As the housing crisis deepens, students at UCL in London are on rent strike. The Tories’ Housing Bill will deepen the crisis: it will allow further sales of social housing, remove secure tenancies and reduce rights for private renters. It will also replace “affordable homes for rent” with unaffordable “starter homes”. In London, the average price of a home is over £500,000! Hannah Webb, a member of UCL SU and the NUS executive reports on the action by students at UCL.
Over 150 students living in halls of residences owned by University College London are withholding rent indefinitely, demanding an immediate rent cut. Together they are withholding over £250,000, and say they will not pay until the rent is cut by 40%, after which the cheapest rooms would be affordable with a student loan. The strikers argue that the high cost of rent cuts out those whose parents cannot support them financially through their studies from attending UCL, and this is not surprising; the cost of accommodation in UCL halls, typical of student halls of residence in general, is astronomically high, with rent of (very small) rooms frequently exceeding £200/week. Since 2009 UCL has increased rent by on average 56%, yielding annual profits of 45% – £15,779,000 – a surplus they claim is necessary in order to provide more student accommodation, from which they likely aim to draw similar profits.
In October 2015 students living at Campbell House (one of UCL’s smaller halls), after seven months of protest, direct action and finally a rent strike were compensated in full for one term of rent – up to £1,368 per student, over £100,000 in total, having endured a rat infestation and demolition work with noise levels of 95 decibels (a level from which sustained exposure can result in hearing loss) beginning before 8 o’clock in the morning.
Then, in December 2015, 238 students from Hawkridge House were also finally awarded £1,200 each – equivalent to nine weeks rent – after being significantly disrupted by building works within their halls of residence, working out at £285,600 from UCL, and a combined total of nearly £400,000.
However, this compensation from rent strikes in 2015 was not won without a struggle; there had been numerous protests on campus, and UCL had threatened the strikes with blocking their graduations or throwing them off their courses (later claiming that the letters were sent out by mistake when reminded that, according to the Office of Fair Trading, such threats are probably illegal).
UCL now claim their rent compares well to private sector student halls of residence accommodation (some of which cost over £600/week), and claimed that the National Union of Students accommodation costs survey recognised UCL’s efforts in keeping a proportion of rents below £150/week; this was quickly refuted by the NUS Vice-President of Welfare, Shelly Asquith, who wrote to UCL, calling UCL ‘disingenuous’ and asserting that ‘student accommodation process should not be determined by market forces’.
UCL have responded by going on a press offensive to try to control the story, but so far have been struggling to come across as reasonable or even believable.
Unaffordable rent, poor living conditions, and lack of housing security are problems faced by more and more people, with a recent study by Shelter finding that 53% of private tenants struggle to pay rent, and the English Housing Survey finding that private tenants (without housing benefit) spend 72% of their income on rent.
The government is trying to ensure that conditions will worsen; the Housing and Planning Bill has already passed through the House of Commons which will replace secure tenancies in social housing with two to three year tenancies, making social housing tenants pay market rent when their combined income reaches £30,000 (£40,000 in London), and forcing local authorities to sell high value properties when they become empty. Following a demonstration against the housing bill that took place on 30th January, there will be a national demonstration against the housing bill on 13th March, called by the ‘Kill the Housing Bill’ campaign.