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‘Where Else Are We Supposed To Go?’ – St Andrews Housing Crisis Hits Hard for Uni Students

For St Andrews students, the annual competition for housing is almost a rite of passage as central to the university experience as Raisin Weekend or May Dip. However, the mid-year frenzied cycle of housing applications, rejections, and last-ditch posts on Get a Room St Andrews is less of an honored tradition than it is an undue stress, and moreover, as the University’s growing student body continues to contend for space with local residents amid the ongoing pandemic, this year’s housing struggle may reach new heights. 

After nearly three whole semesters of remote learning, the student body returned to town last month en masse, and with a large class of freshers this year, university residences are operating at, or near, maximum capacity. Caitlyn Boyne, a warden at University Hall, reports that the University oversubscribed accommodation this year, promising housing to more students than there were beds available. “We have students sleeping in makeshift rooms in every space available including conference rooms and study spaces,” says Boyne.

Overcrowding in halls this year may also be pandemic related, Boyne posits. For most second-year students, this is their first semester on campus, and residence halls are a natural choice for those new to town. 

And yet, for a lot of second years who spent their 2020-21 term in town, halls were far from the most desirable option. COVID-19 restrictions majorly limited socialization for hall residents; students couldn’t enter each other’s rooms, and visitors from outside halls were not permitted. “It was awful,” says Oliva Little, who lived in John Burnet Hall, “it felt like the only way to get to know anyone was to break the rules, but then you risked a strike on your academic record”.

“I only know two people that stayed in halls.” Little estimates – and it wasn’t their first choice, but finding private accommodation for this year wasn’t an easy task for anyone. 

“My friends and I started looking in December,” says Little, “but we had to split up and look on our own. I got lucky and a space opened up, but that wasn’t until mid-June.”

The search for flats in St Andrews is historically competitive, but it’s becoming even more contentious due to new local housing regulations. As of April 11th 2019, Fife Council put an ordinance in place which capped the number of licenses for Homes in Multiple Occupation (HMO) issued within the St Andrews city limits. In Scotland, any residential building that houses more than three unrelated individuals requires an HMO license which allows the government to regulate the health and safety standards in let properties. St Andrews is only the third municipality in the nation to face a cap on the number of HMO licenses issued. This policy move aims to deter landlords from buying properties in St Andrews to convert into student flats in order to balance the spatial relationship between the university community and local residents.

The demand for student housing, however, seems to be outgrowing the town’s capacity and without new HMO’s, students are unable to find affordable housing within an appropriate distance to university amenities. 

Students are moving further away from town center, and not just to the so-called ‘badlands’. Both private and university accommodation is available in Leuchars, Guardbridge, and Dundee, but students that choose to live out of town must rely on public transport to reach academic and social engagements in St Andrews. 

On top of these issues, another problem is reaching the forefront of this housing crisis – HMO licenses last just three years, so many landlords in possession of licenses will have to file for renewal in the coming months for the first time since the ordinance was passed in 2019. Renewal applications are not simple or cheap, and the process can be lengthy, so some landlords may opt to close off rooms rather than submit for reapproval. Other landlords might not meet the HMO requirements and will then have to renovate in order to let to students. 

In September, Amanda Goldsmith, a fourth year Psychology student, experienced first-hand how this license renewal process impacts students. She and two friends found a flat in January, paid their deposits, and signed guarantor forms, but were unable to sign a formal lease agreement. The HMO license for the property was expiring, and renewal was required before a tenancy agreement could be confirmed. Unforeseen issues in the property deterred approval for months, and by the time Goldsmith returned to St Andrews after the summer, she still hadn’t signed a lease.

“I sort of blame myself, but the agency reassured us that we’d get our lease,” Goldsmith said, “and I thought, ‘where else are we supposed to go?’ There were no flats left.”

Eventually, the letting agency took Fife Council to court to get the HMO license approved, and after two weeks of couch surfing, Goldsmith moved into her flat in September. However, what happened to Goldsmith could happen to more students in the coming months; if landlords neglect their obligation to maintain properties and/or fail to apply for HMO license renewal, more beds in town could be lost, and more students could be required to commute.

“I get that the HMO (ordinance) is here to protect local residents,” Goldsmith says, “but it doesn’t really seem like anyone is looking after us.”

Kate Mackie

St Andrews '22

Kate is a fourth year Geography and Sustainable Development student. Originally from Chicago, Kate is a Great Lakes girl through and through, but she's taken to life by the North Sea just fine.
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