Are students being driven out of the West-End by ever increasing rents?

Students walking away from the west end of Glasgow

Credit: Glasgow Guardian / Rown Dayton-Oxland

Amy Shimmin
Writer

Glasgow is the ‘least affordable student city’ so is it a surprise students may be driven out of one of its most affluent areas?

It’s no secret that the West End is one of Glasgow’s in-demand areas: it benefits from the reputation of a leafy suburb while situating itself in the heart of the city. Bespoke eateries and craft beer can be found on each corner, and it – just about – clings on to its ‘independent’ vibe (save for the new Pret a Manger and Pizza Express). Its inhabitants are often referred to as West End Bankers – well, something that rhymes with such a phrase anyway. There were reported queues of disgruntled West Enders in the local Waitrose when the store changed its free coffee policy, you get the point.

Of course, studying at an institution in the West End means that most students will live there. With around 13.5% of all residences in the Hillhead council ward being composed solely of students, and over 40% of the population being aged between 16-29, the area surrounding the University has solidified itself as a student community. Rent, however, is far from student-friendly: in the Greater Glasgow Area, rent has risen by almost a quarter since 2010. A quick search online finds that rent alone in student flats is averaging £400: at Murano Street Student Village, the most popular student residence, a month’s fees come in slightly higher, at £462.28. (It is worth noting that student halls include all bills, insurance, and gym membership). Even for students receiving the highest funding available from SAAS (Student Awards Agency Scotland), bills account for over half of their outgoings.

The recent Student Living Index, carried out by Royal Bank of Scotland, took a different approach in its research: affordability is determined by average student income as well as outgoings, thus painting a more accurate image of affordability for the students in any given city. While its research paints Glasgow as the ‘least affordable student city’ – after Edinburgh and even London – students have the lowest income from all sources, which include loans, grants, employment and parental support. It suggests that Glasgow rent, averaging £433.91, is slightly lower than the UK average at £448, yet over £100 more expensive than Belfast, the cheapest city, which ranks at £324.96.

While living in the West End would prove the most obvious option for students, due to proximity and the youthful community, more and more are finding themselves forced out of the “best neighbourhood in UK and Ireland” (as determined by the Academy of Urbanism).

Chloe, a final year student, has chosen to hop across the river for her last year as a student. “I was looking for a two-bedroom flat,” she said, “but areas like Finnieston and Partick were just too expensive. Nothing there was within budget, so we moved to a place in Kinning Park.” Despite the short commute to campus, she’s happy with the move. “It feels more homely than most West End flats – we have a living room and two large bedrooms, which is difficult to find there.”

Rhi offers a similar experience to Chloe. Rhi is a fully funded PhD student, yet the nearest affordable area, for them, was Anniesland – a 45 minute walk from campus. These experiences also make one question the value for money regarding West End rent. Students seem to be breaking the bank for low-quality accommodation: is a ‘West End premium’ really worth it?

On top of high rent, many students pay additional – and illegal – fees. Under Sections 82 and 90 of the Rent (Scotland) Act 1984, costs including administration, reference and holding fees are illegal. Often, unaware students – many of whom are first-time private renters – will pay these fees without question, despite it being a further money-grabbing operation. Becca, a second year student, felt guilt-tripped into paying a £150 referencing fee when moving into her new flat. “They [the letting agent] told us that we were free to go elsewhere, but there was no guarantee it would be accepted. To me, this felt like no choice but to pay their fee if we wanted to secure the flat, despite knowing it was illegal.” A 2015 the Students’ Representative Council (SRC) mystery shop found that 13 Glasgow letting agents continued to charge such fees, which can vary from £100 to a month’s rent.

One phrase many Glasgow renters will be familiar with is HMO. HMO – or House in Multiple Occupation – compliant properties are licensed with the Council and must adhere to strict safety and welfare rules. According to Shelter Scotland, this license is necessary when three or more people, who are not from the same family, live in the same property. Given that most students live in groups of more than three, most student properties are HMO compliant. However, the discrepancy in rent between HMO and non-HMO properties is often noticeable, and is enough to tempt students into signing for non-HMO flats regardless.

One student, who wishes to remain anonymous, is currently living in such an arrangement, “We just couldn’t afford to stay in a West End HMO flat anymore,” they commented. “We’re not in relationships or related, but it’s the only way we can afford to live in walking distance to the university.” Of course, they’re well aware of the risks, too. “It’s horrible living in such an uncertain way, but we just couldn’t afford it anymore.”

It’s not necessarily doom and gloom, though. Living Rent, a campaign group with branches across Scotland, works as a “tenants’ union” to represent tenants to their landlords and fight for better living conditions through the organisation. When asked about the West End student problem, Craig Paterson responded:

“Across Scotland’s cities, students and young tenants are increasingly in a position where they have to live in overcrowded conditions in order to meet the unaffordable rent prices. We are concerned that this will become more of a problem in Glasgow’s West End as prices continue to rise. Students deserve safe and affordable housing while they study, they should be worrying about exams, not about how they’re going to manage to pay their rent!”

Furthermore, at a University level, there also appears to be institutional campaigning, too. Kate Powell, the current SRC President, and Aamer Anwar, the current University Rector, both committed to action on rent in their campaigns – while Powell was elected uncontested, Anwar won with over 50% of all votes cast in a ten-horse race. What is significant, however, about both candidates’ success is their shared promise to lobby for a “rent pressure zone” in the West End.

These zones are, for many, a welcome prospect in Scottish law, legislated through the Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Act 2016. This gives local authorities the power to apply to make an area a rent pressure zone within their council boundary – this application will then be considered within 18 weeks by the Scottish Parliament. The aim of these zones – which the SRC President and Rector wish to see implemented in the area is: to avoid rents rising by too much, to avoid these rises causing undue hardship to tenants, and to address increasing pressure to provide housing or subsidised rent (which is caused by the aforementioned rent increases). In only July of this year this legislation has been considered by Edinburgh City Council – an area with the second-highest increase in rent since 2010.

Rent, in the West End and beyond, is a problem that shows no sign of letting up. Year-on-year increases of rent despite stagnant student loans and a discriminatory minimum wage system have evidently made rent a forefront issue in student life. Of course, it’s easy to say that students ‘could just study nearer home’, but that simply deflects the issue to other renters in the area. Perhaps it’s the price we pay to study at a university in an affluent area: but what’s the roof on that price? There are positives to be taken for a better renting future. Yet, these changes, if any, will not reverse any financial and emotional stress of residents in the past. If the West End is to remain a student area, the University and Council must act to prevent repeats of these endless stories in the future.