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Hunting for a house in London: how the housing crisis affects students

News editor Violeta Fernandez Dieguez on the difficulties of finding student housing in London, and some common housing struggles. 

Living in London is fantastic. The city offers world-class museums, cuisines from all over the world and architecture that never fails to impress even in the grey backdrop. Finding a place to live in London, however, is less fantastic. Especially if you are a student.

The London housing market: short-term lettings

If you are a student fresh out of Halls, you will inevitably face the harsh London letting market. You will most likely do this through property portals such as RightMove or Zoopla, which together attracted almost 330 million visits per month on average in 2021. These websites put you in contact with the agencies that manage the properties advertised, and the rest is dealt between the agency and potential tenant (that being you).

Even though the process seems straightforward and simple, it can be a bit more than a headache. The letting market is rather opaque, as often you depend on agents to call you back (and they never do) and many properties advertised display inaccurate information or are not even available to let.

Another big factor is the lack of transparency in terms of pricing and demand for a property. When putting an offer on the house agents will often advise you to raise the price since ‘we have received so many offers already, so that won’t really do’. But you have no information regarding how many offers or what type of offers others are making, turning it into a sort of desperate blind bidding. I have viewed properties where previous tenants were not allowed to disclose the rent that they paid, further blinding you.

For international students who cannot be in London during the prime-time to seek properties (as July and August are when most properties are available to let), this process is even more distressing. Their only option is to turn to video-call viewings and put offers on houses without seeing them first, putting them at greater risk of scammers. This puts a whole new meaning to the term house-hunting.

Dire conditions for steep prices

This house-hunting is unsustainable as demand is so great in London. This not only affects the way that the properties are let out but also the properties themselves.

During both of the summers that I was looking for properties, I encountered many properties with curtain-divided living rooms or large closets with a bed squeezed in being advertised as rooms. Other encounters include council estate housing being advertised as student housing for a premium of the price. This is especially concerning when there is a shortage of affordable housing for low-income families that depend on affordable housing schemes. These should not be refurbished and put on the market at a now unaffordable price for students to use.

This is not a London-specific problem, there is a worldwide housing crisis where people cannot afford housing as house prices (for both buying and letting) are growing faster than income.

However, the London housing crisis is worse than in other UK cities as housing costs have increased at steeper rates. On top of this, there has been little home-building since the 1980’s, so supply stays fairly stagnant while demand is growing.

Disadvantaged students suffer disproportionately

Underlying social inequities map out who is the most affected by the competitive London market as having access to proper housing simply depends on whether you can afford it or not. While there is Government help in the form of student finance, it is sometimes not enough to cover the actual cost of living. According to the 2018 Save the Student survey, 44% of students struggle to keep up with rent prices and around the same proportion says keeping up with rent puts a strain on their mental health.

Many turn to parents or other family members for financial help when maintenance loans, but for others that is simply not an option. Not only that, but some older students often juggle parenthood with studies and are unable to provide proper housing conditions for their children.

Solving the problem

The government and the university we attend is responsible for the welfare of us students, which is why they should do a better job at offering affordable student housing as well as giving extra help to those students who need it.

Firstly, homelessness should be better reported, as it is now under-reported among the student population. Students who are dealing with homelessness or insecure housing do not talk about it and universities many times are not actively engaged with the issue, and this must change. Secondly, universities should be more hands-on with house-searching, as the resources they offer (a list of reliable landlords and scarce advice) are not enough.  Change, in any form, must come soon as the student housing crisis will only get worse: enrolment rates are increasing while London housing becomes more competitive.

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