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June 2, 2016updated 27 Mar 2023 3:43pm

Vermin, collapsing ceilings and sinks that push back: why are hundreds of London students on rent strike?

By Emma Yeomans

Maxime Duchateau was happy to pay £174 per week for his small student bedroom. He liked the block he lived in, a grade 2 listed town house in the heart of Bloomsbury owned by University College London (UCL).

He liked it, that is, until he returned from the Easter break to find the ceiling had collapsed.

After the collapse, he joined 750 more students on one of the UK’s largest rent strikes. Collectively we (yes, I am one of them) are withholding more than £1m from UCL in protest at poor conditions, high rent, and a rent-setting culture that prioritises profit over student welfare.

We’ve seen sinks overflow with waste; a second ceiling fall down; cockroaches turn up in people’s kitchens, clothes, beds, books. In some halls, students put up with rats, mice, construction noise and damp. Meanwhile UCL makes a 40 per cent surplus from rent, although it says this is reinvested into building more accommodation – presumably to keep up with its relentless expansion programme.

Ours isn’t the only strike taking place in London. Goldsmiths, Roehampton and The Courtauld Institute are all also taking direct action against rent hikes.

Since 2009 rent at UCL has gone up 56 per cent, considerably faster than inflation. The cheapest single room available now costs £135.39 per week, compared to £94.30 for the same room six years ago. Even shared rooms are not available for under £100.

But the priced charged in publicly owned halls are dwarfed by those in the rising private student accommodation sector. In 2006 private accommodation made up 18 per cent of student beds in the UK; today the figure stands at 41 per cent.

More and more privately-owned luxury blocks, such as Urbanest’s Westminster Bridge Student Accommodation, arrive every year – but they are far beyond the financial reach of most students. Prices at Westminster Bridge, where tenants can take advantage of an onsite pool, gym, cinema and deli, begin at £199 per week for a twin room. According to one listing, they go up to £850 per week for a penthouse studio.

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Universities are inadvertently helping to drive up the prices in the private sector, thinks rent strike organiser David Dahlborn. “I think it’s undeniable that high rents at public institutions have knock-on effects on the private sector,” he argues, “because they can always price themselves higher than public institutions and end up going unjustifiably high. If the public sector lowered their rent, then the private sector would have to do so too – even on their own terms they would seem less competitive.”

Is luxury living really what students want? A survey by the University of London found that only 14 per cent of students were budgeting for more than £200 per week in rent; the average private halls rent reported in the survey sits at £233 per week. NUS research has found that, among students seeking accommodation ,the primary concerns were not, shockingly, gyms and delis, but affordability and proximity to university.

Another priority for students, one imagines, is living in safe and clean rooms. After the first ceiling collapse, interim head of student accommodation Duncan Palmer said: “Although events like these do happen, fortunately, they are few and far between. UCL is committed to operating safe and secure accommodation for all our students.”

But in less than a fortnight a second ceiling had collapsed, this time at Langton Close. The student who reported it has experienced other problems, including the sink in her bedroom filling with waste water. The UCL Cut the Rent campaign says that pipes hadn’t been cleaned, and eventually had regurgitated.

Dahlborn added: “It’s a basic problem that landlords should sort out – if you run an old building, you ought to know that the pipes need clearing on a regular basis. But instead people ended up with this mess in their sinks.”

After the ceiling collapse Duchateau was moved to a new room, and has been offered a week’s rent in compensation as a “goodwill gesture”. He is satisfied with his new room and the way UCL are now handling his complaint; but of the financial offer: “I thought they were showing an incredible naivety.”

The rent strikers have found unlikely allies in their fight. Last year, the Competitions and Markets Authority stepped in after UCL tried to impose academic sanctions on rent striking students. Now, the college has found itself breaching CMA guidelines again, as the university refuses to act as guarantor for international students on strike.

This is one of many little victories. Students living in Campbell House West have won compensation two years running now, totalling £175,000. In 1,224 rooms, rent will be frozen or cut next year, and this sits alongside a de facto rent cut of 2.5 per cent, which comes from halls tenancies being made one week shorter. And the strike isn’t over – in fact, since those victories it has grown.

Dahlborn said: “We’ve now made them bring them down a tiny bit for next year, so arguably we could keep that downward trajectory. The strongest card we hold right now is that the strike will continue indefinitely – so when new students arrive next term they’ll know that these actions happen and they can join.”

The student rent strike movement isn’t limited to UCL. As well as the three other strikes in London, universities across the country are getting in touch with UCL Cut The Rent to seek advice on their own campaigns. With the National Union of Student promising to support student rent cuts and offering formal support to strikers, withholding payment seems like an increasingly plausible method of protest.

A placard at one rent strike demonstration read, “Rent is everyone’s problem”. Living in huge collectives, students are in a unique position to take action against rent hikes – but only for our one year in halls.

Next year we must all move to the private sector, where rent strikes are far riskier. But the campaign energy won’t stop, as new halls residents take up the fight. And should these techniques transfer to the private sector, perhaps we’ll find that students hold the keys to lower rent.

Emma Yeomans is a freelance journalist and student. She tweets at @effy_yeomans.

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