‘You be the landlord this time.’ ‘Yeah, all right then.’ I’m visiting student flats in Edinburgh and the new residents are signing their contracts. On first glance, it looks like an average beginning of the academic year, but there’s something special going on here. This 106-bed property in the heart of the city is one of only two student housing co-operatives in Britain, both opening their doors this autumn. These young people are tired of high rents and exploitative landlords, and have taken matters into their own hands.
I’m shown around the property by Mike Shaw, a serious 22-year-old who only betrays his excitement through the eagerness with which he throws open the doors to each new room. ‘The idea is that it’s participatory, everyone gets involved… it’s very much about giving members the ability to make the space,’ he tells me.
There’s certainly lots to do in the two-building property, which sits either side of a pub, looking out on the scenic Meadows. There are staircases to paint, living rooms to decorate, and two vast basement spaces to be converted into communal areas.
Shaw is a network co-ordinator for Students for Co-operation, a democratic federation of student co-ops across Britain set up last year. He was part of a group at Edinburgh University who came up with the plan to run their own accommodation, open to students from any of the city’s universities. A year and a half later, the co-op has been flooded with applicants.
Weeks ago, the first housing co-op in Britain opened in Birmingham, so they’re now the second in the country. ‘They just beat us!’ says Shaw with a grin.
How did they do it? Key to the students’ success is Edinburgh City Council, which became a ‘co-operative council’ back in 2012. In practice, this means promoting the adoption of co-operative practices in the city, focusing on the education, health, energy and housing sectors. The students found their property through the council, who put them in touch with the housing association that owns the flats. Castle Rock Edinvar were more than happy to have the students lease the place at market value, with the eventual goal of buying the property outright.
Shaw tells me the market value is several million pounds. He’s confident that this is an achievable target, with the newly established Students for Co-operation network exploring a number of funding options.
In one of the flats, I meet James Puchowski, a second-year student who moved in yesterday. ‘It was quite daunting,’ he admits, ‘I didn’t know what to expect… but honestly, in comparison to the accommodation I was in last year with the university, it’s of equal quality.’
Puchowski came up from England to study, so he’s paying tuition fees, unlike his Scottish peers. As president of the Linguistic Society, he doesn’t have time for a job outside of study, and was attracted by the co-op’s rent, which at £305 ($500) a month, including bills, is far cheaper than the average.
‘It’s a stand against the monopolies you see with student housing,’ he says. ‘People aren’t here to be consumers, they’re here to study.’
[Read more in The New Internationalist]