The Student

Alternative living: an interview with Edinburgh Student Housing Co-operative

It sometimes seems that the only option in regard to student housing is moving from your overpriced first-year halls to a crumbling, single-glazed Marchmont flat. However, there are other options when it comes to choosing where to live during your years at university.

Edinburgh Student Housing Co-operative offers students a cost-effective, democratically run and sociable experience, as an alternative to the more traditional housing routes. The Student sat down with co-operative members Sophie Plant and Paul Gibson, to talk about the advantages of this type of accommodation.

What is a housing co-operative?

It’s an autonomous group of people who live and work together to democratically run a building without the exploitation or disempowerment of landlords. Rather than seeking profit, it’s an affordable model that focuses on forging a community, utilising and developing our members’ skills and interests along the way.

What was the idea behind the co-operative and how did it begin?

The co-op was an idea that came from students in Edinburgh who were frustrated with extortionate rent, poor living conditions, dodgy landlords and a shared feeling that student housing could be so much better.

We were inspired by similar models of self-managed student housing in the US, and after consultations with the university, a Students’ Association referendum and the advocacy of the then University Rector Peter McColl, we managed to secure funding and acquire an ex-Napier building right in the heart of Edinburgh, complete with a view of Arthur’s Seat and front-door access to the Bruntsfield Links.

What are the benefits of staying in the co-operative?

One of the initial ambitions of the co-op was to create an affordable place for students to live but securing that has meant other more important benefits have developed.

People are brought together in so many ways that wouldn’t be possible elsewhere. At its best, there is a trust amongst everyone that lets people be open with each other and small moments that could build up in isolation in private housing are shared.

This gives people the chance to work out what is important to them and how they can bring that into their time studying as well as refocusing how they want to live their life.

The community side of it means that if you have an idea or a project, there are always people who will be around to support it or get involved to help make it happen. By seeing the ways that people work together and support each other, your studies are given renewed purpose as it is possible to see what kind of society you want to be a part of and through your day to day, have a tangible hand in making it happen.

It is such a new idea but with such massive potential that by living here you get to help shape what could and should be the future of housing, not just for students but for people across the whole country.

What kind of an experience do you get from living in a coop?

“Intense, but in a very positive way! You have a lot of responsibility but it’s in a nice way because you want to have it, and you feel like you should have it rather than someone else from the outside making the decisions for you. It’s very social which is normally a good thing because you feel like you always have similar minded people around to have fun with and to support you,” Katariina Yli-Malmi.

“Community, spontaneity, creativity and communal living! It gives me a deep sense of living with others,” Kate Taylor Beale.

“It’s been one of the most sociable periods of my life, there’s never a dull moment! It’s an extremely cosy and inclusive environment,” Rob Grierson.

“The coop gives you a space to focus on how you want to live your life and gives you the community to try and discover that with. By creating affordable housing, it gives people the time and the energy to focus on other things as well as try and create those opportunities for others,” Paul Gibson.

Why is there a need for this type of housing especially in Edinburgh?

Edinburgh is one of the most expensive places for the private rental sector in the country. Private housing fragments community and helps keep people separated. Co-operative housing renews community through sharing and participating in a collective space, shifting the focus from economic to social and ultimately benefiting both.

In what ways do you think landlords are negatively affecting students’ renting experiences?

With students being so transient, landlords know they can get away with exploitation because their tenants’ stay will be so fleeting. Short-term pressures on a student mean it can be hard to know where to start fighting back so they often have to accept whatever terms are given to them. The likelihood is if they don’t do that, somebody else will. This negatively affects not just their renting experiences but their whole experience of studentship because of the financial pressures that are put on them.

What is the future of the co-operative?

For now, we want to continue developing individual and group expertise on the maintenance of the building we all live in right now and continue to improve it and bring it into a better state for the members still to come. At the moment we are in the process of renovating our basements into communal spaces where we can hold events and open up our space to the public.

It’s an exciting development in our journey as it will allow us to be much more creative with our role in the local Edinburgh community, not just in the student sphere. However, there is still such a huge demand for this model that we want to replicate it and we’ve been keeping our eyes out for new properties we can acquire.

We want to help bring more co-operative housing to Edinburgh, Scotland and the wider country and ensure that this opportunity is available for students of all backgrounds, not just the privileged few.

Image: Iva Jericevic

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