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The New Year heralds the start of the housing season. Freshers who have known each other for three months will now commit themselves to a further 18 months of blissful co-habitation or a stream of domestics over washing up and bills. And so it is time to ask just what is housing like in York and can YUSU actually achieve anything of note with its proposed lettings agency?
A recent survey for accomodationforstudents.com found that the average UK student rent is now £79.42, forced higher by increasing rents in the South and especially in London where even the cheapest rooms can cost more than £100. Rent in the North is cheaper, with Leeds averaging at £74 and Sheffield on £69. It will come as no surprise to most students that York is more expensive than local institutions, with an average weekly rent of £77.96 for the 476 properties listed on the Adam Bennett and Sinclair property websites, although this is still significantly cheaper than the £87 average in Kent and £90 in Bournemouth.
The availability of private sector accommodation in York, predictably, has no definitive answer. The university guidance is that there is a good supply in the city and that students should wait until February to search for a property. On the other hand, lettings agencies will try their best to tell you that there a shortage and all the good houses will go quickly. Student satisfaction for off-campus accommodation does appear to also show that the majority of this housing stock is good as well. Over 90 per cent of York's student housing was considered to be average or better, with over 70 per cent rated as good or excellent.
After last terms poorly turned out referenda the lack of debate over the issues has been criticised, with Kallum Taylor, the YUSU President, calling it "embarrassing". Therefore, with 'To Let' boards springing up across the city it is time to properly consider what YUSU can hope to achieve with its proposal to develop its own lettings agency.
The details of how the agency will work are sketchy at the minute but the hopes are it will improve quality and help keep rents low. The existence of the current University-approved housing list shows that some efforts are being made by the university to do this.
However, the limited success of this list indicates that students are not engaging with what the university already offers. In the YUSU Housing Survey of the 84.7 per cent of students who had heard of the approved list only 42.6 per cent actually used it. Even then the list often failed to meet the requirements of students, with several commenting that even through using the list their accommodation was poor quality or their landlords were inadequate.
The ability of the YUSU agency to compete with the major letting agencies in York could also be called into doubt. If the agency will expect landlords to lower rents and improve standards in order to list with them there is no incentive for them do so, and without the support of landlords the agency will fail. The YUSU report found that students chose their house because they liked the property and that the letting agent was inconsequential. If YUSU cannot offer an incentive which benefits the landlords, they will struggle to attract any properties.
All this suggests that a union-run lettings agency may have a limited impact. Housing in York is of a high quality and not overly expensive already. Taylor's hopes that the situation can be further improved appear optimistic given that currently less than half of all students interact with the help available, and even if more were willing to do so it would require the support of landlords as well. YUSU needs to ask itself if this project is really worth the money when there are a whole range of other areas where the money could be put to use.