What do condoms, an A4-sized poster and an NHS Fife scheme have to do with the St Andrews accommodation market? Ask the two students who received threats from their landlord after taking part in a University backed scheme to distribute condoms from their rented house. Or, ask the letting agent who was forced, yet again, to deal with complaints about a poster that neither contravened lease terms nor broke the law, but in fact contributed a valuable service to students and the town. Or, ask the police officers who received a report about an “aggressive and threatening” response from a landlord who felt that cooperation in an NHS led health scheme had made his property look like a “knocking shop”.
It is a messy and perhaps uniquely St Andrean farce, yet one that highlights The Bubble’s worsening accommodation woes. Michael Hobbs and Lucy Gallard’s claims of being “bullied” and made to feel like “second class citizens” at the hands of a landlord are all too familiar. For many, landlords’ monopoly on accommodation within the town ensures that they are able to charge extortionate prices while providing the bare minimum of upkeep. In an interview with The Saint in October 2013, Graham Wynd, chairman of the St Andrews Preservation Trust said: “Many of the landlords are absent[…]they have no interest in maintaining the community of the street, and [their] motivation is to make money out of the students”.
Students’ Association president Pat Mathewson was equally excoriating in his assessment of landlords. Ahead of his election, he told The Saint in February that he planned to introduce a name and shame scheme in a bid to discredit nefarious landlords and guide students to trustworthy and honourable ones. “I think we should bring in a very vocal name and shame policy for landlords that underperform…I think we should really put the knife to their throat vocally as an organisation,” he said.
The power wielded by landlords and the problems students face were highlighted this year by an NUS report that showed that over three quarters of students have problems with their privately rented accommodation. Colum McGuire, vice president for welfare at the NUS, told reporters: “There are a significant number of students now who live in the private rental sector so it’s no longer good enough for universities to keep that arms’ length.
In September, The Saint reported that several students had fallen prey to accommodation scams that left them thousands of pounds out of pocket. A fraudster, masquerading as a landlord, conned students who were desperate for homes. A Police Scotland spokesperson spoke of students in “panic mode”, frantic to secure a home from a landlord who did not exist. “[The scams] enticed people who have been desperate because of the accommodation and housing problems in St Andrews,” the spokesperson added.
Mr Mathewson’s blistering pre-election invective that promised to “put the knife in their [landlords] throat vocally” was replaced with a greatly toned down response: “We at the Students’ Association are troubled by these attempts to take advantage of students at their most vulnerable.”
It is easy to brush aside this bizarre story about a condom poster as a farce. But, it is indicative of the malaise that afflicts St Andrews’ accommodation market. Both the University and the Union offer extensive advice and support on renting in St Andrews. However, that two students can so easily be intimidated and told their leases will not be renewed because of an NHS condom poster shows more needs to be done to tackle the problem.
While more should be done to provide students with University accommodation, greater efforts should also be made to help those who are renting.
As for students, it is important to speak up about these experiences. Mr Mathewson told The Saint that a name and shame scheme’s success lay with the fact that “us students are great at being loud.” It is time to make those voices heard.