The Housing Crisis in Aberystwyth

There are no Detroit-style foreclosures in Aberystwyth but it is facing its own kind of housing crisis. Student dissatisfaction is high university accommodation fails once again to meet demand and the private sector, seen by many as arrogant and static, has failed to provide a stable alternative. Horror stories of students sleeping in their cars along the sea front, people still looking for a place to live months into their degrees and living conditions fit for Channel 4’s Landlords from Hell, are common.

This is by no means a new problem. Back in 2007, the first surges in student applications to the university began, prompting the Guild to warn, year after year, that this was causing students to defer or drop out due to lack of accommodation. Dozens, sometimes hundreds of freshers would be left trawling websites, the local newspaper and the streets of Aberystwyth just days before the start of term in the hope of finding a place to live. Many end up crashing on friends’ floors and sofas, or unceremoniously being put up in hotels and guest houses by the university. The Guild reported in February this year that 770 students had been rejected from a place in university accommodation, and the University has converted around 20% of its rooms into Bunk Rooms.

Fast forward to 2011 and the issue still remains. The university recently wrote to non-UK European students only one month before the start of term to offer them deferred entry as it struggles to accommodate them. Accommodation shortages seem to be unfairly affecting overseas students; with 37 out of 46 students still without accommodation in September 2010 being from overseas, while the university’s recent offer of deferral prompted current Guild president Ben Meakin to declare that “We do not believe that EU students should be used as scapegoats for the university’s failure to plan effectively for admissions.” Furthermore, as the vice-president of the National Union of Students, Peter Mercer, said: “It is irresponsible for universities to offer places to students when there is not enough local and affordable accommodation in either university or private premises.”

The university has been aware of this issue for a long time, and every year expresses ‘surprise’ at ‘outstanding’ or ‘record’ recruitment yet doesn’t seem to plan a contingency for next year. Admittedly, this year’s increase in applications by people looking to dodge next year’s £9000 tuition gave the university short notice, but others are more pessimistic. One student claimed that “As long as the university get their money they don’t care where you live.”*

Another issue which is commonly brought up is the standard of university and private accommodation. While university accommodation is considered on the whole passable, private accommodation is often considered below average. As one student said, private accommodation is “cheap and run down and hardly cleaned sufficiently. Carpets are old and worn as is other flooring, furniture is old, second hand and not large enough to sit as many as there are living in the houses.” Another agreed, saying that “When I compare my sister’s accommodation in Lancaster to that of my house in Aberystwyth, there’s hardly any comparison. In Lancaster, it feels like a home. Where I’m living in Aberystwyth feels like a house; four walls and a bed that simply provides a convenience while I’m studying… the fittings and furniture are only just adequate.” Even more worryingly, one landlord who let for students was featured on the BBC News website for being ruled as “unfit” to manage his properties due to breaches of safety regulations.

So, why are standards so low in the private sector? If demand for housing outstrips supply this allows prices to stay high and standards to stagnate. There is no impetus to improve housing standards because the desperation of many students means they take the first property they come across, regardless of its quality. This is because of a collective fear of being left without accommodation come September and the speed with which empty properties disappear from the market. A self-fulfilling cycle. After all, with more students looking than there is available housing, the landlord and lettings agent know that a taker is basically guaranteed for their property. Why bother improving standards when students are literally lining up to snap up any property the minute it hits the market?

Y Bae, on the seafront

On top of this, many have noted that empty and boarded up properties are not uncommon in Aberystwyth, many of which could accommodate students with a small investment for refurbishment. However, an increase in housing availability would probably drive down rent prices and the introduction of more competition would put pressure on them to increase housing standards. However, all of this comes at a cost which local investors do not seem willing to pay.

So, what needs to be done? Many agree that the university is not doing enough, that its policy of taking on more students than it can house is flawed. Outside of expanding its own infrastructure of accommodation, the university should be more proactive. It is already too dependant on the private sector to swallow up any overflow from its own accommodation, while the private sector has shown itself unable or unwilling to improve and invest. Instead of just providing a list of ‘trusted landlords’ (which one student described as “far from it”) the university should actively seek to link up students looking for housing with respectable landlords and high quality accommodation. A not-very-radical suggestion could be a forum of university representatives, the Guild and landlords/lettings agents where the university make it their duty to secure every student a place to live. Not only that, but for the university to have a minimum standard of private housing which it will recommend to its students; instead of letting them free in the harsh wilderness that is the private housing market of Aberystwyth where a large dose of luck is involved. This will serve the dual purpose of meeting the university’s obligation to its fee-paying students while at the same time putting overdue pressure on the private sector to improve their standards.

(*All student opinion is taken from personal experience, discussions with the writer and a polling of opinion on The Courier’s Facebook page dated 12 July 2011.)