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Seasalt: Meet the student housing co-operatives rejecting rip-off landlords

Across the country students are rejecting poor housing conditions and extortionate rents and forming co-operatives

Illustration of students

Illustration: Mateusz Napieralski

Mouldy walls, poor value for money, even rodent infestations – these are all depressingly familiar for those in UK student accommodation in 2023. One third of students identified damp in their properties, according to a recent survey by money gurus Save the Student, and another 14% reported inappropriate or unannounced landlord visits. And while rents rocket, alternatives appear to be few and far between. 

It is something that Hakim, 27, a Governance, Development and Public Policy MA student at the University of Sussex, does not have to worry about. 

Hakim lives in Brighton’s first student co-operative, a shared home run by and for its tenants. They share chores, run their own finances and even set the property’s rent – which comes in at just £540, a fraction of the £1,281 average rent for the area.  

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The co-op, South East Students Autonomously Living Together (Seasalt), was formed in 2018 by local university students. Five years on, it’s need more than ever. The seven Seasalt residents are part of a growing student co-operative movement finding solutions to the housing crisis – notably, one that does not involve landlords. 

“Living at Seasalt is like living with a family, a community and in a project at the same time,” says Hakim, who moved into the co-op in 2022 from Mexico City. This, she explains, is key to finding balance. The space hosts events such as activism networking and academic study sessions, but still finds time for more typical student activities like communal cooking and birthday parties. Outside of exam periods, meetings run every week and are a vital aspect of the co-operative’s democratic principles.

“The whole ethos is that the people who work and live and are affected by these structures should be the ones with the absolute decision-making power,” explains Marsh, a final-year Sussex student and Seasalt member.

Each tenant also takes on a role, such as treasurer or wellbeing officer, similar to a student society. Being in control of who lives in the house and how it is run is an essential part of their co-op experience, Marsh says, and one that they find “hard to believe, especially after living in a place like this, that people don’t have as an inherent right”. 

The seven Seasalt tenants share responsibilities such as fixing drains and calling for repairs that not only contribute to the smooth running of the house but also give them new skills. 

Seasalt is the fifth student housing co-op to join the movement, which includes Birmingham, Sheffield and Edinburgh. Housing co-operatives may not be a new idea – the first was formed in Lancashire in 1844 and as of 2020, there were around 7,063 independent co-ops in the UK – but the idea is yet to fully take hold in the student community.

One challenge is the property market. According to the latest study by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the average UK house price was £286,000 in May 2023, which is £6,000 higher than this time last year. Despite the difficulties, the struggle is worthwhile.

For those curious about how to set up a student co-op, firstly, you need a legal minimum of three people, as per the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014. 

The second stage is to figure out why are we doing this? What is the vision? What are the principles?

While these visions may differ, all co-ops have to agree with the Principles of Cooperation, otherwise known as the Rochdale Principles, which include voluntary and open membership, democratic member control, and education, training and information. These principles are intentionally left “vague”, according to sources, so you can “interpret them to your locale quite easily”.

Co-ops then must choose a wider network to associate with, such as Student Co-op Homes or Radical Routes. “The idea overall is that the people living in the house decide what work gets done, how the house is managed, how to do the finances”, Marsh says. In contrast to most student tenancies, the
renters are in control. 

Cerys Turner is a member of The Big Issue’s Breakthrough programme 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine out this week. Support your local vendor by buying today! If you cannot reach your local vendor, click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue or give a gift subscription. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop. The Big Issue app is available now from the App Store or Google Play

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