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Rent-Striking London Students Won Compensation for Their Crappy Housing

Their dorms were turned into a building site so they refused to pay rent.

by Simon Childs
Dec 1 2015, 5:00am

Photo by Chris Bethell

The UK housing crisis spares only a lucky few, but a bunch of students at University College London (UCL) have just scored a victory that might give those struggling with crappy housing situations reason to be cheerful.

Student digs are traditionally dives, but earlier this year, Hawkridge House in Kentish Town, London, was basically turned into a loud building site with very little notification. There was often construction noise, even in exam times, and students were told not to open their curtains because there would be builders about, peering in. There were also sightings of rats and mice.

Pissed off students decided to do something about this, and in April held a rent strike—meaning they got organized and simply refused to cough up their rent. This led to threats from the university that they would be thrown out of their classes. VICE can now reveal that they have been awarded £300,000 [$450,000] in compensation. 238 students were each given £1,197 [$1,800]—equivalent to nine weeks' rent that they had demanded.

The university complaints panel unanimously declared UCL had "seriously failed" in its treatment of its students, saying management showed a "lack of empathy" in dealing with students' grievances whilst acknowledging conditions at Hawkridge House were "unacceptable."

This comes off the back of last month's announcement that students in other UCL accommodation had also won some compensation, too. Strikers at Campbell House were awarded over £100,000 [$150,000] in compensation for living in conditions described as "unbearable."

VICE has been given a first look at the campaign's announcement. The triumphant tone will presumably leave UCL's management a bit nervous. It says:

"UCL Cut the Rent—a directly-democratic, student-led campaign—believes this announcement further vindicates their established position that direct action and disruptive protests are extremely effective methods for holding unelected and powerful bodies to account. With compensation for striking students now in excess of £400,000, UCL-CTR believes that rent strikes will become an increasingly important tactic amongst the wider student movement."

I spoke to Angus O'Brien, the current UCL Union Halls and Accommodation representative, who told me that the victory feels, "really good, to be honest. It's been an incredibly long fight that started over seven months ago."

But there are no plans to let up now that the students have been compensated. "The relationship between students UCL in accommodation has completely changed. They're now a little bit running scared of the campaign and hoping that we don't do it again. But this is exactly what we want to do on a wider scale across the university and get affordable rent for all students."

UCL currently makes almost £16 million [$24 million] in profit from renting out accommodation. "That could fund a 45 percent rent cut for everyone," said Angus, adding that the campaign's demand is for a 40 percent cut to allow for maintenance work. "We think Hawkridge House and Campbell House will provide great examples for how we can take back control over our accommodation and access to education. If that leads to a rent strike it leads to a rent strike. But the students have the power to win this battle."

The longer-term goal is to abolish rent entirely, he said. "We'll get there one day."

Angus put the cost of rent into a wider context of universities trying to milk their students for every penny they can to make up for funding cuts: "Fighting against the rent increases can be the front line of the free education movement. If universities can't exploit students in other ways, they're going to have to go to the government and say, "we need free education—this isn't working."

According to the campaign's statement, the action continues this week:

"As the next stage of the campaign, UCL-CTR will be holding a rally at the university on Friday at 13:00 to demand an immediate 40 percent rent cut and the establishment of affordable rent prices for all those living in UCL student accommodation."

Angus reckoned the rent strike could provide inspiration for other people paying sky high rent to live somewhere awful: "Universities can provide a testing ground for housing actions. It's all the same landlord, students live in the same place, there's a social element to it. It would be much harder to do it across a city than in a university, which is why it's so important to do it in university. Once there's that example of housing action and collective action, that can be applied to a larger scale because people can see it's going to work."

I asked Angus what the students were going to do with the money. "I have no idea," he told me. "Hopefully booze and stuff but probably just more on rent."

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