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An investigation by London Student into privately owned student accommodation in London has revealed the surprising parties profiting from student rent - and the extraordinary lack of affordable accommodation.
Although more than 30,000 students live in private halls in London, London Student found no privately-owned rooms with advertised rents within the NUS criteria for affordable student housing.
Instead, the focus is on luxury developments featuring gyms, cinemas, swimming pools and more, with a high price tag and profitability. In one residence London Student identified, rent reached £585 per week, or £30,420 per year, nearly three times the maximum available student finance.
London Student mapped halls in London, along with their owners and affiliated universities, to build a clearer picture of how student accommodation is changing.
Read more: A Note on Affordability
Among the groups with a stake in student halls are the People’s Bank of China, Goldman Sachs, the Government of Singapore and three pension investment funds.
The People’s Bank of China own 40% of UPP, one of the largest players in the student accommodation market with 30,000 beds across the UK.
The majority shareholders (60%) are PGGM, a Dutch pension fund administrators.
UPP enters into Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) with universities, providing the capital to build or refurbish halls on long-term leased sites. Though these halls are marketed through universities, rent paid by students then goes back to UPP.
One such example is the Garden Halls in Bloomsbury, which is offered to students through the University of London. Previous halls of residence were demolished and replaced with new halls built through PPP, despite opposition from local campaign groups.
During the planning process, Camden Mayor Jonathan Simpson said: “They are only interested in making Cartwright Gardens [the name of the previous halls] something that competes with the private student developments in the borough.”
In the academic year 2016-17, rents in the Garden Halls range from £189.39 to £258.85 per week. The majority of rooms are between £240 and £250 per week - more than £100 per week more than rent classified as affordable by the NUS. Rents at the top end of the bracket also include 14 meals per week.
A spokesperson for UPP said: “All parties involved in the Garden Halls redevelopment are acutely aware of the cost pressures faced by students, particularly those choosing to study in London and this has been reflected in the different types of accommodation available at the Garden Halls.”
UPP are not the only company with significant offshore backing.
In London a joint project between Unite Students and the Government of Singapore intends to invest in £330m of property for student accommodation.
The London Student Accommodation Venture, established in 2012, is owned 50-50 between Unite and Government of Singapore Investment Corporation Real Estate.
A report by Savills found that the largest financial contributor was the United States of America. American real estate firm Greystar own the Chapter brand of halls in London, and also have a stake in Vero Group, the UK’s third largest provider.
Savills also report that between 2014 and 2016 Russian investors funded 3,800 beds. In 2015 Pure Student Living, a set of London halls managed by CRM, was bought by three Russian billionaires with a combined wealth of more than £20bn.
The private sector is the largest supplier of student halls in the capital, responsible for 59% of beds in purpose-built student housing. At some universities including SOAS and City University, not a single residence is owned by the university, and the size of the private market continues to grow.
Large parts of the sector are controlled by a relatively small number of companies, with the largest five providers owning a combined 131,700 beds nationally.
These are Unite, UPP, Vero Group, Liberty Living and Sanctuary Students. All have significant London portfolios.
Activists are increasingly questioning whether expensive, luxury private halls are having a knock-on effect on university owned accommodation, encouraging institutions to refurbish and raise rents in their own halls.
This antagonistic effect appears to be intentional on the part of some student halls companies. Collegiate AC offer advice to universities on how they can “keep pace” with the student accommodation market, raising questions over who is setting that pace - students, universities, or private companies.
David Dahlborn, UCL Union External Accommodation Officer, thinks this is part of a wider desire to define and marketize the ‘student experience’, by telling new and prospective students what their university days should look like. Universities and halls companies, he adds, often seem to be in an “arms race” to build luxury accommodation.
He said: “They seem desperate to find any way to make us take on more debt, and they can justify higher rents by saying we’ve got the best student life, we’ve got some interactive, virtual reality swimming pool experience.
“But what we need is something we can afford without living in lifelong debt, and quality doesn’t make us ill – warm, dry, safe. That’s what people need and want.
“A place with cockroaches, broken freezers, collapsing ceilings is no good either, but the alternative is doesn’t have to be ultra-luxury. It isn’t a binary choice of un-livable and ultra-luxurious. The message is that we’ll have luxury and swimming pools, and then a few crap places for the poor people.”
Not all private accommodation is luxurious, however. Complaints London Student found about the 27 private halls companies we examined include cockroaches, burglaries, repairs left undone, unfriendly or unhelpful staff, and irregular cleaning services.
In 2015 SOAS students in Sanctuary properties went on rent strike in response to cockroach infestations in their halls.
Speaking to the Evening Standard at the time, Aurora Lyngstad, 22, said: “I killed 38 cockroaches on the first day of university. My mum freaked out.
“After seeing the cockroaches we opened the doors to the other rooms. There were dead and living cockroaches in every single room. There was also a massive infestation in the kitchen.”
Following the strike, all students were awarded between £40 and £90 and some who put in individual compensation claims received up to £360. The halls have since been improved.
Complaints left online for other companies include reports of lax security resulting in a burglary, broken showers, mice and infrequent cleaning services. London Student has not yet been able to verify all these reports.
A fuller version of the map, with more information about each company, will be published shortly.
Reporting: Emma Yeomans, Sam Taylor, Rebecca Pinnington, Tom Melville
Development: Cale Tilford