Student Co-Ops: Avoiding Landlords by Letting You Be Lord of the Land

Posted by Kristina Murkett in

Ah, landlords: the rulers of the real estate world, the dictators of deposits, the tyrants of the terraces. Every graduate has their own landlord anecdote, but some can be more serious than squabbles over dodgy shower curtains and ignored emails over the broken freezer draw.

Gordon Maloney, president of NUS Scotland, warns that 'from charging illegal fees, to withholding deposits for spurious reasons, and worse, far too many tenants find themselves in an unequal and unfair position.' A quick Google results in stories ranging from landlords faking robberies in order to claim on insurance to deadly rat infestations to DIY plumbing that nearly caused a serious gas explosion.

Obviously most student landlords are not quite so suspicious, but when you're paying on average £4,834 a year in rent (£6,143 if you're in London), it's easy to see why some students are hesitant to get into bed with well, who knows what. The whole student lettings process can also lack transparency - many students are unclear about what their legal rights are, and what does or does not constitute acceptable behaviour by their landlord (a useful summary can be found here).

Across the pond they seem to have found a neat alternative in student housing co-operatives, which enables students to bypass landlords and take control of their living arrangements. Each tenant is declared a shareholder and so has an interest in building and maintaining the property as a communal space; and any decisions, however small, are made democratically. It is, in a nutshell, like a student-run hall of residence, but with more communal cooking and cleaning.

The project has been hugely successful in California, with the Berkeley Student Cooperative now housing over 1300 students in 17 houses and 3 apartment buildings. The tenants are expected to work 5 hours a week as part of their rental agreement, but this helps to keep their rent lower, ranging from about $430-$800 a month. A similar initiative is about to be launched in Edinburgh, where a 106-bed property, made up of 26 flats, is being built in Bruntsfield Links, for as little as £260 a month (!) Given that the average rent in Edinburgh rose by 5% last year, and that the city has a 37,000 strong student population, demand will undoubtedly be high.

In many ways it will be an interesting social experiment though. Does the community spirit come guaranteed? Will autonomy lead to anarchy? Will democracy get overruled by difficult housemates? Will students have that same fraternity / sorority ethos that saturates the American co-ops, or will they simply be sharing a living space, not a lifestyle? Student housing, in the traditional sense, may have its ups and downs, but it is also an incredible bonding experience. In years to come you and your friends will nostalgically reminisce over your failed cooking experiments; the times you tried to decipher your way through the enigma of your gas and water bills as if you were in The Imitation Game; the passive aggressive notes left on the fridge when someone had drunk the last of the milk. Could you miss out on these memories in a more formal set up?

A year ago, Birmingham students managed to secure £500,000 in funding from the Co-op Community and Finance, but had to stall their housing project after they were unable to find enough tenants willing to commit to the venture, proving that there are doubts over whether communal always leads to community. When you're fighting over who has to fix the latest boiler breakdown or arguing over who's in charge, who knows, you may even miss your landlord. Maybe.