A housing revolution is happening at my university: students at SOAS in London have been staging a rent strike. 150 residents at the university's halls (Dinwiddy and Paul Robeson) have withheld over £100,000 in rent after the quality of their student housing declined alarmingly over the last year.
Residents posted photos of mice in their kitchens, freshly killed cockroaches in their bathrooms. A long list of other concerns includes water outages, slow repairs, administrative negligence, poor communication, and staff bullying students. The accessible wheelchair ramp was closed off for two days, and the accessible toilet was used as a store cupboard.
To clarify, students pay £147 a week to Sanctuary Students to live there -a big block of rent, at the start of every term, taking a giant bite out of already insufficient student loans in central London where rents are sky-high.
£147 a week; over £6000 a year. For that. No wonder their demand is £800 compensation and a full apology.
I lived in Dinwiddy for a year, 2012-13; I support the strikers with all my heart. Students are especially vulnerable to mental health issues and emotional problems; they deserve to be in a safe, clean, nurturing environment.
In my family we saw moving into halls as a rite of passage: it was a way to get to know people, settle in. "You'll move away, you'll live in poverty and be cooking noodles for three years," as my dad put it, "but you'll learn what independence is like."
I stayed home the year everyone else went to university, so I was alarmed to hear from friends and family about the bad side of halls. But I kept an open mind and figured it might turn out OK.
Then I went to live at Dinwiddy.
Dinwiddy is a hideous, Panopticon-like 1960s concrete structure which is as run-down as it is ugly. Each student lives in a small cube with minimal space for storage. The bathrooms are tiny, with no shower curtain, which leads to damp and a persistent rotten smell. While I was there plaster frequently fell from the ceiling, people in neighbouring flats talked in horrified tones about finding cockroaches and bedbugs. Malfunctioning fire alarms went off at all times of day and night. We developed a collective 'Dinwiddy mentality', (nodding at each other resignedly during another 2am fire alarm; pointing out the mice when they passed by) which I imagine is similar to the elderly survivors of nuclear war in When the Wind Blows, boiling radioactive water and talking about looking on the bright side.
I knew that our flat was still much nicer than others in the building, so I felt I had no need to complain - even when management sent me a letter, aggressively threatening homelessness, when my rent was a few weeks late.
After I left Dinwiddy I went through a series of spare rooms and sofas, until ending up in a much better place. And despite all the uncertainty of short contracts, loose arrangements and house-hunting, I would not have gone back.
Whenever I considered it, I remembered the time a friend explained to me why cutlery kept going missing from our kitchen. Apparently it was because of the unlockable fire door at the far end of the flat. She said casually, "Sometimes people just walk in when no one's there and steal from the kitchen."
At its worst, student living is soul-sucking. Even the best halls can feel impersonal, but a bad hall can make you feel like absolutely no one cares: you're given a number, you're in a cube, your environment is dirty and stressful, and the staff won't protect you.
Despite living in a relatively calm, peaceful flat, my mental health problems worsened while I was living there. I compulsively worried about cleanliness, about the fact I wasn't connecting with anyone deeply, that everything was pointless. And I've spoken to many other students who went through similar experiences.
Mental health thrives when you are in a clean environment with people to talk to. When you live in impersonal, grubby surroundings, away from home, that's already a trigger for mental health issues. But in the stressful environment of a bad hall, students are even more vulnerable.
Recall that the students' current issues are mostly with staff. In corporatized student housing, all staff seem to be different kinds of security; individual staff were kind, but there was no one to mediate when there was a problem, no structured pastoral care.
I see this as a form of neglect. Young people have complex lives and staff working with young people, especially those with disabilities and mental illnesses, have a duty of care.
When you house students, you should do more than collect their rent.