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The Challenges of Finding Student Housing, and What Can Be Done

For students in both residence halls and private accommodation, the beginning of the new semester is synonymous with the search for a place to live during the next school year. St. Andrews is a competitive environment for housing, with students vying over comparatively few available houses.

Already a frustrating experience for students with some familiarity with the process, it can be an especially daunting time for students who are facing this process for the first time.

Chief among those working to make this process less bewildering is the Accommodation Subcommittee. Zoë Ray, the Events Officer for the committee, whom defined their role as “the student voice in the Union on all things accommodation. We try to push ideas forward and provide resources to students. It’s a minefield out there, and people have so many questions. There’s so much that isn’t talked about: what not to do, what to look out for…even reapplying to halls can be difficult.”

Ray, in her second year at St. Andrews, said that finding a flat last year was difficult, a conclusion she felt was shared by many others, and that her own experience contributed to her decision to get involved. “A lot of what we do really amounts to correcting misconceptions”, said Ray. For instance, “many students believe that fourth year students can very easily pass their places on to their friends, that it’s as simple as putting in a good word with the landlord.” She added that many are disappointed when it ends up being not so easy.

Ray stressed the importance of being prepared, though she also sought to temper feelings of panic at what is still an early stage of the search for accommodation. “It’s okay if you don’t have a house in January or February. One important function we try to perform is to correct expectations regarding the housing search timeline.” What’s more, the pandemic has made it harder for the Accommodation Subcommittee to carry out its purpose. Events have, with Covid restrictions, been difficult to organise, and residence hall rules change frequently, complicating efforts to hold information sessions with students.

As Ray says, “for first years, they don’t know where to start. Many agencies advertise on Facebook, and students must look out for different, non-traditional methods used to advertise places.” Still, Ray points out that they were able to put on an Accommodation Week at the end of first semester and have given talks on how to rent privately or reapply to halls. “We tried hard to make accommodation week a success, and looking ahead to the coming weeks, we’re holding two flatmate finding events with the Wellbeing Committee, and another one online. We also have a newsletter coming out each week. Facebook is usually where we post events.”

Among other resources, the Accommodation Subcommittee also publishes an annual How to Rent guide to aid students in their search.

Even among students comfortably ensconced in university halls of residence, the scattered nature of student accommodation can be alienating. With students scattered across residence halls on opposite sides of town and others living in far-flung flats and houses a considerable distance from the centre of town, some described feeling a lack of community and instead as though many were going about university life with little connection to a wider “university community.” In the words of one 2nd year student living in David Russell Apartments, “the sense of disconnection is palpable, and the whole experience can be quite isolating. With the openings for private flats being jumped on so quickly, leaving halls is something I’m nervous about, regardless of how much I’d prefer it. That prospect is a bit daunting when I think about it.”

For others, the dilemma of finding a place to live is compounded by the pressing question of who to live with, or whether to live alone if need be. In an article published in The Saint in October, Alexandra Baff described her experience of living on her own in St. Andrews, and both the benefits and pitfalls of independent living at university. In the piece, she describes the increased focus and sense of independence and responsibility that this experience fostered, while at the same time noting that “you should always try to make regular plans with your friends, and that way you can keep the pangs of loneliness at bay and enjoy the time that you spend alone’. This advice is sound for anyone regardless of their living situation, but especially pertinent for those already living on their own or considering that possibility.

Anika Misra, in her second year, says that “though I wasn’t the prospective lead tenant, hunting for flats was in many ways a frustrating process. It can be repetitive and tedious. You go up to fourth years who you know and feel confident that their referrals will help you get a place, only for the letting agent to go another way.” Misra remembers the unease stemming from the feeling that the flat-hunting process was one she and her flatmates would have to navigate largely on their own. “There is a difficult tightrope to walk, between places far from town or ones located closer but that are too expensive. It can be tiring and stressful, thinking that the moment you have your eye on a property there are 15-20 other people who have their eye on it.”

Misra, who stayed in halls for her second year before recently securing a flat for her third year, added a note of reassurance for first year students thinking, likely with some foreboding, about foraying into the flat hunting scene. “Don’t completely exclude the possibility of staying in halls in year two. It can provide some continuity and gives you a chance to broaden your social circle and meet more people than you otherwise might. Some find halls isolating, and in the case of Agnes Blackadder Hall, you aren’t in the centre of town, it's true. I think it sort of depends on the person. I find that I’m willing to walk that distance to see people…it’s not a burden. Plus, feeling far removed from things isn’t something felt only by people in halls. Students who live in flats on the outskirts of town might be as susceptible to staying in their own bubble.”

For students in residence halls or flats alike, the search for accommodation can be a trying experience, though panic at this stage is fine, as Zoë Ray is quick to emphasize, “being alarmed at this stage is unwarranted.”

Illustration: Bethany Morton

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