and affordable student accommodation.
The current housing system is built upon the incentive of profit, not provision, wherein landlords have been permitted to profit from an economically manufactured housing crisis. The monopolisation of housing within the ownership and management of a small collective of landlords and letting agents have facilitated a culture of neglect and corruption which has increased student poverty and ill-mental health.
This must be reversed! Housing should not be wielded as a commodity. There should be support and organise for increased social housing by demanding that councils start vesting vacant land and properties in order to bring them under public ownership and house homeless families.
Whilst students are forced to rent within a highly volatile, corrupt and unaffordable private sector, students’ unions must do their best to protect and advance the rights of student renters.
All student unions across Northern Ireland should support the promotion of tenants unions either through the establishment of their own Student Renters Group or physically and digitally support their local tenants union (eg; Belfast Housing Action). Tenants unions in the pursuit of countering illegal letting fees, deposit corruption, harassment, neglect, and unfair evictions are justified in commencing pickets, occupations, sit-ins, and rent strikes in-order to advance their goals.
Passed at National Conference 2022
What is the issue facing students?
There remains both persistent and numerous issues with students being able to access affordable and quality accommodation for students across NI. The lack of supply is especially evident with issues in the summer of 2021 where Queen’s University was over-subscribed to the point of being unlikely to provide lodging to any student within a 40-mile radius of the campus for the 2021-’22 academic year.
Through lack of supply and high demand, many students are finding accommodation options extremely difficult to fund. With private student accommodation costing on average £6,698 for a forty-week contract, and the maximum finance available to NI undergraduate students being £6,428, the average rent surpasses the entirety of the maximum student finance, leaving many locked out of accessing accommodation, or having to work alongside studies to afford basic living-costs. And while according to the same NUS report from 2021, Northern Ireland’s institution-provided student accommodation averages comparatively cheaper at £4,565 for a forty-week contract, some Ulster University accommodation prices have also increased far beyond the rates of inflation in recent years.
NUS research from 2019 found that 40% of students living in private housing were in hazardous properties. 42% lived with damp and mould growing on their walls and ceilings. 20% shared their homes with mice, rats, slugs or other pests. 16% of students reported that there were electrical hazards in their home, and a further 9% reported an issue with gas safety, despite it being illegal to rent out a property in this condition.
Why is this important to us as a movement?
The transient nature of students makes the demographic one which can be easily exploited by landlords, as short tenancy agreements result in repairs often being indefinitely deferred to the next tenants. Furthermore, as many students arrive directly from high school and are unlikely to have received any education on housing rights, there is a lack of awareness about the quality of accommodation students are entitled to.
Accommodation is a hugely important aspect of the student experience, due to its impact on one’s ability to socialise, foster positive mental health, and focus on academic goals, with each being interlinked. The World Health Organisation notes, “that various aspects of housing are associated with, and potentially may reinforce or enhance, social pathologies such as depression, isolation, anxiety, etc.”
What would the world look like if we solved it?
The democratic control over accommodation which co-operative housing models are based upon would help ensure students can most effectively have their accommodation needs met, especially regarding wellbeing, affordability, and sustainability.
Student housing co-operatives have been found to offer higher affordability and quality to current alternatives, and can address numerous issues which students face regarding accommodation.
Student Housing Co-operatives also empower students to act towards a more sustainable future through equitable housing models. The likes of Edinburgh Student Housing Co-op recently renovating their empty garage into an events hub using only recycled and sustainably-sourced materials demonstrates the capacity for environmental action which control over one’s property enables.
Additionally, the ‘Independent Commission for Co-operative and Mutual Housing’ found that co-operative housing consistently delivers long-term benefits with regards to community-building in communities impacted by a lack of trust.
Therefore, the world would have gained a step in the right direction for fairer and cheaper accommodation through founding a student housing co-op for students in Northern Ireland.
Steering note: Once a policy is passed our elected student officers use this to create a Plan for Action. The Plan for Action is what details what NUS UK does and how we win for students. Policy is about what we want to change and why. This proposal included specific actions for NUS-USI to take on this matter and therefore should not be included as part of the proposal. As a steering committee we think this is still useful information to take to the officer for planning, however, should not form part of the main proposal. We have therefore included the below 'ideas for implementation' section which does not form part of the main proposal but includes the suggested actions made by the proposer.
Ideas for implementation
1. NUS-USI to explore and research the business case around the foundation of a Student Housing Co-operative.
2. To act on the findings of the business plan.
3. To work with Student Co-op Homes, Co-operative Alternatives, Member Organisations, and any other relevant stakeholders in the design of a potential pilot project.
4. Due to the high volume of housing issues reported in the Holylands, the most appropriate campus for piloting such a scheme would be in Belfast.
5. That if the housing co-operative is decided to be progressed and found to be successful, to encourage further expansion of the project across the region.