Student demand adds to shortfall in rented homes - David Alexander

A student at Strathclyde University who found himself unable to keep up with payments for his rented flat in Glasgow produced a novel way round the problem.

David Alexander is managing director of DJ Alexander

Ethan Dyer, who is studying aero-mechanical engineering, invested £1,700 in an old van-shaped taxi and managed to turn it into liveable accommodation. This is quite an achievement, even if one might wonder at the veracity of his claim that the decision had saved him, this year, “around £4,000” in rent for what had been an “awful flat”. Any flat I’ve let at £3,300 per month in Glasgow has usually been in the best part of town and come with top of the range facilities.

Most young people will not have had the skill, nor the inclination, to follow in Ethan’s footsteps and his situation might have been an extreme one but it does highlight an underlying problem with the return of conventional university education this September.

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Because of a shortage of rental accommodation some undergraduates in Edinburgh, along with those in Bristol, Exeter and York, are said to be considering deferring their studies even though their particular courses are not over-subscribed. First-year students at Glasgow University are having to rent flats outside the city although the resultant 45-minute commute about which some have complained is no more than that experienced by the thousands of wage-earners who travel daily to the city by car or public transport.

That there is a problem is undeniable and letting agents across Edinburgh and Glasgow are trying their hardest to help those affected. However it would be wrong to look upon the situation as exclusively student-related.

Yes, the “great return” to normal university life has undoubtedly led to an increase in the number of undergraduates normally seeking accommodation at this time of the year but it has combined with an upsurge in general economic activity which has boosted demand for rented properties by a substantial section of working adults below retirement age. To give you an example, in an average month my company would have around 150 flats within its portfolio classed as being temporarily “between tenants” but at the time of writing that number had been reduced to just over 30 – a clear indication of the increase in tenant take-up. Moreover this is a situation that has been turned on its head in a relatively short time, and especially in the last couple of months. This time last year over one thousand rental flats in Edinburgh alone were lying empty – and that did not include those which had been available for short-term holiday/leisure lettings.

I am hopeful this current shortage is a temporary problem caused by the financial, commercial, industrial and higher-education sectors all moving up a gear at roughly the same time and that things will eventually settle down. In the longer-term, more purpose-built student accommodation would help but the “pod living” they offer is not desired by all undergraduates; many prefer sharing a conventional flat, partly because they like it and partly because it adds to life’s experience by helping them learn budgeting and general housekeeping skills as well as “mixing” outside the university environment.

If conventional private lettings suffered badly as a result of the pandemic, the short-term tourist and “weekender” sector was simply blown out of the water, raising the prospect that some of those landlords in the latter will return to the former. Potential income from long-stay tenancies may be less than from the tourist market but wear and tear on the interiors of properties is greater, leading to additional refurbishment costs, and management is generally more complicated. Also, with local councils given powers to crack down on the number of holiday apartments in residential areas, the scope for making money from this source is likely to diminish.

The situation will also be helped if our politicians resist the temptation to further interfere in the private-rented sector, which on the whole provides a good service for those citizens who are unable or have no wish to purchase a home.

David Alexander is managing director of DJ Alexander

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