It’s 1 pm, and I’ve just run out of my psychology lecture. I am missing a tutorial. I am an hour early, and I am confident that I am going to be the first one at this viewing. I turn around Bell Street, and there it is: a huge line. My three other flat mates join me, and we wait in line desperately, even though we know we’re not going to get the flat. As the line gets longer and longer, people start to take photos of us as if we are wild animals, I thought to myself: ‘Is this what it takes to find a flat in St Andrews?’
“Accommodation in St Andrews is such a big issue due to the structure of the town. St Andrews is one of the few towns in the UK, let alone university cities in the UK, whose urban planning is still heavily based on the original medieval structure from years ago. As a result, flats in the centre of town are part of a preservation trust, which then sets a lot of restrictions” Alec Ciric from the Student Representative Council’s Accommodation Team says. This certainly contributes to the mad rush at the end of January in which students finds themselves participants in the St Andrews version of the Hunger Games.
Nick Simon is a first year student studying geology and living in DRA. “There’s a really nice culture of flat parties and dinner parties,” he says, “and I feel that because we can’t socialize a lot in town, we get to know everyone in DRA much better. So if I don’t get any place else I’ll apply to live in DRA again.” Although he has enjoyed his time in halls, he feels that he is ready to move into private accommodation. He admits, though, that this process has been extremely stressful. He says: “It seems like it’s first come, first serve in some houses or interviews for others. There’s no single process. Earlier today I was playing frisbee, and I got a text message from a friend saying that there were new two bedroom properties going out with Stonehouse. I sprinted to Stonehouse so I could actually get my name in for the next viewing.”
Erin Madalena Phillips, a first year biology and maths student, agrees. “The flats let by estate agents are released in lists like concert tickets, and it’s a mad dash,” she says. “You can phone up half an hour later and find them all booked up for viewings. Not ideal when you have lectures and other university commitments to be focusing on too. I know people who have had to miss a whole morning of lectures just to go to a viewing, all in the fear that they might end up homeless next year if they don’t.”
That letting agents do not have a standardized application system seem to bother many students. However, an employee from a local agency who requested anonymity says that this time of year is equally stressful for agents. He explains: “The January/February period is the busiest and most stressful time in the letting agency calendar entailing a colossal amount of work. We have to write out to all our landlords asking if they wish to re-let their properties, we have to write out to students asking if they wish to stay on, assess the property for next year’s rental level, we have to arrange advertising for all available properties, arrange viewings, receive and organize applications and references, vet references, check and scan IDs, contact guarantors, prepare leases, arrange for tenants to sign leases and prepare landlord references for our tenants who are seeking new accommodation.”
Most students wonder about how agencies choose which groups to offer their properties. Sometimes it is simply who submits the application first. The agency employee says: “Most student applications are extremely similar. If they are moving into second year they are very likely to have your standard landlord reference from the warden at the halls of residence. How do you differentiate between one student and another on paper? You simply can’t. So, don’t take it personally when your application is unsuccessful.”
But there are ways to make your application stand out. He mentions an application submitted this year in which the students had created a mini brochure with short biographies of each member. And he admits: “Sometimes someone might be successful just because they strike the letting agent as nice, batting their eyes or a showing huge award-winning smile. I know of one local letting agency that tries to differentiate applications by drawing a happy or sad face on the front page dependent upon the attitude of the student while in the letting office.”
With so much confusion about how the vetting process actually works, one cannot help but wonder: is this system fair? Local letting agency Lawson & Thompson believes their application process is fairer than average. In order to address common student frustrations, they have tried to make their application process as transparent as possible. On their website, multiple photos of every room in each of their available properties are available for browsing. The also provide an HD movie clip of the space, an extensive description and a Google Maps street-view image. During individual viewings, which last for 10 to 15 minutes, agents chat with tenants to help them decide whether the property is right for them.
According to Nick the most stressful period has passed now that people have decided with whom to live next year. Thompson advises students to pick their flat mates, decide exactly what they are looking for, how many bedrooms they want and what their budget is well in advance. He adds: “Choose wisely when properties are advertised. Do not waste time viewing a property that is not appropriate for you: you may miss your chance with another.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge when it comes to the accommodation situation in St Andrews is that it is hard to place blame. Neither students nor agents are particularly in control. Our agency source says: “In my eyes, full responsibility ultimately lies with the University and their greed to take in more and more students without reflecting beyond the pound signs in their eyes, upon the wider consequences for housing in the town.” Nick believes that the University should “sit down all the letting agents and get them to come up with an organized system about when they are going to release their lists so everyone is on the same page and you don’t have underhand tactics.”
Alec says: “The Student Accommodation services offer practical advice from a student’s perspective, manage several accommodation events (e.g. Flatmate Speed Dating) and work with Naomi Allen, the Union’s Accommodation Advocate, who knows the ins and outs of the laws that landlords and letting agencies are supposed to follow.”
After all this talk, I am still concerned about finding a flat for next year. However, it is important to remind ourselves that while the housing situation in town is a problem, it is not an impossible one. So far I have not seen anyone camping in front of the library or squatting in the quad. At the end of the day, everyone finds a home.