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Students in the UK are coughing up an average of £69 per week to live in what are often tiny rooms in rented properties. This cost has been steadily increasing over the past few decades and most cities now have a student area in which houses kitted out with as many bedrooms as possible are hawked out to students often unaware of the rules and regulations that lettings agents are supposed to abide by.
Students such as Michaela Christofi, one of our colleagues and a Birmingham University graduate, have found their houses neglected regardless of the extortionate rents they hand over to their landlords. ‘When our cellar was flooded with more than a foot of water in autumn, we asked our landlord to sort it out,’ Michaela told me. ‘After his visit, he reassured us: “It’s all sorted out now.” We found out after returning from Christmas that “sorted” meant locking the door down and pretending there wasn’t a festering lake underneath the house. No attempt was made at resolving the problem at all.’ Stories like this can be heard in most universities across the country, and the problem has gone largely unchallenged.
Problems with rented properties and private landlords are not restricted to students; they extend throughout the rented property sector. Shelter reports that more than one in five families are now living in rented properties after a 72 per cent expansion in the number of privately-rented properties since 2001. Around 30 per cent of those families have experienced problems with their property or letting agents, while 72 per cent struggle with rents.
It’s clear a solution to renting property is needed by many people across the UK, not just students. We believe the problem lies not just with unscrupulous landlords or letting agents, but rather with the idea of private property rental in the first place. Landlords are in the business of owning land and property, and making their money by renting it to those who can’t afford to buy their own.
Our co-op will mean that the landlord’s profit can instead go towards improving our housing and reducing our rent. We will still pay a company, BCHS, for maintenance, repairs and help to manage our tenancies, but because of our status as members of the business that owns the property we will value our housing more and be directly in control of the rent, what gets mended and by whom.
We plan to purchase two terraced properties with five beds each. These will be co-owned by students, who will be both members directly in control of the business, Birmingham Students Housing Cooperative, and tenants of the properties. Essentially we are attempting to make housing more affordable by removing landlords from the equation – eliminating what Marx dubbed the ‘parasitic class’.
The residents will change regularly, with people moving out when their degrees are finished. Priority will be given to those who have an interest in promoting the co-operative model and are most in need of affordable housing. This will allow a large number of people to experience living in the houses and build a community over the years until eventually the mortgage is paid off. A future set of residents will then be able to make a decision to either expand the co-op or lower rents further. If the co-op were to fail, no student would be held liable for more than £1 as the business is incorporated as a company limited by guarantee.
Our plans are just a small part of a growing student co-operative movement. Discussions have been held in Edinburgh, Warwick, Sussex and Leeds, with more groups and interested students getting together across the country with the intention of creating co-ops. June 2013 saw the initial gathering of a national network, Students for Co‑operation, with the intention to set up a support mechanism for emerging co-op groups and help them get their businesses off the ground. There is a real chance that adopting the co-operative model is something that could support students at a time when rising debt and high costs are discouraging increasing numbers of students from pursuing qualifications in higher education.