Edinburgh’s housing crisis: a student’s view

POSTED ON September 22, 2022 BY Kvitka Perehinets

The development of student housing as such can be considered as a solution to some problems. But it cannot be left unrecognised that the escalation of student housing is also disrupting the availability of affordable housing – drawn to international students willing to pay heftier fees, developers work under the incentive of higher rents and less troublesome requirements.

Edinburgh’s housing crisis: a student’s view

The city of Edinburgh has a long-standing history of being a student city – and no wonder why. With four mainstream universities calling the Scottish capital their home, the student population here makes up a whopping fifth of the total population. In 2018, Edinburgh was ranked as the best student city in the UK. In 2022, it made global rankings as “the best city in the world” to live in. But can it keep up such a reputation? 

Recent days have seen some interesting and worrying twists affecting students in this city and elsewhere. 

As the cost-of-living crisis hits Europe, students are no less unaffected than the rest. According to a joint study conducted by NUS Scotland and Unipol in 2021, average rents in Scotland have increased by 34% since pre-Covid, with the average now amounting to £6,853/year. If such a trend continues, the Union has voiced concerns it will consequently increase the numbers of students experiencing homelessness during term time – the national average already being 12%. 

Recent news stories suggest that some universities are advising students who have not found places to live that they should defer or even cancel their studies (BBC News 22/09/22 – “Glasgow students without flats told to consider quitting university”).  

For Edinburgh in particular, a city where almost every fifth resident is a student, such developments paint a worrying picture. It is no wonder, then, that applications for student housing projects show no signs of slowing down – and one could argue, why would they? The city’s student population only keeps growing, its history, people, and the prestige associated with attending some of the world’s top universities located in the Scottish capital encouraging more students to apply. 

Previously, the Cockburn’s Our Unique City manifesto dissected and analysed City Plan 2030’s advocacy for continued growth in student numbers, which it projected would contribute to an overall increase of 28% of the city’s population over the next couple of years. Coupled with high accommodation costs, demand for purpose-built student accommodation is at an all-time high. Such a conclusion is only reinforced when considering the recent findings of the Royal Bank of Scotland Student Living Index which concluded that Edinburgh is now the most expensive place in the UK for students to live in. 

At the same time, Edinburgh residents have voiced concerns over the growing numbers of student housing projects popping up all over the city. The City’s Development Management Sub-Committee recently refused planning consent (21 September 2022) to convert the former Tynecastle High School in Gorgie to Purpose-Built Student Accommodation (PBSA) by a vote of 4 for and 5 against, despite recommendation by planning officers to approve the application.  PBSA proposals at Jock’s Lodge, near Meadowbank and Eyre Place at Canonmills have been subject to local opposition. 

For local residents, the presence of students in an area is often associated with increased noise pollution, parties, and rubbish – but it’s also about more than the introduction of a new or expanded social group to an area. The development of student housing is, some fear, causing a disruption to the picture of “an Edinburgh that once was”. These concerns are understandable – Edinburgh is a famously beautiful city with an architectural heritage dating back long enough to make it feel like a time capsule. It does make one ponder, however, if parts of the concerns are fueled by a weariness towards the city’s eventual – sooner or later – need to embrace the co-existence of the old and the new within the same space. In truth, such a development shouldn’t be feared – it can be of benefit, if done tastefully and with no adverse effects on local residents. This, however, is proven difficult to achieve for several reasons.

For one, the lack of information provided by universities – such as the University of Edinburgh – on their predicted growth of student numbers creates an issue of inability to predict the demographic changes in the city and therefore hinders the city’s ability to adequately prepare for the increase of demand for housing and other services that come with population growth.  

What we have then is the following: on the one hand, an unprecedented housing crisis not seen in years – that much can be seen simply from observing the sky-high demand for any rooms or flats available on the Edinburgh market at the moment, with many interested renters reporting being turned away from a flat before they even get a chance at a viewing because the moment a property goes online, it immediately receives thousands of notes of interest. Edinburgh’s community page The Meadows Share on Facebook sees tens of posts a day with requests for rooms, potential flatmates willing to ease the search, and renting advice. Amongst returning students in search of private accommodation, in particular, panic is spreading like a wildfire – with the academic year having already started, many have found themselves at a loss of a roof over their head.

At the same time, a quick browse through letting websites like OnTheMarket.com or Zoopla demonstrates one should now expect rent prices for a 2-bedroom flat to be in the range of  £1350-2300pcm in most parts of the city. Edinburgh University-provided student accommodation, too, offers options as high as £10,823/year for single en-suite rooms, with £3,600-£4,400/year falling on the lower-end of the price range of accommodation made available within 15-minute distance of the University’s main campus. All are in short supply. Both Edinburgh residents and students are facing a housing shortage coupled with high rent requested for what little housing is available. 

The development of student housing as such can be considered as a solution to some problems. For one, it ensures students have options with regards to accommodation. It also should be noted that student housing tends to bring developments to the area that benefit everyone, including its already-present residents – improvement of public transport connection and increased access to convenience shops, cafes, pubs, etc. At the same time, it cannot be left unrecognised that the escalation of student housing is also disrupting the availability of affordable housing – drawn to international students willing to pay heftier fees, developers work under the incentive of higher rents and less troublesome requirements. Social housing providers are unable to afford land priced needed to secure opportunities for development, let alone afford the increasing costs of construction. 

This scenario forces several questions – how can the impact of high demand for STLs on long-term student housing options be mitigated? How can we ensure no student is left without a roof over their head as we head for a challenging winter? And how can we ensure that approved developments don’t damage the historic fabric of the city?

About the author: Kvitka Perehinets is a final-year student of History and Politics at the University of Edinburgh with a deep interest in cultural heritage, memory studies, and preservation. With lengthy experience working with charitable organisations and international NGOs, Kvitka hopes to direct her acquired skillset on a set of tasks that allows her to bridge her university studies and a keen interest in history with bringing about tangible change in the city. Kvitka is the Cockburn’s Heritage Support Intern.

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