After four months of direct-action, protests, and refusals to pay university accommodation rent, students at University College London took to the streets once again this Sunday to celebrate a victory, and prepare for further action next year. It might have taken a rent-strike, with thousands of students from across the capital refusing to pay their university landlords, but finally there has been a victory for students on the frontline of London’s housing crisis.
In early 2016, around 150 UCL students organised a rent-strike in response to the revelation that their London university maintains a 45% profit margin on university accommodation, equating to about £15,799,000 every year. Rents in student halls were set to increase, pushing the university’s profits even higher and accommodation even further out of the reach of many students. The university itself has been accused of “social cleansing” by attempting to price lower-income students out of student accommodation.
Now a proposal has been submitted by the university which promises to see £850,000 cut from rent over the next two years. Although the group behind the rent-strike, UCL Cut the Rent, has yet to officially accept this settlement, campaigner and organiser Anabel Bennett describes it as “a very significant step.” The protest this weekend was planned to disrupt an open day, but with negotiations in full swing the activists moved their march off campus.
“In order to not jeopardise this offer, we decided to move the manifestation off-campus, and instead did a victory march through central London, ending in a rally outside Saville HQ, just off Regent’s Street.”
In mid-March, hundreds of students protested in central London with smoke bombs, loudspeakers and burning effigies, and together managed to withhold over £1 million in rent payments. They were supported by the Radical Housing Network, and were soon joined by students from other London universities, including Goldsmiths, Roehampton and the Courtauld Institute of Art. At the peak of the strikes over 1000 students were withholding rent from their respective university landlords.
This latest proposal by UCL offers to cut rent in halls by 2.5% over the next two years, and it’s certainly seems a step in the right direction, considering that the average cost of UCL accommodation is £178 per week, having increased by at least 40% in the last six years.
UCL originally refused to negotiate on a lower offer and continued to threaten massive late fees for students who hadn’t paid rent. This led to threats by the campaign to “shut down” and open day with further protests in clear view of prospective students, and strikes continuing indefinitely over the summer. The proposal itself came less than 24 hours before the protest was due to go ahead, and the two groups are due to have a meeting later this week to finalise points of contention.
“This victory validates rent strikes as an extremely effective method of expressing dissatisfaction with the atrocious prices and conditions in accommodation and confronting the university,” said Anabel. Simply put, “rent strikes work.”
Despite the gains made, students claim that this is only the first step, not just for a better deal at UCL but in London as a whole. With London rents increasing by 7.7% in the last year (compared to 5.1% outside the capital) on top of the already higher prices and cost of living, the cause looks to be well-supported by students and residents alike.