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Abertay SA’s Housing Campaign

This is the story of Abertay SA’s housing campaigns up to early 2020 from the perspective of the 2019-20 President, Owen Wright. It’s a retelling of the efforts, failures and wins of Abertay students in their work to change the conversation around housing and halls at Abertay, as well as their efforts to give students fair housing and cost of living.

Housing has been a major issue for university students across Scotland and the UK in the past couple of years. Across Scotland, including in Abertay, University Student Associations have been finding success in getting their institutions to consider the issue of rising rents and the impact it has on the cost of living as a student. Abertay University is set to decide in mid to end of February 2020 whether it will raise the rents on its Lyon Street and Meadowside halls. Thanks to pressure from Abertay SA, a rent freeze is under consideration.

If you are a student living in student halls, your rents are too high. Too high compared to the rental market around you. Too high compared to the actual quality of your accommodation. Too high compared to the cost of maintaining it. Too high for you to afford.

I remember the Student Representative Council (SRC) meeting where the motion for a “Cap the Rent” campaign was first presented. It was in October 2018, and was the first SRC of the academic year. There were many more reps present than you would see in an SRC meeting today, since the changes to SRC had not been made to reduce its size yet (those would come a year later in October 2019). The meeting, as I recall it, was quite raucous. There were a lot of people packed into the front of the main lecture theatre, there had been an issue surrounding re-iteration of the previous year’s motions not being done, and there were about five or six motions being brought to a vote. 

One of these was the motion which led to the campaign we’re going to talk about today: the “Cap the Rent” motion. Safya Devautour, the SA’s current Vice-President, and at the time clerk of Societies Council, Class Rep and committee member of the Socialist Society, presented the motion. It tasked us, the Student Leadership Team (made up the President, Vice-President and Executive Officers), with two key objectives. The first was for us to get Abertay University to make it policy that the university house its homeless students free of charge. The second, was to achieve a rent cap, or freeze, to reduce the cost of living for future students.

At the time, bear in mind, I was fresh into the position of Vice-President of the SA. I was still learning about the University’s structures, who to speak to about various issues, some of the more detailed bits of the job, ect. Despite this, I wanted to take a certain amount of the lead on this campaign. It felt like it fell into the welfare side of the Vice-President’s role, and it would help take some off the shoulders of other officers. 

And so, we set off as a team to go and achieve what SRC had (unanimously) voted for us to do. The President of the SA spoke to those who he knew would have a heavy influence on the matter: the University Principal and Vice-Principal of services. I tasked myself with speaking to the heads of university services, estates and accommodation. Very quickly, we got a good sign that we could make rapid progress on the homeless students front. After a few key appeals and conversations later, we got confirmation from the university that they already house homeless Abertay students, however that there was no stated policy. This made it as simple as asking the University for a statement saying that they would house homeless Abertay students if the circumstances were deemed suitable. The university gave us that statement in December 2018, leading to the first win of the campaign.

This is where we lead into the second part of the campaign: getting a rents cap or freeze. This required far more data gathering to prove the need for such a thing. I knew well enough back then that rents for student halls were too high. I had previously lived in them, paying about £380 per month in my first year of university. I was lucky then to have support from my family, so I could stay afloat fairly comfortably, however, my flatmates back then couldn’t always. Beyond that, I had no concept of how much rents could impact one’s studies. In essence, I knew what it was we wanted, but not the full details as to why.

When I started speaking to students and gathering data, that “why” became very clear. Many students I spoke to were telling me they felt they could not at all fully afford their student accommodation at Abertay. Furthermore, those who had moved into the private sector in Dundee were almost all telling me they didn’t feel their rents were fair when they were last in student halls, most particularly those who had lived in Parker House.

The tipping point for me was speaking to a student, who was on minimum SAAS funding, who told me they were working three zero-hours contract jobs to stay afloat living in Parker House. Parker House are run by IQ Accommodations in partnership with Abertay University, who have a set amount of places they can guarantee to their students each year. They overall have the most expensive accommodation offer, starting from around £550 per month at the time of writing this blog. Minimum SAAS funding currently stands (and stood at the time of speaking to that student) at £475 per month, or £530 per month if you do not take the “double SAAS” in September. Now, imagine these numbers for EU and international students, who don’t have access to SAAS loans or grants. If they don’t have family or friends to help them out, how many part-time jobs do they need to stay afloat?

Another tipping point was when we got back to our online surveys in 2018-19. 62% of students who responded said that at some point or another, they could not afford food or basic essentials because their rent sucked up their income. Asking the same question again in 2019-20, the number was found to be lower, at an overall of 39%. Nonetheless, this number represents currently near 200 students in their first year going hungry or without proper hygiene at one or more points of their time in halls. This to me seemed rather surreal when I first went through the numbers, but the more students I spoke to the more the idea became grounded in reality. 

In any other setting, there would be outrage on issues like this. If close to half of a small village, whose inhabitants all lived in rented property owned by landlords, were finding themselves in food poverty, there would be local outrage and demands for a change. If tomorrow, we found out that near all of the spending put into social security just end up in the pockets of wealthy housing conglomerates and landlords, there would be outrage and demands for change. The thing is, these theoretical situations are similar to ours: a large majority of the money we are given or loaned to live on as students goes back into someone else’s pockets for profits, or to fix up deficits. This leaves us poorer, and unable to afford to live decently or study to our best abilities.

Something had, and still has, to give. And we would start at the local level.

So, with this first batch of data from the 2018-19 survey, we went in to ask for a rents cap for the halls Abertay University owns. This is when we realised our first mistake: timing. While we had huge sympathy from the folk in University Estates and Accommodation for our cause, they would not be the ones calling the final shots on the matter of a rent cap. Those who would were the University’s Finance department. By the time I went to speak with them in April 2019, they had already decided to hike up the rents on Abertay’s halls by 3.2% for the year 2019-20, and they could not go back on that, and being frank, nor would they. We had failed that year.

So, this is where we come in for this academic year: 2019-20. I was elected President for 2019-20 on the promise (among others) that we would continue working on rents and accommodation as an SA. And so we did, and this time, we would not make the mistake of timing again, and we would engage all levels of University management in the idea of a rent freeze. In Semester 1 of 2019-20 we refined and re-ran our surveys and effectively tripled the amount of doors we knocked on.  The anecdotes and numbers were far more focused, but told broadly similar story to 2018-19: a vast amount of students cannot afford their accommodation, and end up poor or in worse health because of it.

In December 2019, I wrote the Principal and the estates department recommending that A: they freeze the rents in Abertay Halls for the year 2020-21 and B: they work to find more affordable third-party providers. In January of 2020, we added 3 recommendations in our campaign report, one pertaining to social spaces, another pertaining to cleanliness and hygiene, and a final one pertaining to the cost and quality of laundry services. You can read the full report here, and get a full idea of the statistics and anecdotes we’ve found.

This leads us to where we are now, at the time of writing this blog. The University have committed to taking the recommendation of a rent freeze into account. The decision will be made in mid to late February 2019. The University have also committed to taking our other recommendations into account for their 2020-25 operational plan, which they will start work on in the spring of 2020.

So is this over? Have we won? No. Abertay students, still need to make their voice heard on the issue of rents, until the day the university accept the recommendations we’ve put to them. A roof over one’s head is a basic human right, and not something anyone should seek to make a profit, or plug a deficit from. I think it’s vital for us students to make that clear, as well as bring a human argument of student poverty to the table. 

Beyond this, there’s a lot of work still to do. At a local level, Abertay may raise their rents beyond 2021, and may choose to shift their accommodation strategy. We also need to tackle issues in the private sector in Dundee, such as dodgy landlords and agencies, which affect students beyond their first year in Abertay. On a national level, the law surrounding student accommodation needs to change to give students the same rights as tenants, as well as fair rents. A conversation probably also needs to be started on student halls owned and run by students, rather than massive for-profit companies. These are challenges to face up to, but ones I believe we can face together and win in time.

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