The problem with PBSAs

Source: Alex Liivet (via Wikimedia Commons)
What should change so students get the best deal?

by Chris Colbourn

If you’re a Cardiff Uni student, you probably live in some sort of Victorian-ish terrace house. Maybe it’s been divided into flats, or maybe it’s just had a bed shoved into every available room, but there’s a pretty good chance it’s somewhere on a spectrum between “shabby” and “a deathtrap”. Dirt, mould, insufficient maintenance and withheld deposits are depressing, but to be expected, and it’s easy to focus on estate agents and landlords getting up to scummy practices, as they’re the people we deal with face to face. However, they aren’t the only people that benefit from exploiting the city’s student population.

If you had any involvement with the Save Guildford Crescent campaign, or you’ve ever studied gentrification at school, you’re probably used to developers ripping the cultural heart out of anywhere that’s still got some charm. Booming student populations only contribute to this problem and marginalise people that have lived in Cardiff for decades, as the local economy pivots to meet our needs and whims above all others’.

“New luxury student housing developments are well beyond most students’ budgets”

Purpose Built Student Accommodations (PBSAs) could provide an alternative to slapdash house conversions, but a lot of recently built or proposed PBSAs are marketed as luxury accommodations for foreign students with money to burn, rather than home or EU students. As such, they are beyond the reach of most Cardiff students, and don’t provide a credible alternative to the HMAs in Cathays, Roath and Adamsdown. These HMAs are pretty obviously not up to serving the needs of ten, twelve adults, even if you only consider the piles of rubbish on Colum Road.

These luxury accommodations are often built with the intention of reclassifying them as serviced apartments (think AirBnB), or as flats for families and professionals. This has already happened to 401 rooms that Zenith failed to let to students, and to numerous other PBSAs. New luxury student housing developments are well beyond most students’ budgets, so they can only compete with each other for the same small-to-nonexistant market. And with the anti-immigration mood in the Uk at the moment, it’s not wise to bank on the wealthy foreign student market growing.

So why are there plans to build another towering PBSA near central square?  Building a PBSA allows developers to avoid paying the taxes levied against new buildings, like hotels and luxury housing that could have a negative impact on local communities. These contributions are used to fund things like affordable housing and schools, but student housing schemes are exempt, even if their owners get permission to let them to other markets.

So why are developers allowed to exploit this obvious loophole? Nevermind that these developments aren’t designed for long-term occupation and would never be approved if they were for any market other than students; there aren’t even enough students in the city that can afford to live in these monstrosities. Developers’ claims that they offer a credible alternative to older, repurposed housing in Cathays, Roath and Adamsdown are transparently ludicrous. Better a house for £300 a week each where a bed’s been crammed into every room that will take one, than £600 a year for a studio in a dystopian building you never need to leave. 

Developers continue to get away with this sham because the lack of a market for luxury student accommodation is apparently not a good enough reason for the council to reject planning permission. Maybe once we have an MP again, you can badger them to fix this sorry state of affairs. Or write to your archchancellor to ask if the uni can find some room in the budget to invest in some proper housing. 

Former Cardiff Central MP Jo Stevens has previously expressed her hope that future PBSA developments will be held to the same building standards as social housing, so they can be more easily taken over by the council to provide some much needed affordable homes, without the added expense of making them suitable for long-term tenants.

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