Students' union letting agencies – Part of the Solution?
After two long years, the project that has dominated most of my Vice Presidency of Queen’s University Belfast Students’ Union has come to fruition – the creation of ‘SU Lets’, a student-focused ethical lettings agency, that finally opened last week.
The details of how we got here are long and gruelling. From early beginnings as an idea shared by myself and an SU staff member, it’s taken two years of persuading absolutely everyone that it could work. It took a meticulous pitch to a Dragons Den-esque NUS event to get a £15,000 grant to get us started. And then it took almost a full eight months in meetings with solicitors, hammering out a framework and running up an obscene bill.
QUBSU are by no means the first students’ union to embark on an initiative like this. But the housing situation in the barely-regulated private rented sector in Northern Ireland is so acutely appalling compared to the rest of the UK (No landlord accreditation, no landlord registration, no tenancy deposit schemes, no purpose-built private sector student accommodation, etc), that this is a major step forward.
Over the last two years, I really feel like I’m entitled to say that I’ve absolutely seen it all. I’ve seen a landlord rent a house to a student with a severe learning disability, and, upon being told that the student shouldn’t have made that decision by themselves, refused to release them from the tenancy agreement. I’ve seen students tricked into signing leases leaving them liable for not only their rent, but the regional rates bills too, having been lied to straight to their faces about a non-existent university fund that would reimburse them. I’ve seen landlords hold out on deposits from international students for no reason, knowing that their visas will run out long before a small claims action can be taken. Prevention is better than cure and now, finally, we can prevent a lot of these serious abuses from occurring.
SU Lets is one of an increasing number of students’ union lettings agencies in unions across the UK. Unions in Cardiff, De Montfort, Birmingham, Glamorgan to name but a few run similar agencies. They may differ in set-up (For legal and financial reasons, SU Lets is a partnership rather than being 100% SU-owned), but the basic premise is to provide an alternative to the existing lettings agents. Money made is reinvested back into the SU to fund campaigns and services.
With no interest in better regulating the activity of dodgy landlords from the government, this is something that we’re going to see a lot more of. Ken Livingstone has a very sensible, exciting proposal for a London-wide not-for-profit lettings agency in his manifesto, though whether he’ll ever get to implement it remains to be seen. It’s also great to see our own Adam Ramsay standing for the Greens in Oxford proposing such an idea.
Other SU lettings agencies have reported that they are able to continually drive up the standard of housing in the area year-on-year, as landlords and other agents have stiffer competition to get into the lucrative student market. We fully expect the same thing to happen in Belfast. And judging by the stream of FOI requests to the Union and University from some of the larger-scale problem landlords over the initiative (and their eagerness to rubbish the idea in the press), they’re worried, they’re scared and they’ll need to change their ways if they want to continue to have a stream of willing student tenants.
Of course, why should it just be students’ unions that run ethical lettings agencies? Shouldn’t local councils and wider interest groups begin to operate not-for-profit agencies too, to curb the worst excesses of the private rented sector?
Out of all the monstrous injustices the Tories are visiting upon the population, surely housing is very near the top of the list. Caps on housing benefit, huge waiting lists to access social housing, swathes of people being priced out of living in the cities and untold thousands suffering in the unregulated private rented sector. Most of this is embodied by smug, slimeball Housing Minister Grant Shapps, who behaves in the media parroting lines you’d very easily hear coming out of a dodgy landlord’s mouth.
However, being an unashamed believer in the power of the state to improve the lives of its citizens, relying on what are essentially market forces – as SU Lets is essentially doing – to drive social improvement is against my instincts. We need better regulation, better legislation, more social housing, more co-operative housing. We need a cap on rents, not a cap on housing benefit. And we need an active, widespread tenant’s movement. But this is just my small contribution to the solution.