I would like to propose that Durham Students' Union strongly encourages letting agents to push back their student housing release date to a date in January or February.
If we were able to push the housing release date back to January (as is done in St Andrews) rather than early November as it currently stands, students would have more time to properly consider who they would like to live with and what they would like in a house. It would also be great if estate agents made their selections of houses available to view far before this time, either online or by allowing viewings before the official release, so that people could get an impression of what types of houses are on offer in Durham and what prices are available. This would enable students to see that there are a variety of rent prices available in Durham and give them the option to select more economically friendly areas, rather than making the snap decision to live in popular student areas which charge students more for the location.
As well as having the opportunity to view houses, a delay would give more space to consider the range of landlords and estate agents on offer - as it is now, people do not consider or know the reputation of their letting agent much before signing, meaning that bad letting agents who either wrongfully extort deposits or maintain properties poorly do not face any consequences in their sales. For example, Exchange Residential were reported on our Butler Letting Agent Survey as having charged tenants over £1000 from their deposits, despite the tenants hiring a professional cleaner, but few first year students will be aware of this before signing a property, and the push to sign for a house often means the warnings go ignored.
As Liver Out Representative for Josephine Butler College for the past year (and continuing into this year) I have noticed that the main problem facing students when they are signing housing is that they are in a rush to do this as soon as Michaelmas term begins. As much as I've tried to help students with their housing search, the bottom line is that Durham has an intolerable housing climate. The rush to find housing is particularly problematic for freshers, who often sign houses with people they have barely known for a month. As well as causing people to later cancel their housing contracts, or causing people to live with people they may not necessarily have chosen if they had more time, the housing rush means students rashly sign poor quality housing, as they are concerned that houses will run out. The current housing climate puts an undue stress on students and the rush to sign for a house has impacted my well-being and friendships with people in both my first and second year. It also meant that, in my first term of first year, rather than being a time of adjustment and settling in, I was plagued in part by fears that I would have noone to live with and nowhere to live in my next year.
Letting agents play into the stressful climate through events such as 4am release breakfasts on New Elvet, which led to students staying on the street overnight in anticipation of house releases, and through telling students that 'houses are going fast, so if you want it you need to sign for it'. The collective stress of students led to properties being signed at 'record rates' last year (according to Palatinate) with JW Wood having let 127 of their 142 properties by November 15th last year (also sourced from Palatinate).
This housing stress is only going to get worse as the university expands. Last year, I was told by many people that their stress in getting a house early on was motivated in part by the addition of John Snow and Stephenson College, who were going to be joining the numbers of students looking for housing. This will only get worse with the years to come, when South College is completed, and we may find second and third year students searching for housing as early as October in order to beat others to it. We need to resolve this before it becomes even more of a problem, and encouraging letting agents to work with Durham Student's Union more effectively could be a potential solution. I believe there are benefits for letting agents as well as students if we follow this policy - letting agents will experience fewer people cancelling their housing contracts because of changes of heart or dropping out, and the carrying out of viewings could be focused across a longer time period, while adminstrative duties would take place after the later release date once students were ready to sign.
The basic premise is that I believe houses shouldn't be released for signing until January or February at the earliest. This is the typical time to sign for a house at most other UK universities and there is no reason that Durham should be any different. Letting agents and landlords should be encouraged to follow this policy, and perhaps, if they refuse to follow it, Durham Students' Union could apply the system by only giving approval to letting agents that follow the release guideline. They could also have a list of the letting agents that follow this rule for students to access, which would give students suggestions of places to look, as well as give a boost to the letting agents that look out for students' well-being.
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