Until this year, Max Rayne House was mostly notorious for its cockroach problem, and for being a lot further away from campus than other UCL-owned residences. It’s now best known as the hub of UCL’s second rent strike in two years. Between 130-150 students in Max Rayne House have been withholding rent payments since 22 January, and if campaigners are to be believed, their numbers will increase to upwards of 500 students from a number of halls next term.
Ahead of this expected escalation, I spoke to nine rent strikers about their hopes for the strike, and how they think it’s gone so far.
In the last few weeks of term, UCL took to phoning individual rent strikers to ask them to pay rent. UCL’s spokesperson said this was entirely justified, stating that anyone refusing to pay their rent should reasonably expect that it would be followed up. Vix, who has been on rent strike at Max Rayne since 22 January, says, “I actually regret not having been called. I’d love to talk to accommodation some more and tell them what I think about what they’re doing.”
However Sam, considering withholding his rent in Ifor Evans Hall, describes this as “threatening” behaviour from a university that’s becoming increasingly known for intimidating its students. “It renders [rent strikers] vulnerable and restricts any kind of negotiation or dialogue between student and institution.”
Rent strikers also face the threat of eviction. Emails received by Max Rayne rent strikers during term two stated that, “If payment is not made in full by 14 March 2016, you will receive a 28 day notice to quit your accommodation”. No one I spoke to had received the notice to quit. Kasandra, from Max Rayne, initially found this worrying, but now knows “a notice to quit doesn’t mean I will have to leave straight away, it just allows UCL to take action, which will take them some time”. She added, “for UCL to chase everyone in court would cost them a lot more than the sum of our rent”. In any case Rohan, who will join the rent strike in Schafer House next term, sees it as “about more than just me and my room”. Average rents at UCL have risen by 56% in the last five years, and “in 5 years time if rates rise by the same amount, someone like me might not be able to come and study at UCL because of the price”.
The fact of being on rent strike, it seems, is far less controversial than it once was. Students from across the political spectrum have come together in agreement that the rent is unaffordable, and makes it difficult for students to live day-to-day. Sixty academics, eight union representatives, and six organisations signed an open letter in support of the strike. Plus, national press coverage has raised awareness of the issue across the country, and helped to instigate a rent strike over poor living conditions at Goldsmiths.
Burning an effigy of a UCL senior manager, however, is controversial even in a university where the rent strike has largely been accepted. Last term’s large-scale protest used visual spectacle to guarantee widespread media coverage, including organisers’ return to the roof of the portico, a deliberate stopping of traffic so protesters could march down the centre of Tottenham Court Road, and dousing an effigy of Rex Knight in lighter fluid before setting him alight in the centre of Euston Road.
As Sam says, “It gets their attention and certainly displays the level of indignation and discontent amongst striking students”, but was “a little unsettling” for him and for many others. Maymana, from Schafer House, says her strong gut reaction as soon as she saw the effigy being burned was that things had gone too far. “It definitely made a statement. I’m just not sure whether it was the right kind of statement. If we’d burned something that was more of a symbol of UCL, not targeted at one individual, less violent – burning one person is really distasteful to me.” Izzy agrees, but underlines that this was “a disapproved action of the few” that strikers need not dwell on in moving forward.
However, Joshua says that although he was not involved in burning the effigy, “We wanted people to talk about it, and we wanted to show this strike is fuelled by real anger”. To have achieved the national media coverage Cut The Rent needed was a positive step. Tsvetina, from Max Rayne, adds that, although too extreme for some, burning the effigy has raised awareness and could be positive for the strike. “Sometimes, if you’re not being taken seriously, you do need to take actions that are not directly connected to your demands.”
It may have put people off striking – Maymana says that while she will still be striking next term, friends who attended the protest with her are no longer interested because of the effigy – but Joshua says that, actually, the response he’s received has been overwhelmingly positive. “The reaction I’ve had was glowing support. Admittedly a lot of those people were involved in the rent strike anyway, but I think although there are people who are concerned by what they saw at the demo, there are a lot more people in support.”
UCL has publicly stated that “the campaign’s demand for a 40% rent cut cannot be accepted”. Behind closed doors, it’s thought campaigners have been saying the same, but are presenting a united front against management. Joshua states, “As a bargaining chip, I’d say definitely 40%, as a campaign we have to be together on that”. Liza, from James Lighthill House, who cannot strike, because as an international student she paid all her fees upfront, thinks 40% is an “outrageous” aim. “I backed it because it would mean that UCL would maybe pull its socks up and give us more of a cut than if we had asked for a 10% cut for example.”
UCL recently announced a 2.5% rent cut, which it has achieved by reducing the contract length from 40 to 39 weeks. The College does not claim this was designed to appease rent strikers, and indeed it hasn’t. Sam believes, “A 2.5% rent cut is ridiculously ineffective. 25% is probably the least they could do. I do think 40% is an ambitious demand but it is also quite a rational request considering the price of rent.”
Besides the 40% cut, Joshua wants UCL “to invest more in the least expensive accommodation, and investment of the money they do make into the lower band of accommodation, not into expensive halls or into a new campus”. Kasandra wants discussion to continue, and she wants everyone who signed up to the strike in February to fulfil that commitment. Vix wants “transparency on where the money goes and more help for students in bad financial situations. We don’t want poorer students to be pushed out of university.”
Izzy is optimistic that the rent strike has already made a huge difference. “The strike, the campaign, and the protests have been opening up a huge amount of discussion, both from young and old, about the increasing difficulties of education. Even if worst-case scenario we don’t win any kind of cut, at least the issue or rising maintenance costs has been brought powerfully into the limelight.”