Redbrick interviews the Guild’s Welfare & Community Officer, Millie Gibbins, and International Officer, Joanne Park, about student housing and what you can do if things go wrong
For many students, moving away to university is their first experience of living independently. You don’t have any parents nagging you to tidy up, you can buy and cook the food you want to eat without judgement, and you can spend all day in your pyjamas – no questions asked.
However, this transition does not always go as seamlessly as you would hope. Once the excitement of Freshers’ Week wears off, you are left with the realisation that no one is going to tidy up after you, and that those wild party animals you loved living with for the first week perhaps aren’t the types of people you want to live with for the next three years.
We spoke to the Guild’s Welfare & Community Officer, Millie Gibbins, and International Officer, Joanne Park, about student housing. We discussed their own experiences, and what to do if your housing experience doesn’t quite go to plan.
What has your experience been with accommodation whilst living at university? Did you stay in halls, student houses etc? Was it a stressful experience?
Millie: I loved living in halls in first year but then I went to go live in Selly Oak, which I think a lot of people do in second year. My experience was absolutely horrific, which is why I went for this role. I was moving into a house that was being renovated, but it wasn’t renovated when we went to move in, so we got put up somewhere else. There were random builders coming in all the time. It was awful. We also had no Wi-Fi until Christmas, which was quite possibly the worst possible scenario. I’ve also had a really good experience! Last year and this year have been great. I’ve had some really great landlords and it’s been a really positive experience. I think the difference between my third year and second year is that I really rushed into it in my second year, whereas last year and this year I’ve taken a lot more time, and it is really worth doing that because you can find some really good landlords and letting agents.
Jo: I lived in student accommodation in first year. It was great to meet new people and it was an easier way to settle into university because you don’t have to stress about private renting in first year. Then in second year I went out to Selly Oak, like most others. It was really stressful because I was 18, it was November and everyone was stressing about housing and finding a new house – and I was like, I’m not ready to sign a contract! So my friends were doing most of the work. They found two good houses, so we had a viewing and we decided on one and found out it was taken, in one day! But I’m really glad that it happened because we found a better house after Christmas which had cheaper rent and was much closer to uni. So, I want to tell students – don’t rush. There could be other, better houses. Interestingly, now I live in Kings Heath which wasn’t an option I would have even imagined if my friend didn’t bring it up. It’s actually quite close to campus, so I commute on the bus which is relatively cheap.
When you come to university as a Fresher, international student, or even as a returning postgrad, it can often be daunting living in shared accommodation with people you don’t know. What advice do you have for Freshers who perhaps aren’t getting on with their flatmates, and where can they go for help?
Millie: Guild Advice are really, really great. If you’re in first year, the Student Mentor scheme is so great, they come round and do living agreements and they are students themselves so it’s perfect – they’ve been through it so they know what they’re doing. For second and third years, it’s a really good idea to go to Guild Advice – they are fab at what they do, and so are the Community Wardens. Living Services do some stuff, but I would say that Guild Advice are the best people to go to about things like that.
Jo: Communication is the key between flatmates and housemates. Different people have different ways of communicating; some people might hold things in until they can’t anymore, or some people might dismiss things. It can hurt feelings, which is not great when you’re living with others. You’ve also got to remember that no one’s your mum in the flat. Mutual respect is very important, but working out how you want to communicate with your flatmates and what you want to get out of that conversation should be the key point, rather than shooting someone down.
Millie: Yeah, for the sake of just unloading absolutely every single thing that has annoyed you, actually having an outcome from it and something that you can move on with is great. But if that doesn’t work then go to Guild Advice.
What advice would you give to international students moving to UoB? Where should they start looking at houses? Is there anywhere they can go to meet people in the same situation?
Jo: Depending on how they apply to UoB, they might not be able to secure student accommodation, which is quite a struggle for them. There are ways that they can look for houses online but they should remember that Guild Advice is always there to help them out with housing if they face any issues. If you’re coming for the first time to the UK, you might not understand how the contracts work and you don’t have any elders that you can seek advice from. I think the University Living service sometimes have some rooms available in student halls, but Guild Advice should be the first port of call for students. In terms of looking out for a community, if they live in halls, go to Hall Rep events and Student Mentor events because you’ll be able to meet people just like them. If they are living outside of halls, look for Community Warden events. They should also be coming to Global Buddies events where they can meet international people from anywhere, any background, no matter what their housing situation is like. They will also be able to ask advice from current students who have been in their shoes before!
With that in mind, it’s usually in this term that the rush for housing begins. What advice do you have for first-time renters, what should they be looking out for when looking around houses and different letting agents?
Millie: In week four, we are having a housing week. The Student Mentors and I have worked really hard on a booklet where you have a checklist of all the information you need to know. We’re going to have a Housing Fair where first years can get all of their information. I used that information going into my third year because my second year housing was just awful and I really rushed into it. The key message that I’ve tried to get across in it is don’t rush. It’s such a myth buster, but there are more houses in Selly Oak than there are students! Landlords will pressure you and pressure you, but you will always find a house. The one that I found in third year was on Hubert Road, which is really central, and then Exeter Road, which is close to campus and cheap. It was also a really lovely house and I found that in January! This year, I won Guild Elections in March and I found a house in March which is in central Selly Oak. It’s really central, really cheap and has amazing rooms – such a good house. You will always find a house. Don’t feel like you need to sacrifice distance to campus and cost, they’re being renovated and new ones come up all the time.
Jo: There are always enough houses, as Millie said. But also, there are options outside of Selly Oak if you don’t want to get into that competitive renting market. For example, I live in Kings Heath now and the rent is cheaper and I think the houses are much nicer. You could have other options, so just keep your eyes open.
For first-years, what do you perceive to be the most significant differences between university-owned first-year accommodation and renting for the first time?
Millie: There will be quite a few differences. In accommodation it’s all sorted for you by the university. You have on-site security and on-site maintenance – you’re almost in a bubble. As soon as you start looking at houses, you have to instantly take on more responsibility. It’s a lot of organising trips to go and see letting agents, and dealing with some unpleasant situations and landlords. It is a stressful process, which is why I really encourage people not to rush and to take it easy because it is a welfare issue. It’s really stressful and can impact on your mental health. You don’t want to be stuck somewhere for a year with people you don’t really know who you met in freshers’ week and end up not being the best of friends.
Jo: The space that you live in really can impact your mental health. For first years I’d recommend going on a sunny day to look at houses – which is quite hard to find – and also in the evening. Check if the lighting is okay around the house in the evening, and whether you get enough sunlight in the house during the day. The brightness of it can really make your whole year different.
What do you make of the new Unite facility, particularly given one of its primary access points is the canal towpath which is poorly-lit and lacks security features?
Millie: The Guild didn’t have a say in the Unite building, but the Guild are concerned about it and I’m looking into it. But we are putting in measures – the Community Wardens do regular street watch patrols down the canal which is really good, and the Selly Express can drop people at Unite buildings. So we have those two initiatives run by the Community Wardens, but it isn’t too far out of Selly Oak and it’s not really on the canal and is by the retail park. I don’t think it’s going to be too unsafe and Street Watch are there. I would actually say that it is quite secure and the Community Wardens are making sure that it’s safe and people feel safe. The only thing is after nights out, the safety concern is walking along the canal from campus, which I do not recommend at all. Please don’t do that, walk along Bristol Road where it’s safer and there are lots of people.
Jo: I was really concerned by it when I first heard about it, but I walked to Battery Park recently for some homeware shopping and it is actually very close to uni – it’s right next to Heeley Road. I’m not as concerned as before and we will keep looking into measures to keep it safe. Also, walk in groups!
What advice do you have for students who don’t want to live with the same people next year, or are worried they won’t have someone to live with at all?
Jo: They can come to housemate finder events, which have gone really well for the last few years. There will be people looking for an extra housemate or housemates in general. The Student Mentors will link up people with similar interests and similar lifestyles. It would be useful to go there and find people, also it’s quite important to speak to your friends a lot throughout your wider social network. Through societies, courses, flats above and below, to make sure you find someone with things in common. Online communities like Fab N’ Fresh will quite often shout out people looking for one extra housemate or something like that, so go and speak to people and find a room to fill.
Millie: I would say if you don’t want to live with people, bite the bullet and sit down and have a chat to say that. You don’t want to be stuck in a house with people you don’t want to live with for a year. In housing week, we have lots of housemate finder events. We have Snack and Chats where you can talk about all of your housing worries. There will be people, mentors, myself and Guild Advice – we will all be there to give advice on what you can do.
Once you have found a potential house, the legal side can be quite scary. Where can students go to look through their contracts or talk to someone about the stress of moving house?
Millie: Guild Advice all the way, they’re amazing. They will look through your contract and they will help you out. I think that’s the only advice I have.
Jo: Yes, they were very helpful in our first year. 18-year-olds are really stressed with the legal side of everything because it’s such a big responsibility and they give really great advice.
It’s the time of year now, where most students have moved into their new homes and have found some potential maintenance issues – for example, there have been some anonymous posts on social media about things like slugs, a roof collapsing and difficult landlords. Who can students go to if they are experiencing these things? Do they just have to accept that this is ‘typical student housing’?
Millie: No, never accept that it is ‘typical student housing.’ You can come to myself, Guild Advice or the Community Wardens. It is not acceptable at all. You are paying for that year, and from the day you start paying on the first of July that house should be in tip-top shape and should be completely fine. It’s not an excuse that it’s just like that from September because that’s when students move in. You are paying for that week in and week out, it should be to an amazing standard and I’m hoping to work on that this year with letting agents and landlords. Check that the landlord is MLAS accredited. It’s the Midlands Landlords Association Scheme, which basically lists all of the landlords that are MLAS accredited and basic requirements and stuff. If they are MLAS accredited and they are breaching it, report it to MLAS and they can take action on them. Check that before you buy as well.
Jo: You definitely have a right, as a tenant, to live in a decent house. It doesn’t have to be amazing but it has to have some kind of standards. It’s really important to check if they’re accredited or not. For example, my friend moved into a new house and got kicked out because the landlord went bankrupt or something. So, to avoid those situations it’s best to check that the landlord is reputable.
Last year, Izzy Bygrave launched an app to rank and ‘vet’ letting agents. Is this still available and how large is the current database? How can students access it and is it reliable?
Millie: Marks Out of Tenancy is a really good way to leave reviews of your property. There are a lot of reviews on there so it’s really good to check that out before renting a house. There is also a toolkit on there, where you have an inventory where you can take pictures when you move into your house and store your contracts. It’s a really great tool to use.
Jo: I’m not sure how big it is right now, but because it only launched last year it is really in our hands as current students to keep adding to it. Community Wardens did a really good job of pushing it last year.
Millie: Yes, definitely. I’d encourage all students to leave reviews. I think we have the most amount of reviews in the UK, which is good.
Are there any people or services that people can access if they feel their well-being is being impacted by housing?
Millie: Guild advice. They’re amazing, they’re really great. Speak to the mentors and the Community Wardens, or come and speak to myself and I can help signpost someone somewhere else, even if that just means seeking support from friends and family. There is a lot of support there which I think isn’t really known about. There’s lots of support around, just make sure you’re accessing it and talking to people about it if you need to.
Jo: You can also talk to any of the Guild Officer team and we will signpost to relevant services. But we can also sit and listen to work to support them.
Is there anything else which you feel is important for students to know?
Millie: I think I’d just like to stress that you don’t need to rush because it can really impact on your wellbeing. You already have the stress of university, another year, new people – really don’t rush and just take your time. Check out MLAS, and if you have any problems with legalities, or issues with landlords, go to Guild Advice! Remember to know your rights. You have a lot of rights as a student so educate yourself on them. As soon as you hit them with your rights they should back down, and any more problems then go to MLAS or the letting agent – or even myself and Guild Advice.
Jo: For international students there must be some cultural differences between students from different backgrounds. It’s important to speak to your friends or whoever you’re living with, so that there is mutual respect for the different kinds of lifestyles. I was quite hesitant about cooking Korean food in my first year because some of them have a strong smell, so I was slowly cooking more and more and checking that they were all good! I fed them some Korean food so they got used to the smell as well! You’ve just got to remember that people are living in different environments than before, so just acceptance and respect is very important.