Villains and Heroes: who has control over student housing?

Red and black signs with the caption "Homes for people not for profit" and "running flat out to pay your rent?"

Written by Ruthie, SEASALT founding member

“I bet that’s luxury student accommodation” I remarked to my friend as we turned a corner in Exeter and were faced with a 10 story monolithic building. There’s something in its shiny design, uniformity and complete inability to blend into the local area that makes it familiar. These developments have become so common that I can spot them from a mile off and their hotel-like websites sometimes make it feel like student housing is a ‘Price on Application’ kind of ado. As a recent graduate from Sussex, I called Brighton home for 3 years, a city with increasing numbers of these shiny, monolithic money box buildings and cheesy slogans about homes and study.  In this post I’ll explore why private student housing developments are mushrooming across the world’s cities, why we should be worried and what can be done about it. 

“Why is there more student housing being built?!” is a regular comment on Facebook groups in Brighton when a photo of a property development comes up. It is a justified comment given that nearly all the big property development sites I can think of in Brighton are for luxury student accommodation. But therein lies the start of the issues.  Luxury student accommodation comes at a price that most UK students, unless they are from wealthy backgrounds, have lots of savings or get themselves into exponential debt, can’t afford. These are smart, comfortable rooms with access to many facilities – and for some students they are perfect. But rooms or suites costing up to £315 per week are not your average student accommodation. Often targeted at international students, it’s hard not to question whether there is an element of exploitation going on. When I spoke to a North American student, she told me that a lot of her peers simply didn’t know what ‘normal’ student housing was and had signed up for accommodation before they arrived. Her peer arrived and realised she was paying nearly double the average private rented student house. Without speaking to many students living in such accommodation it’s impossible to paint a full picture of what luxury accommodation is like. But I question whether luxury accommodation is even needed to the extent it is built.  

Building site, Brighton

The reasons why they are being built is an even deeper issue that far out scales the tremendous foundations needed for such monstrosities of buildings. The rapid commodification of student housing goes hand in hand with the rapid commodification of higher education. And luxury student accommodation is BIG business. It deserves to be capitalised on the basis that the largest ever property development purchase in the UK was for student accommodation. Blackstone, a global investment firm, bought IQ student accommodation for £4.7 billion earlier this year – with blocks in Brighton as well as over 28,000 rooms across the UK. The monolithic, shiny and uniform building on London Road adorned with cheesy slogans about home and study belongs to Blackstone. Just like hundreds of other buildings in the city, housing equals profit- and profit is the sole aim of many of these investment firms. Blackstone has already hit headlines for buying up social housing across the world and even renting the housing back to former tenants for considerably higher rents before aggressively evicting them. Said to be the largest corporate landlord in the world, Blackstone is the largest private owner of low-income housing in Stockholm. And Blackstone is only the tip of the iceberg. The excellent film “Push” made by director Fredrik Gertten and Leilani Farha, former UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, investigates this increasing “financialisation” and commodification of the housing market as well as the impact of gentrification. They speak to people across the globe about why and how housing is becoming so unaffordable- to the extent that it is pushing people out of their own cities. Blackstone is a theme throughout the film, almost filling the invisible villain role in a superhero movie, except that the effects of its superpower -creating unaffordable housing- is not only visible but actively changing how we live in our cities. 

Yet, like any true villain, Blackstone doesn’t act alone and is part of a network far bigger. Whilst Blackstone and other amoral actors in the financial industry are wealth extractors, they operate in an economic and legislative environment which supports and encourages their blossoming. The network is complex. To take some further examples, the lack of social housing, right to buy, selling off of publicly owned land and assets all contribute to what is referred to as a housing crisis. Homes are chopped up into Houses of Multiple Occupancy (HMOs) and rented to students at rates far higher than when rented to local families and because for so many, and for the system, houses equal profit, students are a lucrative option. Investments are made where profit is to be made and decisions on who to rent to are driven by profit. Another aspect of the network is second homes, empty homes and Airbnb properties. As discussed in “Push”, London doesn’t have a housing shortage, the shortage lies in how many homes are affordable and used. In London alone, there are 24,677 long term empty homes and 226,000 in total across England, something which the Global Empty Homes Network (GEHN) tried to tackle in the pandemic by suggesting that empty properties become part of the UK government’s planning reforms and a way to house key workers (Big Issue, 24th August 2020). So far, this has been to no avail. The legislative environment allows for properties to lie empty, accumulating wealth and dust, whilst the number of people struggling to pay rent and becoming homeless also accumulates. When property and land are seen as vehicles of investment, sources of pensions, capital and profit, it’s easy to forget that housing is a human right. But the right to adequate housing is indeed a human right. In the post-war social democratic welfare state, housing was seen as a citizen’s right in the same way as healthcare and education. But fast forward all these decades, we see the result of deliberate decisions and policy which have led to a broken system. It begs the question whether there is in fact not a housing crisis, but a housing situation. The word crisis suggests something unfortunate occurred by itself, an almost uncontrollable beast. But what we face now is controllable. 

Join the movement for more affordable and secure housing in the city and #PUSHBACK! Visit bhclt.org.uk/pushbackbrighton/ and check out social media #PUSHBACKBRIGHTON

Property and land can be owned for the good of communities and not treated as an asset to make profit. That is exactly what Community Land Trusts up and down the country are making possible. Brighton and Hove Community Land Trust (BHCLT) have a vision of community-led housing, where ownership of land and buildings is a long-term commitment to creating affordable and sustainable places to live and work. Land and buildings belong, in perpetuity, to the community. Community-led housing initiatives across the world are tackling issues of homelessness, speculative housing prices, gentrification and more, and they are offering affordable, good quality housing for generations to come. BHCLT supports grassroots housing projects across the city which are led by members of the community themselves. The housing co-operative model, used by some of these projects, allows members to have control over their home. The building or land is owned by and for the co-operative, and members of the co-operative cannot make a profit from it. One such project supported by BHCLT is SEASALT Housing Co-operative, the first student housing co-operative in the South of England. BHCLT recognise, as we should, that students and student housing is  ingrained in our city and part of the same money factory that is housing. Luxury student housing is a symptom of a housing situation which negatively affects us all – except the few who profit greatly. SEASALT Housing Co-operative, which stands for South East Students Autonomously Living Together, plan to offer affordable, good quality, stable and sustainable housing to students for years to come. Student housing co-operatives are not for profit. They are not part of this convoluted puzzle of investment firms. BHCLT and SEASALT Housing Co-operative have been working together for 2 years and have looked to other successful student housing co-operatives for inspiration, whilst focusing on the needs, demands and specific issues faced in Brighton. BHCLT recently relaunched a share offer which will fund their first property- a property which will be leased to SEASALT. This is an ethical investment. An investment which will challenge the housing status quo. An investment that will make SEASALT a reality and in turn support the community-led housing movement in Brighton.  To find out more about the share offer, visit: ethex.org.uk/bhclt 

Ultimately, for as long as housing is seen as a source of tremendous profit and justifiable source of investment, sky high rents and expensive properties and land will continue to rule how we live. The reason I can spot such 10 story buildings from a mile off is that what they symbolise can no longer be ignored. The focus on “why is there more student housing being built?!” needs to widen and all the cogs of the housing money factory put together. In the current mainstream system, money will be invested where there is profit to be made. And legislation will protect where profit can be made. But we can change this. We can take our homes and the housing market back into the control of the people who live there. There are heroes pushing back and they need our support. 

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