Homeless students forced to sofa-surf amid 'accommodation crisis'

The demand for purpose build student accommodation has outstripped supply across the country.

Students are facing an accommodation crisis across Scotland with almost all purpose-build housing booked up ahead of the next academic year.

The country’s biggest cities are the facing the worst of the shortages with students on smaller campuses also feeling the effects.

Calls are being made for the Scottish Government to create a long-term solution to the year-on-year problem, which sees many suffer homelessness, masked as “sofa-surfing”, while completing their studies.

As far back as February this year, data showed that almost all purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) in Scotland’s biggest city, Glasgow, was booked up for next academic year.

The National Union of Students (NUS) Scotland say the problem is exacerbated for international students, who already spend tens of thousands of pounds to study at Scottish institutions.

The Scottish Government have been conducting a review into PBSA across the country and are expected to publish a response later this month.

Currently demand hugely outweighs supply for PBSA in Scotland’s biggest cities with rents for Glasgow and Edinburgh standing at approximately £190 and £230 per week respectively.

Ellie Gomersall, president of the NUS Scotland: “We need some long-term thinking about what we’re going to do to make sure there is a sustainable model of student housing that can meet the demand year, after year, after year.

“One in eight students approximately have experienced homelessness at some point during their studies, that statistic almost doubles [to around one in five] when we’re looking at international students, who often pay tens of thousands of pounds to come and study in Scotland.”

Ellie Gomersall, president of the NUS Scotland speaking with STV News.STV News

Rent is consistently the biggest expenditure that comes out of students’ pockets, and Ms Gomersall said expanding rent controls in the new Scottish Government Housing Bill would be a major change.

She also encouraged any student struggling with nowhere to live to ensure they seek the proper support.

She said: “The problem is that when students are homeless it often presents in the form of things like sofa-surfing and they are often not registered as homeless with the local authorities.

“That means it can be really challenging to offer them the support that they need. So I would say to any student who is in that situation to reach out to your university, your college or student association.”

She also told STV News: “This isn’t a new problem, this is something we’ve seen year, after year, after year but we have the current cost of living crisis currently making these issues more and more acute.

“We’ve got a real crisis for those just trying to find somewhere affordable and high quality to live.

“We’ve got a housing shortage where in some cases students are being asked to pay six months of rent up front just to be able to secure a property.

“Students have so few rights in purpose build student accommodation, particularly with the rent cap not applying there, so they can be charged extortionate amounts for really poor quality housing.

“We need to see increased parity between the private rented sector and student accommodation.”

‘The supply vs demand imbalance is likely to remain’

StuRents, a leading student lettings platform, has been tracking the student housing situation in Scotland.

The firm has the biggest pool of data on the UK student housing sector with independent insight demonstrating the scale of the problem of supply versus demand facing those seeking accommodation in time for their course commencing.

StuRents statistics show that, as far back as February this year, more than 90% of PBSA studios were already booked, with more than 80% clusters taken too. This is well ahead of the same period the year before.

In spring this year there were fewer than 1,900 beds in the development pipeline in Glasgow, with 1,492 beds benefiting from planning permission.

By comparison, in 2021, the Glasgow market grew by 6,800 students, meaning this pipeline is unlikely to materially improve the situation. 

Richard Ward, the head of research at StuRents, said the problem has been heightened by the rise in student numbers following the 2020 Covid lockdown.

He told STV News: “Part of the problem was no doubt related to over-recruitment during Covid, which is reflected in the sharp spike in acceptances. 

“The supply vs demand imbalance is likely to remain challenging for students especially in the biggest cities.”

‘PBSA is not the silver bullet it claims to be’

Living Rent, Scotland’s tenants’ union, who represent members in both the private and social rented sector, have called for less reliance on PBSA altogether and more focus on affordable social housing.

Secretary Aditi Jehangir told STV News: “Students don’t need purpose built student accommodation (PBSA), they need truly affordable housing. PBSA is not the silver bullet it claims to be. It is expensive, overcrowded and out of reach for many students who simply can not afford it.

“PBSA also has lower quality conditions and offers students regressive tenancy terms in comparison to the private residential sector, making it difficult for students to end or extend their tenancy.

“The lack of affordable housing is true for hundreds of thousands of people across Scotland. The answer is not to build more unaffordable, poor quality student accommodation, what communities across Scotland need is social and actually affordable housing.

“To solve this, we need this government to commit to building social housing to house the 293,000 on waiting lists. And we need rent controls to bring down rents in the private sector.”

In response to the growing calls for change, a Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Ministers are taking strong action to help students through the cost of living crisis and have confirmed an uplift of £900 to higher education student support packages for 2023/24.

“This raises the package for care experienced, estranged students and those from the lowest household incomes from £8,100 to £9,000 and represents the next step in our commitment to provide a total package of support equivalent to the living wage.

“While universities are responsible for their own operational matters, we would expect them to take the cost of living crisis into account when setting rents in their own accommodation. Our review into purpose-built student accommodation, which considered issues including supply and affordability, has now concluded and we will respond to the recommendations in autumn.”

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