Former UCLU Halls & Accommodation officer David Dahlborn argues why we should take action against increasing rent costs
Rent is now an urgent issue. For over a year, students have called on UCL management to cut rents in university accommodation. The financial statistics are clear – we can’t afford current rents, not to mention the forthcoming increases. Yet still management does nothing but rake in record profits. At the same time, it is clear that a majority of students at Max Rayne House and other halls are now prepared to withhold rent payments, if that’s what it takes to win a collective bargaining position and show management they’re serious; our right to a decent home and education shouldn’t be restricted by our income.
One of the top comments on the Cut The Rent campaign’s 1000-strong petition states:
My entire maintenance loan goes toward rent. I’d like to be able to eat during the day and on the weekends.”
This statement not only presents the stark reality faced by more and more people – it is representative of a huge amount of people in UCL halls with a combined annual maintenance loan, grant and bursary of £10,230 or less. Compared to the money most of us get for studying full time, rents are, quite literally, unaffordable. Even supposedly “cheap” rooms, such as at Max Rayne, (which make up less than a fifth of UCL beds) can be a struggle to afford once you factor in travel costs.
UCL is set to price most students out of accommodation completely. Since 2009 median rents at UCL have risen by 56 percent to £174 per week. In real terms, the cost of rent for a single room at Max Rayne has increased by almost £2,000 for the academic year. Yet, loans and maintenance grants rose by only 40, or as little as 12 percent, depending on household income. Year on year, the figures have shown, students pay UCL an ever-higher proportion of their income in rent. CPI inflation has not even been close to half of management’s rent hike, according to the Bank of England. Management projects a £15.7 million surplus this year above the running cost of halls – enough to cut rents in all UCL run accommodation by 40 percent, with cash to spare. It begs the question, when will it end?
Even the most sophisticated arguments against cutting the rent boil down to blaming the London housing market or telling students to leave halls if they can’t afford it. The theoretical assumption that it’s easy to find affordable rooms close to Bloomsbury is shaky. Average rents in Islington and Camden are well over £150 per week, and that’s not including bills. Furthermore, we need security and standards in our homes as well as affordability – not the dodgy, short-term contracts found in the Foxtons-led market. As anybody from outside London will attest, not knowing the city makes it even harder. We must not justify UCL’s unofficial admission test: our bank accounts.
It’s also time to realise that UCL’s rent hikes are part of this problem. By raising its rents, UCL allows other landlords to push up costs of living across London. But if we can reverse the trend at Max Rayne, it could present a way out of the wider housing crisis.
Students are taking the success of last year’s rent strikes as evidence that a strong collective bargaining position is possible and, indeed, necessary to salvage UCL accommodation. The maths is simple; once enough people say that they’ll withhold their rent for a certain period of time unless management begins lowering the costs, students will gain considerable leverage.
Of course, everybody would prefer the Provost to just cut the rent. But, so far, he has clearly proven that he won’t and a full-blown strike increasingly looks like the only option to get him to listen. Unsurprisingly, students are, overall, up for it; asking that all rooms be, at the very least, affordable isn’t unreasonable – one would expect housing to be a basic right that university halls should provide. And we will not tolerate more cases of somebody having to choose between eating and paying the rent, or let UCL continue excluding students based on wealth.
Featured image: Ramsay Hall, Wikimedia Commons