Thousands of designated student flats could be empty this year. Could a few regulatory changes create a win-win situation for landlords and homeless people?
More than 300,000 people are homeless in the UK, in temporary accommodation or sleeping rough on the streets. This figure is rising every year, and with an economic downturn predicted, it will continue to grow.
The Coronavirus pandemic has been a blessing in disguise for many homeless people. The UK Government ordered that all homeless people were taken off the streets and out of unsafe accommodation and put into safer shelters, such as empty hotels. Many homeless people used this as an opportunity to get their lives back on track. However, now the lockdown is ending and hotels are open for business again, they have had to leave. While the Government has ordered local councils to take care of their homeless population, there are fears that these people will just end up on the streets again.
What can be done? It’s difficult, but perhaps there is a temporary solution available, which could become permanent with a few simple regulatory changes.
Coronavirus and student flats
Because of the UK’s relatively high numbers of Coronavirus cases, as well as their home countries’ situations, many international students who would previously have relocated to the UK to study will not be coming. It’s estimated that there will be 47% fewer international students in UK universities at the start of the 2020/21 academic year, compared to last year.
There will be many knock-on effects of this drop, including an impact on student flats. In university cities, many private landlords let properties out to students. There are also purpose-built student flats, built by developers. These flats tend to be high-end and popular with international students who are often more well-off. So, they are likely to be empty this year.
This is a bad situation for landlords, who lose rental income. They also have to pay council tax on properties that are empty for too long. However, regulations state they are not allowed to rent out their flats to non-students because they are built to different standards. As a result, many developers and landlords could lose their businesses.
This situation will be a familiar one in university cities and towns across the UK. One example is Cardiff, where three companies that run purpose-built student accommodation blocks have applied for permission to rent their rooms out to non-students, temporarily. In previous years, 30% of international students come from China. But this year, they are not coming, causing a significant shortfall.
A solution to homelessness
It seems like a tailor-made solution. Homeless people need to be housed after the Coronavirus lockdown, and there are thousands of empty flats available. At least for the 2020/21 academic year, councils could move homeless people from hotels into student flats. Landlords could still collect rents from local authorities. It’s a win-win.
So what’s the problem? One issue is that building standards for purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA) properties are different from other types of property, including social housing. These blocks are often quite cheaply made, without the necessary living space that permanent residents would require. They are fine for students just staying there for a year, but not great for long term uses. It’s a reason why something has to be done now – these buildings may need to be demolished if they can’t be let out.
Another barrier is, of course, money. It will cost a significant amount to rent out these properties, on top of alteration and rehousing costs. With an economic downturn predicted, can local authorities afford this extra outlay?
Yet back in Cardiff, it is beginning to happen. Cardiff Council is applying to modify one student block into homeless accommodation for the next five years. Could this be replicated across the country?
The affordable homes option
To turn a crisis into a potential opportunity, councils could look at a more permanent alternative – affordable homes.
After making the necessary alterations to the student buildings to make them viable on a long-term basis, they could be reclassified as affordable homes. People currently without a home could live in them, paying rent to the developers or a housing association.
The advantages of this are many – including that the flats now become homes, not temporary places to stay. When you have a permanent home, you get so many benefits that most of us take for granted. Once in a permanent home, these formerly homeless people can build a new life. They can access medical services and take their children to school. They have safety and security, but perhaps most vitally, they have pride. When you’re homeless, you’re a second-class citizen. When you have a key to your own front door, things are better.
To make this happen, the Government, councils and developers must work together to identify the number of flats that could be altered and rented out permanently. Potentially, it could be a win-win situation for all concerned.
Bold strategies to end homelessness
Creating affordable homes is a crucial element in the fight for an end to homelessness. It’s not easy, but sometimes opportunities present themselves that are too good to pass up. The possible spate of empty student flats in the UK is one of those opportunities.
Many people and companies are working behind the scenes to change things, with new ideas that will make more affordable housing a reality rather than something too good to be true.
The one thing that is needed above all else to finally end rough sleeping in the UK is the will to do it. Let’s see who has that will.