By Zoe Kramer
The continuous building of new student flats has been a long-standing issue in Cardiff’s housing market. PBSAs — “Purpose-built student accommodation” — are housing complexes built with the stated intention of housing students, but a lack of demand often means that the companies which own them will apply to be able to lease to non-students. The reason for this is because building student accommodation is cheaper than building regular accommodation, and standards for lighting and space are much lower.
According to Cardiff Council guidance, “In respect of light and outlook, all habitable rooms should have natural light, a means of outlook, and ventilation.” Additionally, the guidance calls for community facilities and a functional open space. These standards, however, are not required by law.
“It’s clear that some developers opt for PBSAs to cut corners and escape the costs and regulations faced by other developments,” Jo Stevens, Labour MP for Cardiff Central told Vice. “Last year, one PBSA development in my constituency permanently changed to a residential hotel after it was unable to fill a quarter of its rooms. We are now seeing developers apply for change of use before buildings are even completed.”
In the past five years, plans have been approved to create approximately 7,400 new student rooms in Cardiff, reports the BBC. When faced with vacancies, these accommodation buildings have been converted into hotels but in some cases may need to eventually be demolished.
Others argue that high rise student accommodation helps to alleviate pressure on the private housing market and decrease the “studentification” of traditional Victorian houses around Cathays.
The accommodation, sometimes billed as “luxury flats,” are often aimed at attracting international students. The high rent prices often require students to take on additional debt beyond their tuition. Meanwhile, as rent prices increase, the number of students in Wales is falling. According to official government statistics, the number of undergraduate students in Wales has decreased from 108,490 in 2008-09 to 102,720 in 2017-18.
Additionally, while PBSAs are finding it difficult to find tenants, Cardiff is still facing a significant homelessness crisis. In 2018-19, 86.8 per 10,000 households in Wales were assessed as homeless, up from 81.9 in 2016-17. Cardiff had the highest rate of homelessness, with 141.8 per 10,000 households.
“It’s a concern not just about student flats but just about the type of housing that’s built generally and what we can do with it if it’s not utilised for the purpose it was originally intended.” said housing secretary Julie James at a press conference in September, reported on WalesOnline. “I’m very keen – we’ll be consulting shortly – about changing the space standards in Wales so that everything is built to social housing standards.”
In other words, blocks of unoccupied flats could potentially be taken over and used as social housing. While there are no definite policies in place to achieve newer space standards in Wales, this statement comes as an affirmation that there is a potential for action in the next few years to address the problem and allocate housing to those who need it the most.