London Student

Two strikes and you’re out: rent strike, social cleansing and living unapologetic

Strike 1

We’ve all been there. Stood in a human sandwich on a too-hot, too-crowded bus, late to a lecture because of a hellish commute. The bus inches forward for the first time in 20 minutes. The person next to you exhales in a pronounced display of exasperation; you inhale sharply and wish you hadn’t (there’s no fresh air here, just abrasive aftershaves, coffee-tinged condensed morning breath, and invisible influenza viruses. Legions of them.) Whilst you can be forgiven for being mildly vexed by TFL’s perpetually disgruntled staff, and their seemingly strange affinity for the verbs ‘planned,’ ‘strike’ and ‘action’ – in that order – it is a fact of life that revolution was never convenient for anyone.

It was with this in mind that I sat on a bus, effectively sightseeing, for three hours on the 8th of January. It is with this in mind that I sign the petition and an inner ‘hear-hear’ when checking the box that states ‘I share the demands of other students at UCL-managed accommodation, and am willing to withhold my January rent payment until the terms stated above (10% retroactive and future rent cut, transparency in Estates finances) are met.’

Strike 2

These are not unreasonable demands, nor are they requests that should be alien to UCL management. Last year, the rent strike action and efforts of Cut The Rent achieved some concessions, including accommodation bursaries that have been made available to the 2016/2017 cohort. This is a small victory; however it fails to address the very real issues of accessibility that deter prospective students from applying to university in the first place.

I come from a socio-economic demographic in which progression to top universities is statistically low, but academic performance in secondary education is good. For me, accessibility, social mobility and social cleansing are more than lofty and evasive concepts of sociological theory – they are a hard a reality.

In late December of my second jading year at the state-funded institution responsible for delivering my secondary education (or ​miseducation​, as this government’s ​national curriculum​ would have it), I lost my dad to bowel cancer.

It was a tragic ​personal loss,​ as well as a major blow to the financial security of my widowed mother and her four dependent children. It is a loss whose ripple effect I have felt for the eight dog-years since, and still feel in the most mundane recesses of quotidian life. It was a loss that for a long time defeated me, a loss that taught me I was resigned to the acceptance of a disadvantaged fate in life, and that I would never be able to compete on a level playing field with my counterparts. It is a loss that meant I was socially excluded from elite universities; a loss that made my shortlist, subsequent success at interview and offer to study Human Sciences at Oxford surprising as well as bittersweet. It is the mature understanding of that loss that meant living costs were a determinant factor in which universities I could feasibly apply to – sobering my fantastical dreams of living away from home

Social cleansing – you’re out

It is a wonder then, that those dreams came true, when I received an accommodation offer via the beautiful machine that is the UCL Residences application system. In case my use of irony there was not clear, there are countless things I find extremely problematic with the accommodation allocation system. I’ll list a few:

  • Strange delineations of accommodation and choice according to preferences (e.g price range: extortionately priced or less extortionately priced)
  • Total lack of choice or prior viewing of room before consignment
  • ‘Like it or lump it’ style offers to take up difficult and inflexible lease contracts that make it exceptionally difficult to change to lower cost properties without incurring extra costs
  • Nonetheless, I was encouraged to apply by people who advised that Student Finance England maintenance grants would cover the rent – though as my luck would have it after the gap year from hell I entered an academic year in which the ​maintenance grant was replaced by the maintenance loan​ (yay, more debt!). So I was blindsided when the £500 deposit was imposed with a short term deadline in summer, but with the savings from my fancy gap yah-not-year job at Waitrose and a tight loan from my mother I managed to put together the funds.

    The principles of social exclusion that made for interesting wider reading in theory became horrible life lessons in actuality.

    I digress momentarily to applaud the establishment that is Student Finance for their excellent service. Not only do my single mother’s earnings as an underfunded NHS Community Nurse somehow translate in the eyes of the entitlement admin team as billionaire with unlimited disposable income for the one of four dependents she supports, but I did not receive any of my already limited entitlement until late November (again, we have ‘admin’ to thank for that.)

    So when the hefty £3k first term invoice came around, not only was I penniless, I was powerless, forced to take out a £1,000 loan to pay an instalment of rent by the deadline. Stationery, socials, society joining-fees, coursebooks, freshers – basically everything necessary for and intrinsic to a good university experience – were all off bounds. The principles of social exclusion that made for interesting wider reading in theory became horrible life lessons in actuality. Honestly, even as an independent-thinking introvert who enjoys my solitude, there is something very sour about watching everyone else make bonds over messy overpriced nights out or ski trips or fancy balls whilst you sit in your overpriced room and question if the negative bank balance was worth it. It’s a sourness that has a way of making you feel, despite having proven your academic prowess by earning a place at a top 5 institution for tertiary education, that you don’t truly belong – and this, mes petits amis, ​is the ugly face of​ ​social cleansing.

    Though life has taught me to be resilient and unapologetically individual, it has also taught me that my existence at the intersection of many minority groups means I can’t always afford the privilege of raging against the machine. So why am I taking the risk and striking?

    While it’s often easier to get through life following rules and regulations, conforming to an oppressive regime in the name of being a law-abiding citizen, it is not without struggle that change is achieved. If you want to be heard you have to shout, and, in the words of Audre Lorde, ‘swallowing tyrannies’ in the name of silence will not protect you.

    The inconvenience we feel when there are tube strikes will always be secondary to the agenda of TfL employees fighting against the exploitative conditions of their employment. As such, if your exploitation is hindered by the combined efforts of myself, UCL Cut The Rent and #rentstrike in general to fight the conditions in which we exist, then unfortunately for you I remain unapologetic.

    Tracy tweets at @multeahyphenate. For more of her writing, visit her blog.

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    Tracy Achonwa