The idea of a student housing co-operative has been floated a number of times before at Edinburgh University, yet each time the idea has never really taken off. So what’s changed?
For a co-operative to be a success it has to be a solution to a social problem. In the case of Edinburgh we have had a recurrent shortage of student housing, combined with rising rents and increasingly exploitative landlords. First year students in Edinburgh have spent semesters in dorm rooms and hotels whilst international students sometimes end up in hostels for months before finding an affordable room. The introduction of £9,000 fees has increased the disdain amongst students for those who aim to exploit and hold us perpetually in debt.
We decided it was time to take matters into our own hands and find a positive solution.
Economically the idea behind a student housing co-operative seems simple: remove profiteering landlords from the equation and reduce costs by putting a substantive part of the management and maintenance of a property directly into the hands of students. For us a student housing co-operative represented a brilliant solution to the problem of parting with the little cash we have for substandard accommodation and very limited control over our own living.
The first step we took was to gauge student interest through a referendum at our students’ union, EUSA, asking for support for the project. The question received the highest turnout and highest proportion of ‘yes’ votes (92%) of any EUSA referendum question to date. With the help of our University Rector and The Co-operative Educational Trust in Scotland we arranged meetings with as many parties as we thought could be interested in our project – student co-operatives, Edinburgh City Council, Scotmid and a local housing association. We even managed to corner our University Principal who fondly recounted his year spent living in a student co-operative in North America.
However, despite overwhelming support for the idea, after these initial steps we found progress to be slow moving. It was easy to lose motivation when avenues did not seem to be opening up for us. Eventually we realised we needed to form a core group interested in working hard on the project whilst still encouraging others to get involved. We started to hold regular weekly meetings and share out tasks to help ensure the idea did not stall.
We were unsure whether to aim high for a large student halls type building that could accommodate many students and help the housing shortage or try and focus on a small unit to prove that our idea was functional. We decided to explore funding options and keep an open mind and aim to have something at least going by the start of the next academic year.
We have found the main worry of potential funders or supporters to be the continuity of the housing co-operative with an ever-changing student population.
Recently we’ve had a breakthrough and are engaging in talks over a hundred-plus bed property which has previously been used as student halls. If this works out we may be able to run it as a management co-operative with the view of potentially purchasing the building or saving money for another property in future.
This means renting it from the owners and running it as a co-operative, but not owning a building for now. This would also help us to show supporters that students are able to manage and run our own accommodation and hopefully attract more financial support in the future. This exciting breakthrough has also had the benefit of re-engaging people and getting them excited again about the project.
Even if the bid for this property doesn’t work out, we have used it to show people a glimpse of the future and through this have increased the number of people working in our core group and getting enthusiastic about the student housing co-operative idea.
Or go straight to STEP TWO: the people