A mice infestation and a collapsed roof were among the terrible conditions witnessed by members of the University Court during a tour of sub-standard private student housing last week.
Pat Mathewson, president of the Students’ Association, led the tour in conjunction with the Students’ Association accommodation team, as part of their efforts to stir the Court into action on building more University owned accommodation.
10 Court members were escorted around student flats in various states of dilapidation. Other issues seen on the tour included sloping floors, animal droppings, damp, inadequate lighting in alleyways and “plenty of mould” according to Mr Mathewson.
10 students volunteered their flats, though the tour only encompassed four due to time constraints. However, many students who would like to have taken part were put off by the fear of their landlords finding out, perhaps resulting in the relatively small amount of participation. One student told The Saint: “We considered getting involved with it, since our house looks and feels like a recreation of the blitz right now, but we decided that we didn’t want to risk annoying our letting agents and end up stonewalled.”
Another commented, “I was too afraid of any repercussions that may have resulted from it from my landlord since I can’t afford to live anywhere else.”
As a result of the small number of flats included in the tour, Alex Ciric from the accommodation team told The Saint that they are compiling a portfolio of photos, exhibiting the damage in a number of other student flats. This will be released to Court members soon.
Catherine Stihler, rector of the University, took part in the tour. She said: “The tour illustrated the dreadful neglect afflicted on many students by private landlords. No one should live in a mice infested, damp flat where the landlord takes no responsibility. What was striking about the visit was the shockingly poor service letting agencies provide their tenants. St Andrews students deserve better.
“More action is required to put their poor practices in order before they will be forced to act when the Scottish Parliament will legislate on the private rented sector in Scotland.”
The tour was advertised by the accommodation team on Facebook and Mr Mathewson told The Saint that “students from across the University rose to support the project, volunteering their time and support or encouraging their friends to do so. And for many this was quite a bold move, risking retribution from their landlords in order to help improve the experience for fellow and future students.”
Niall Scott, senior communications officer for the University, spoke to The Saint on behalf of the Court members. He said: “The tour was very constructive and instructive – our Court members were grateful for the opportunity to visit a number of private flats in town and talk to students about the difficulties they can face holding lords and their agents to account.
“The group was particularly concerned to learn that some private agents and landlords appeared slow to respond to tenant complaints and requests, and that in some instances approaches had been ignored.”
Mr Mathewson expanded on this. “The members of court care very deeply about our University and our students,” he said. “I think appalled would be a fair characterisation of their feelings following the tour. It was a testament to our close knit community how personally they seemed to take that students were forced to deal with these practices from landlords.”
The Court were also informed that of the 13 letting agencies who handle student lettings in town, only eight have signed up to the Landlord’s Charter produced by the Students’ Association. This Charter aims to enforce good and fair practice from letting agents and landlords.
Niall Scott continued: “The University, Court members and the Students’ Association will be working together to find possible ways of making private sector landlords and agents more accountable and to empower and support students to assert their rights as private tenants.”
Annie Newman – who sits on the University Court in her role as rector’s assessor – commented: “I think it was incredibly helpful for Court members who are not students and are not living in student flats to truly understand the depths of the private letting problem in St Andrews.”
“I was disappointed but not surprised to see the state of the flats that were on the tour,” she continued. However, she thought that it was a good step in “making sure Court members are on the same page” as students on the issues surrounding private accommodation.
At the conclusion of the tour, the University’s senior governor, Ewan Brown, asked that the Students’ Association bring a plan to the next Court meeting, proposing a strategy for tackling these accommodation issues.