Confessions from the City: The student housing developer

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Someone famous once said: “It took me 15 years to become an overnight success.” I’m not a singer or an actor, but it sums up the struggle it’s been squeezing money from the student digs market. 

For many moons, it was considered alternative within the property sector and not as sexy as straight-up housebuilding. Dealing with creating cell-like bedrooms, wisely planned fire escapes (toaster fires are frequent) and laundry rooms is not exactly glamorous. 

But then, around 2013, I suddenly started to get calls from mega-money  — pension funds, Russian billionaires and listed developers — trying to get in on the party.

The combination of London property and rich foreign students was too tempting to ignore. My peers and I finally found fame and, more importantly, stacks of cash. 

The party has stagnated since the Brexit vote. The academic world wants to believe overseas students would like to learn English in England. I’m not so sure. Australia and Europe are relatively cheap to study in.

That said, there’s still more than enough bookworms left to keep me happy. And today’s students are a very different breed from the Eighties. My days “studying” were filled with Billy Bragg, Red Wedge, and baked beans from the tin. 

In yesteryear, students all lived in very similar accommodation, whether rich or poor. We all shared musty sofas and lopsided cupboard doors.

Now some are heading home from lectures for an hour on the cross-trainer in King’s Cross while others hit the books in grotty zone five flats. I can’t blame them. At £27,000 a pop, uni’s an investment, not just a piss-up. 

Their dilemmas are serious and, of course, I listen very carefully to their (endless) demands. There must be space to fondle their iPads on long (preferably leather and Scandinavian) sofas at home but good access to libraries. There needs to be an arthouse cinema down the road, but a home cinema and karaoke bar in the basement. The gym must be open 24 hours. I smile, nod, and sometimes give in. 

The great fear is that the shift towards luxury apartments is pushing up rents across the board, even in the old-fashioned halls with cluttered bathrooms and dirty kitchens.

My battle is to press for more planning consent for decent housing to stop rents soaring. I’m not optimistic. 

But I can’t complain. I don’t have a spare room going anywhere, Brexit or not.

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October 14, 2016 |
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