Auld-Fashioned Approach to Housing?

On Monday morning a copy of Old Aberdeen Community Council’s November Issue of Auld Toon News dropped through the letterbox, the first time I recall seeing the magazine in my two months living in my Old Aberdeen flat.  This part of town is dominated by students, with 15,000 of us attending the University of Aberdeen.  So I was very surprised to see two out of eight pages of the Auld Toon News seeming to declare the growth in the number of students’, and the subsequent growth in the number of HMO (House of Multiple Occupancy) properties as “having a negative effect on [the] community”.  I wrote to the OACC on Monday night to garner responses, and gratefully received two very detailed e-mails back to further clarify the points made in the initial article.

As the piece acknowledges itself, “for many hundreds of years, Old Aberdeen has been host to an ever-changing population of students and post-graduates”.  The Community Council believes that we students, even though we ourselves are a majority of residents of the area, are putting “pressure on the resources and longer term residents in and around the area”.  The reason this is happening, according to article author Dewi Morgan, is because of the “burgeoning of the ‘buy-to-let’ market” properties are being bought with the intention of letting, and creating a “feed-back loop” whereby less non-students are buying property in the area. I can agree that there needs to be diversity within the population in terms of a mix of students, families, the elderly etc. for the good of the area.

It is the high density of HMO properties in certain pockets of Old Aberdeen that is the main problem in the eyes of the Community Council.  At the moment, as you will see in the map featured in the Auld Toon News, HMO properties appear in bunches throughout the area – with some streets full of them, and others free of them.  This means that some streets will entirely house students, and some will have none, and this is not diverse.  The City Council has been informed of this problem, but has chosen only to “monitor policy and legal developments” with a full-scale review only to be undertaken in 2016, if one is not mandated before then.  The City and Community councils seem at odds on the priority of this issue.

HMO licenses, as the magazine rightly points out, are granted to properties “shared by 3 or more (adult) tenants who are unrelated” and must meet strict safety regulations, and comply with measures such as checks from an inspector from the fire department.  This ensures that these properties are as safe as they can be. These properties are ideal for students looking to live with friends; with the university’s halls of residence only open to first years and some foreign exchange students and only limited spaces in private student halls of residence due to their scarcity in relation to HMO properties.  Living in a privately rented flat also gives an independence to students, who may not have lived away from their family before.  The experience of renting your own property is vital to the student experience of making your way in the wider world.

An argument put forth by the Auld Toon News is that investors are buying up these three to four bedroom properties with a view to let to students via a HMO, and that this is “taking good quality affordable family houses out of the housing market”. While this can be true when conversions of properties are made to accommodate more bedrooms, I find it troubling that the minutes of the OACC’s August meeting believe “turning family houses into HMO’s was a blight on our area turning parts into ghetto’s”, taking an extremely negative view on student accommodation, which isn’t representative of those living in such buildings.  I agree that such conversions should be limited, so that properties aren’t “lost forever as a family home”, but believe they are sometimes necessary to provide for the sheer number of students that wish to live in Old Aberdeen.

Students naturally want to live close to their place of study to ease their commute to and from classes each day.  This demand is the reason why so many properties in the area are being developed exclusively for the student market.  And still the search for housing for students can take months. In my experience this year it took from February to June and over six viewings before I could secure a flat.  I agree times are tough for families, but in general terms, they have more flexibility as to where they are to live rather than the car-less student that is tethered to a campus.  With only one primary school (St Peter’s Roman Catholic Primary School) and one nursery (Rocking Horse Nursery on the University campus) actually within the boundaries of Old Aberdeen, families would be more likely to look for housing in neighbouring areas of the city (with 4 other primary and secondary schools in adjacent communities).  This isn’t necessarily bad for Old Aberdeen, as attractions such as Seaton Park within the area will continue to bring families to spend time, and will feel as much a part of this community as they do the specific one where they live because of the nature of city life.

The response I received from the Councillor Simon Barker raised a good counter-point, however, that with the “transience of student life”, Old Aberdeen is left empty during university holidays – which I agree is not a positive for the area at all.  While the student population provides the local area with, I’m sure, hundreds of jobs that would not have existed otherwise – for cleaners, shop staff, maintenance workers etc. on campus – these jobs are relatively seasonal, which is certainly not ideal.  Having permanent citizens in the area is essential to maintain the pulse of Old Aberdeen, and this is why the OACC believe that more should be done to protect the role of non-students in the community, which is something I agree with.

On the whole, I disagree with the OACC in some of their aims.  I disagree with the wish to reduce the number of HMO properties in the Old Aberdeen area, but agree with their wish to spread these properties more evenly throughout the constituency, rather than in the clusters they are currently. By spreading students more evenly it will attract more students into buying property in the area and help foster the diverse community that is sought after.

Whether that is the view of the majority of those within this part of Aberdeen, I do not know.  Perhaps the OACC are being “auld-fashioned” in their approach to the change in demographics of the local population and housing mix; but, on the other hand, it might be for the overall benefit of the community in the longer term.

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