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1 November 2022

'No Place Like Home': Notes from a fourth year living in a common room

GENEVIEVE STEVENS

It’s 10:30 on a Wednesday morning and I am sitting at my kitchen table debating dropping out of university.

 

It's my fourth year, term starts in a week, and due to Edinburgh’s housing crisis, I still have nowhere to live. I have applied for over a hundred flats. Largely, I’m ignored, if I’m lucky I receive a polite rejection in the form of an automated email. I have ambitious plans to stage an occupation, to take over a university building in protest with my flatmates. It could be fun I think, imagining us on an endless sleepover, fuelled by the takeaways we are buying with the money we are saving from rent, sharing stories by candlelight in a converted lecture theatre draped with banners that declare “students need houses” in bright block capitals. Mostly though it would solve the problem at hand; it would provide us with a home. Then I think of my approaching dissertation, the fact I am already burnt out and exhausted. Oh, and there's the matter of showering. It all seems a little ambitious. 

 

Thus far, my university experience has followed the logical progression. I have had my fair share of subpar nights out, have endured a generous helping of pretentious chit-chat from philosophy majors at parties, I have even had a healthy dose of heartbreak in the obligatory uni relationship. This year has been three years in the making, and it's not that I haven't enjoyed university, don’t get me wrong, but I'm ready for it to be over, to wrap up some of the most formative years of my life and walk away with that coveted certificate and forty grand in student debt. I thought this would be an anticlimactic end to four years of chaos. How wrong I was.  

 

To understand the situation we have to go back a few months. It's June and I am enjoying a well-earned summer break. Life is a blur of sea swims, heat waves and sipping wine in the back garden. It’s fair to say, returning to the grey skies of Scotland in September is a daunting prospect. However, as I browse through Zoopla and imagine me and my mates in the high ceilinged, bay windowed flats of Leith and New Town, I know it is time to come home. 

 

Fast forward 10 weeks and the situation remains bleak. With applications to over 150 flats and a host of failed viewings, we are no closer to signing a lease than we were when we began our search in May. We have applied for five beds, four beds, three beds, and two beds. My inbox is a dizzying array of “due to the high demand of applications we have rejected your offer” and “there are no longer any viewings available for this property”. By August, I have begun calling landlords directly, begging them for any property they have on offer. When I called one Thursday in August I was told there was not a single HMO property in the whole of Edinburgh with an available viewing. I tried again a week later; the same response. After much deliberation me and my prospective flatmates decided to try our luck in Glasgow. A 45-minute train ride to lectures wasn’t exactly what I’d planned, but I could work on the train. It might even be fun, exploring a new city, and getting out of the Edinburgh bubble. I called an estate agent in Glasgow - no viewings for a single property. I broke down on the phone, sobbing into the receiver like a child. 

 

By this point I have begun a desperate social media appeal, posting on my story for any leads, advertising myself unashamedly on SpareRoom. I put a post on my Instagram story and within minutes my phone screen lights up with a shower of responses. People from across Edinburgh offering me advice on how they found a property. I am urged to write cover letters, to offer landlords increased rent, to  offer six-month payment upfront, to move in to non-HMO properties under the pretence that you are dating your flat mates More shockingly, however, are the responses from students in the same position as me. Students who tell me they too have been looking for properties for months, have received almost no viewings and are losing all hope. Some have already booked into hostels for fresher’s week, or are planning to commute from home, whilst others spend £900 a month on Airbnb’s. One girl tells me she has been spending the last two weeks staying in a large walk-in wardrobe in her friend's flat, with no natural light, until she finds a property. Another recounts how last year he and his three friends stayed in a single-bedroom property for the first half of the semester. It is clear I am not alone in the struggle.  

 

With the dreams of a five-bed now a distant memory, I began to scour the internet for one-room sublets. The application process alone is gruelling and demeaning. Think speed dating but instead of flirting you're being grilled on your energy usage. Where in the past I measured flats against my own rigorous criteria, now I found myself being thoroughly scrutinised and picked apart by prospective flatmates offering tiny, overpriced sublets. I put more time into my spare room profile than I have for any dating app. I spent countless evenings explaining my love of potted plants and wine to strangers online, hoping that by dropping in these fun, but respectful, hobbies I might somehow differentiate myself from the thirty other equally charming applicants. I was kept awake at night wondering obsessively if I’d struck the right balance between happy-go-lucky party girl and tidy, well-mannered house guest on my Facebook profile. Was that picture of me rolling a clumsy cigarette in a club bathroom sabotaging my chances of securing a flat? 

 

In late August, after yet another flurry of rejections, I decided to take a new approach. There is a housing crisis in Edinburgh,that much is clear. But why, where can it all have gone wrong? I turn my attention to the university. Edinburgh has a population of just over 500,000, making it Scotland’s largest city, second only to Glasgow. According to data from 2022, Edinburgh university students account for 49,000, just under 10% of this figure. I looked back at archive records of student population figures. Last year there was just over 45,000 students, in 2017 there was 39,000, if we go back as far as 2006 the student body has almost doubled from 24,468

 

With a steadily increasing annual student population, can the city cope with this increase in demand? The answer is evident. It clearly can't. Edinburgh University’s student intake exceeds the capacity of the city, driving up rent prices and leaving students and locals alike without homes. Constant expansion is not sustainable and is symptomatic of universities across the nation favouring economic growth over the well-being of their students and cities. And whilst the question of who is to blame remains divisive, Edinburgh University has a responsibility to find ways to combat this disaster. When I look through my inbox, why do I not find a single email from the university acknowledging the crisis at hand? Why has the university not reached out to its student body to offer support and empathy in this time of upheaval and uncertainty?

 

And so, in early September, with flat searching now becoming a full-time job, I decided to approach the university, demanding that they take accountability for housing their student body. I contact accommodation services and I’m ignored. After an angry follow-up email, the university finally makes me and my flatmates an offer. They will provide emergency accommodation in Pollock Halls until A) we find a flat or B) they find us an alternative. Having never set foot in Pollock Halls, a large first-year complex housing over 2,000 students, my reaction is lukewarm at best. But it’s a roof over our heads, close to campus and only £290 a month. It’s only when I read the contract that I realise it's not a room but rather a six-person shared dormitory. With Freshers Week just ten days away, my hands feel forced.  I click “accept contract”.  

 

Picture the scene. It’s Freshers Week and I’m in my final year. My dissertation proposal is due in just ten days. My flatmates and I pull into the Pollock car park, greeted by a group of freshers smoking outside the cafeteria. I find my way to reception and receive a small blue fob, “you are in Common Room 2,” the woman at reception smiles. When I enter the room, I can't believe my eyes. Three metal bunk beds, blue hospital-style bedding. Four small brown desks between the six of us. There are two large vending machines shoved to one side, full of snacks. “I hope we get that sh*t free,” I joke to my flatmate. We go over to see our flatmates in the boy's dormitory. The same military-style set up. 

 

 The first few days are a blur. We eat in the canteen surrounded by freshers comparing their A Level results and where they went to school. Nights are a combination of deafening music at 3 AM and the odd fresher bursting into our room asking us whether this is another common room. One intoxicated first-year stumbles in at 11 PM asking, “are you staying here because you can't afford real accommodation?”. I can't help but laugh as I usher her out of the room. By the second week, I am tired of sharing a bathroom with a corridor of first years and feel like I haven't slept properly in days. To top it off, we have just had two viewings and are rejected both times - the first because someone agreed to pay £500 extra a month and the second on the basis of a coin toss. I am emotionally low. In fact, by week 2, I am struggling to cope. I have been trying to plan my dissertation but I am overtired, overwhelmed and increasingly worried about what the future holds. I spend hours a day looking up flats but there are now virtually none on the market and the average flat price has soared to well over £700 a month. I haven't been alone for days and am struggling with the lack of privacy. I am filled with the existential dread of not knowing where I'll be in a week’s time. On day nine I awake to a deluge of Instagram messages. ‘The Tab’ has made a Tiktok of our living situation. They’ve been let into our shared dorm and grainy videos of my bed and open wardrobe are online for all to see. The coverage treats our situation like some hilarious joke, the comments section awash with cry-laughing emojis. I am mortified and angry at the blatant infringement of my privacy. 

 

On Monday I have been in pollock 11 days, and I find myself having a panic attack on the bus. I haven't had a panic attack since I was seventeen. Erin, my flatmate, walks me home from the bus stop. My chest feels tight, and I’m struggling to breathe. I think I might need an ambulance. I sit on a bench outside Pollock Halls and Erin holds me until my breathing is slowed and I am calm again. I call my mum and sob down the phone, not noticing the freshers walking past me. No one offers to help and I am glad.  

 

The next morning, my flatmates and I receive an email offering us an accommodation transfer. We have each been allocated a room in another first-year accommodation. The only catch, they are splitting us up and the rent is £650 a month. If we were on the fence at all, our decision is quickly made when the university informs us that this is not an offer but an ultimatum. Either we accept their offer or the university absolves all responsibility and we’re on our own. On Friday, two and a half weeks after arriving in Pollock, I move in to Shrubhill, a first year accommodation, 35 minutes from campus, in the neighbourhood of Leith. It has the clinical feel and smell of a Premier Inn but at least I have my own room now.

 

Now I can finally breathe again, I have time to think and reflect on the crisis at hand. I have realised that the housing crisis is not fair, it is in fact deeply discriminative, benefitting a cohort of students who are economically privileged. It favours those students who can afford to offer higher rent, upfront rental payments, the students who found houses as early as April because they could afford to rent over summer. It also does not take into account the students who face difficult family situations, who cannot delay moving back to university because they are unsafe at home. In short, the housing crisis does not affect all students equally. Whilst browsing on Facebook, I found a post from a student who was beside herself, she was facing starting term with no permanent address and appealed to the internet for help. She was greeted with a shower of unsympathetic responses that read “smart students look for housing in April or May, you left it too late.” This kind of response is deeply infuriating; not all students are in a position to pay over summer. The average Edinburgh student rental falls somewhere between £500-800 PCM and many students are dropping over 1.5k each, with no one living in the property, just to guarantee a secure home for term time. What about the students who can't afford this luxury? What about the students who rely on their student loan alone to pay their way through university? The housing crisis perpetuates the already rampant divide between economically privileged, often fee-paying, students and those who do not rely on parental handouts. This is a divide that continues to plague our university and Edinburgh’s wider community. And my research has shown me that the housing crisis is not an isolated event. Students and young people across the UK are facing astronomically high rent prices and the risk of homelessness. Glasgow university alarmingly told victims of the housing crisis to drop out if they had not found a flat by late September, making Edinburgh’s response seem almost generous. 

 

Ultimately, I feel let down by an institution that seems to continually favour capitalist greed and student recruitment over the welfare of its student body. Why are so many students feeling alone in this crisis, abandoned by the very institution they pay £9,000 a year to be a part of? If things do not change, this will no longer be just a housing crisis, but also a crisis of mental health, a crisis of education and a crisis of class. Returning to Edinburgh has pushed me to my physical and emotional limits. It is sad to say, but whilst this city is full of my favourite people, my favourite cafes, my favourite clubs, a place I could always return to, no matter what, it no longer feels like home.    

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