Dan Cookson: New rental laws must take account of students

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For thousands studying at Scottish universities each year, the vital task of safely securing a place to live for the next academic year treads a well-worn path; one that’s about to be an unintended casualty of new legislation that’s current going through the Scottish Parliament.

Most first year students take places in university-owned halls of residence or privately-run Purpose Built Student Accommodation on nine or ten-month leases, before securing a house or flat in the private rented sector (PRS) for the following September. Those PRS properties are marketed by landlords early in the year so students can secure a lease well in advance of summer exams period and the subsequent holidays.

Unfortunately, the new Private Housing (Tenancies) Scotland Bill, threatens to break the system altogether. It will require landlords to offer all tenants a single, open-ended Private Residential Tenancy, which means, at a stroke, they’ll no longer be able to offer a fixed-term nine or ten-month lease. Neither could landlords require students to vacate a property in the summer or even learn at a reasonably early stage whether students want to move on.

We commissioned independent market research agency Why Research to survey more than 1500 current tenants in December to gauge their opinions and understand their tenancy needs.

Over half (54 per cent) of students who responded would prefer to keep the current fixed term tenancies (with possible option to renew in discussion with landlord), while 89 per cebnt agree that there should be an option for a flexible or short-term tenancy agreed between landlord and tenant at the outset, underscoring the point that different students need different options.

Over 90 per cent said that being able to secure accommodation for the next academic year as early as possible was important, despite the fact that the open-ended tenancies proposed in the Bill would mean far fewer properties are available.

The Scottish Government suggests the market will simply “adjust” but this is clear evidence that some tenant groups, like students, will struggle with the changes as much as landlords. The risks to students are clear: fewer available properties, more rent to pay and a huge surge in rental market activity in the summer months, when most would rather be enjoying time away from student lodgings.

There’s still time to improve the legislation, which will come before MSPs again in February. They must now consider proposals for a “student tenancy” that gives students what they want: all of the same rights as other PRS tenants under the Bill while retaining the flexibility needed to make the student housing market work effectively.

Dan Cookson, PRS 4 Scotland