By now, you’ll probably know about the HMO Survey by Fife Council (if you don’t, check your goddamn emails). The survey, shared with all St Andrews residents, gives two options: either keeping the number of HMO’s (Houses of Multiple Occupancy) at the same level, or increasing it by 3%. The latter might not sound very dramatic, but it would mean more space to live in the centre of town, freeing up rooms for students to sleep in and taking the first steps towards fixing our housing crisis.
There’s a reason, however, that I wrote “would” rather than “will” in that sentence. Due to a combination of myths propagated about HMOs, and (justifiable) concerns about sharing the town with students, a large proportion of locals in St Andrews are going to vote against the 3% option. That’s a formidable barrier to overcome. However, in my opinion, not an impossible one. In the past three years I’ve helped run student campaigns on health, Universal Credit and food waste, and in my opinion, this housing fight is as much an opportunity as a challenge.
First, let’s look at the lay of the land. My facebook is currently full of people sharing the HMO consultation and telling their friends to vote in it. If you’re one of those people, that’s great, keep doing it (and if you’re not, do it now. Seriously. This article isn’t going anywhere, don’t continue reading until you’ve shared). There is, however, one problem with that. The people sharing the consultation are exactly the kind of people you’d expect to be sharing it. Activists. Concerned citizens. People born with a petition in one hand, and a ballot card in the other. Now, I’ve got nothing against those people. I’m one of them myself. But, bluntly, people like us do not have the numbers to get the kind of result we need. After all, most of us probably signed the petition for more HMO’s a couple of semesters ago, to no noticeable effect. Step one of this campaign needs to be reaching out to people who normally don’t care about these things. That can be in small ways (get submitting those HMO memes to the Crushes Page, fellow kids), or in big ones (given how terrible music at the BOP usually is, a gap in the songs for a reminder to fill in the consultation might even go down well). Couch this in terms people care about. No matter how posh, or apathetic your friends are, don’t tell me they wouldn’t relish the opportunity to get one over their shitty landlords.
But that’s just step one. Once we get the numbers on our side, we need to do something with them. The consultation would be a great first step, but a win – even a landslide one – will not, in itself, fix the HMO problem. You’re probably expecting me to suggest something dramatic – rallies, boycotts, protests – and those things have their place, but before we do them, we need to get the basics right.
The HMO issue is not just one of accommodation, but of community relations. There’s a reason that Fife Council has generally ignored students on the HMO issue. We are, not without justification, seen as being other than, dismissive of the civic life of St Andrews. There are a few easy fixes to this, getting students registered to vote is one of them), but we can’t ignore the long term problems. The consultation, no matter what result it has, is going to re-open the debate on HMOs among both town and gown. We can’t repeat the mistakes of last year by just talking to other students about how outraged we are about it. We can’t leave the job of representing the student body to obnoxious, drunk rich kids on one hand, and union hacks on the other. If you work for, or alongside locals; if you volunteer with them; hell, if you’re neighbours with them: now is the time to start winning hearts and minds. Resources like this one here are a good place to start to explain why HMO hurts locals as well as students. But even if you’re not talking directly about the ban, being as good a representative as you can for the student body is helping our cause. The more comfortable locals feel about living next to students, the more likely we are to get housing policies which favour our interests. And that level of comfort depends on how you act towards them.