Student Accommodation Crisis Deepens As First Years Scramble For Rooms

21st September 2016

Students arriving for their first year of study are facing the prospect of not being able to find accommodation in the city and are being placed in emergency hotel accommodation as far out as Lewes.

This week, we have been overwhelmed by demand from first year students who haven’t been able to get halls accommodation due to a significant lack of supply. It is estimated that in excess of 700 students starting out at Brighton University did not get halls accommodation. These students faced a battle with their peers to race to secure remaining student properties in the private sector. Most letting agents and private landlords had already let all student accommodation and only a handful of properties were available, which were rapidly secured by desperate students and parents, leaving hundreds more who presently have nowhere to live and have just a few days until their life at university is due to start.

It appears that there is now not a single student room available, either in halls or private accommodation anywhere across the city. Earlier in the month I went to a valuation of a derelict house in Moulsecoomb, that the apparent owner wanted to rent to students. Despite not owning the property, due to it currently being sold to the lady who had advised she was the landlord (but had not yet completed), a small army of students were waiting outside the house, with the viewing arranged by another letting agent. The owner did not have change of use permission to let to sharers or an HMO licence (and most importantly did not own the property yet). The property could only be described as derelict, with birds living inside the property and a serious state of disrepair throughout. Despite this, a group of students felt that despite the shocking condition and lack of any paperwork, they had no choice but to consider to taking the property. The letting agent had little care, despite me letting them know this was not at all legitimate to be let to students. Suffice to say I walked away from the property without asking the supposed owner to sign a letting agreement, but it highlighted just how desperate students are for somewhere to live and the lengths all parties are willing to go to.

Things have started to calm down now however, during our house hunting events this year, we were recieving in excess of 250 enquiries from students and parents desperately trying to find somewhere to live. The reality is, there is simply nothing left and we can do nothing to help. Each week, we were receiving over 1500 phone calls, the majority of which are enquiries for student accommodation.

Why the severe lack of supply? Well, it comes down to the simple fact that planning restrictions in the area have crippled the supply of additional accommodation for students and capped the stock, despite a growing student population. Universities have willingly enrolled thousands of new students, knowing they are likely to struggle to find a home. Landlords are keen to develop properties to create more accommodation and acquire additional stock to offer to the pressurized market, but face a simple reality that they cannot do so.

The Article 4 Direction for change of use simply means you cannot purchase a property used as a single dwelling (e.g. a family) and change it to a shared property (e.g. students) without first obtaining planning permission. In the five wards it affects, there are barely any properties where such permission would be granted.

So we are left with a growing student population and a capped accommodation market. This can only lead to an inevitable undersupply which is now having a serious effect on the students who are innocent to the councils’ desire to stop properties being let to sharers and universities’ ambitious exponential growth plans.

It is my view that the Article 4 Direction carries a human rights issue, as in essence it dictates who can or cannot live in a house; whether you can choose to share a property with others. Whilst I don’t doubt that some shared properties can be detrimental to the local area, the vast majority are well managed and maintained, with respectful tenants. This control of who can live in what property serves to protect one type of household (e.g. a family) over another (e.g. students), which can only be active discrimination based on your occupation and whether you choose to share a property with others.

Whatever my or your individual opinion may be, it is clear that there is nothing short of a housing crisis for students and sharers. The sheer panic and desperation they are facing to find accommodation is hugely damaging and I sympathise greatly with their situation. Students are the second largest economy to our city, second to tourism, and both the council and universities need to do more to resolve the problem.

Relaxing the Article 4 Direction should be considered by the council, but only to landlords whom have a proven track record of complying with HMO licensing and providing a good standard of accommodation and perhaps commit to a landlord’s charter, outlining their responsibilities with regard to the maintenance and upkeep of the property, both internally and externally. Quality landlords should be encouraged to invest and deliver the accommodation so desperately needed.

Sui generis – the next problem. Many landlords know that if you let a property to 7 or more tenants, it is not classified as an HMO, but re-designated as ‘sui generis’, which is a latin term meaning ‘a class of its own’. To make such a change, planning permission is again required. The issue comes that if you want to build an extension or convert the loft space, taking the number of occupants to over 7, the rules for what you need to provide in terms of amenities within the property change. You can tick every box for the standards of an HMO and still fail drastically when applying if you do not comply with the planning departments own criteria, which extends well beyond the requirements of an HMO, governed by the private sector housing department. I am not sure why or how the planning department has its own criteria which directly contradicts the criteria set by HMO licensing, but it appears to serve to make it near impossible for a landlord to take their property to 7 or more occupants, even if the HMO licensing department are happy.

This has led to many landlords deciding against extending a property. Whilst some may view this as a success, it ultimately leads to continue to stifle the supply of new accommodation for sharers. If 50 properties were granted sui generis status and two additional bedrooms were added by way of a quality loft conversion, that would be a further 100 students that could be housed in the private sector.

As for the hundreds of students who now have no accommodation, I can only suggest they collaborate to have their voice heard and make the universities and council listen. Until then, the severe lack of stock will continue to drive up rents and displace students to surrounding areas.

Andrew Gunner – Sales & Lettings Manager