Whether you’re at home with mum and dad, out in halls, or in a rented flat of your own with your mates, hopefully by now you’ve got your living situation sorted for the academic year to come. If you’re just moving into rented accommodation, congratulations! This can be one of the real turning points of your life, and when it’s good it’s great: you get to live where you want, how you want, with who you want, and unlike halls it hopefully doesn’t feel like you’re living inside a school, or worse, a prison.
But it can also be incredibly stressful. Putting aside problems like pals who seemed sound in lectures but not so much now they spend all day hanging around in your kitchen, there’s also the issue that so many flats rented to students are total rip-offs. We’re left to deal with dodgy plumbing, vermin, and creeping mould for rents that border on extortionate, while our landlords sleep safe in the knowledge that as students we’re far less likely to call them out on their bullshit.
At least we have that HMO legislation, right? Maybe not. If you’re living in a flat with two or more people you’re not related to it should have a licence as an HMO, a House in Multiple Occupation. The requirement for such properties to be licenced and regulated was introduced to Scotland in 2000 after a fire led to the deaths of two students in their Glasgow flat – a flat with no fire alarm, a blocked fire exit, and bars over the windows. The legislation is designed to stop something like that happening again by forcing landlords to keep their flats in line with fire-safety regulations or face a hefty fine.
This all sounds great on paper, but in practise this neatly segregates students (and, to an extent, other young people) from the rest of the housing market by only targeting flats of three or more people who aren’t related. For your average undergraduate – too young to have a family or a committed relationship, too poor and sociable to live alone, and too far away from their parents if they’ve moved to uni – a flat with an HMO licence can seem like the only option in a way it won’t for people outside this demographic.
This means that a landlord letting an HMO flat in a student-heavy area like the west end or the city centre can be pretty sure that their tenants are going to be students, and therefore easily exploited. Being new to life in the wider world, students often don’t know the law and their own rights – what we’re entitled to from our landlords, and what options we have if we don’t get it. A recent report by Ombudsman Services found Scottish students to be the most ripped-off in the UK after London, with only a quarter of students who were entitled to a refund from a company such as a letting agency actually filing a complaint. Of that, one in four said they didn’t for fear of intimidation. Landlords who know they have a student flat know they can push their luck.
Also relevant is the sheer demand for student housing, which the current HMO system only exacerbates. Demand for student flats in some areas is so high that between March and May it’s not uncommon to see upwards of fifty people queued up on a residential street for a flat viewing. By limiting the pool of available flats further by drawing distinction between those for students and those for families, HMO legislation drives up the price of rent and lets landlords get away with worse when letting to students. We put up with their crap because if we don’t they’ll just find someone who does – and we have to live somewhere.
And that’s when landlords follow the HMO laws. It’s not rare to hear about groups of students vouching for non-existent relationships or agreeing to only put two names on the lease so that the landlord doesn’t have to pay for a licence. While this can seem like a good deal, as flats without a licence almost always seem better value for money than those with, it risks isolating you from the legal recourses you might otherwise have. Bear in mind, though, your landlord is almost certainly breaking the law more than you are. While fire safety is obviously important, there must be a way to achieve it without segregating students to a different section of the property market to everyone else.
[Neil Weaving – @weavo2k6]