‘At the point of desperation’: inside Cornwall’s student housing crisis

Harbour Village, Penryn | Lars Mucklejohn

Many students at Falmouth University and the University of Exeter’s Cornwall campuses have struggled to find private sector accommodation ahead of the new academic year, fearing disruption to their studies.

Falmouth Exeter Plus (FX Plus), which delivers campus services on behalf of the universities, has said that there are currently no vacancies in halls of residence for returning students, who are advised to look for accommodation in the private sector.

However, the Anchor understands that student demand for private sector accommodation considerably outstrips supply.

Falmouth & Exeter Students’ Union Accommodation Officer Sophie James told the Anchor that, as of two weeks ago, around 300 students were still looking for accommodation in Cornwall, and there are not enough available rental properties for everyone. In contrast, by the start of last academic year, there were “hundreds” of spare rooms in rental properties.

She said that this shortage has been driven by student rental properties being converted into Airbnbs, with landlords in holiday hotspots taking advantage of the recent UK holiday boom.

It is hoped that many of these premises will be converted back into rental properties by December.

Lewis Haughton Wills Lettings, Penryn | Lars Mucklejohn

She said that landlords have reported receiving around 70 applications within 24 hours of listing rooms. The Penryn lettings agency Lewis Haughton Wills described having 150 student properties available for the new academic year, all of which were taken by the end of January.

Students have been warned on FX Plus’ Find a Student Housemate Facebook group of scammers trying to take advantage of their desperation to find accommodation.

One student told the BBC that she was thinking about living in a caravan after her accommodation was listed on Airbnb. Another told ITV that she was considering sleeping in her car. 

A third-year Exeter student told the Anchor that her job in Falmouth had to be “put on hold” after she couldn’t find local accommodation, later facing the prospect of having to defer her studies as the new academic year approached.

She described how she nearly resorted to living in her car. Private housing firms “wouldn’t look” at her because she was a student without a full-time job, and shared houses were largely unavailable.

Although, with the help of her part-time job manager, she did eventually find lodging, she said that her experience had been “awful”.

Many students have had similar experiences, she said, with some considering living in tents to continue their studies. She added that many students have jobs in Penryn and Falmouth, do not want to defer a year, and have nowhere else to live.

“At the point of desperation now”, said a second-year Falmouth student to describe his situation. He told the Anchor that he had been looking for accommodation since June but was only able to secure a short-term let over the summer.

In total, he had 56 conversations on the SpareRoom website, getting to the viewing stage five times.

He is currently staying between his girlfriend’s family home, friends’ sofas, and sister’s day-bed, “never wanting to stay somewhere too long as you feel like you’re a burden and don’t want to overstay your welcome”. 

With his course due to start on 20 September, he said: “I am seriously considering changing university and taking my course fees with me.” He added that “more protection” would be needed for students, and “landlords should be ashamed of themselves”.

St Thomas Street, Penryn | Lars Mucklejohn

A recent survey by the National Residential Landlords Association found that the South West had England’s third-highest demand for private rented housing, with nearly two thirds of the region’s private landlords saying that demand increased in the second quarter of this year—the national average was 39%.

Truro and Falmouth MP Cherilyn Mackrory has acknowledged that “Cornwall is absolutely facing a housing crisis”, which has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and holiday boom. She said that she has been “working closely with the two universities” on a solution.

A University of Exeter spokesperson said: “It has been a particularly challenging period for private student accommodation availability, and the university’s accommodation team is working tirelessly to assist any student with accommodation needs ahead of the new academic year.”

Falmouth University said: “We are pleased to confirm that all Falmouth University’s first-year students have been offered a bed in university-owned or managed accommodation this year. 

“However, there are challenges in the private rented sector locally that are affecting a number of returning students or students who don’t wish to live in student halls and who can’t find suitable housing.

“The housing crisis in Falmouth reflects that which is being seen across Cornwall, which is being worsened by the UK holiday boom, the increase in holiday rentals reducing overall stock, as well as the demand for properties from people relocating. 

“Students affected can access accommodation support via the accommodation service and academic teams, where dedicated staff are supporting individuals to find solutions locally where possible and ensure they can continue their academic journey.”